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Sunil Sethi: Delhi's double displacement

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A large and long-established slum close to my neighbourhood, on the edge of the All India Medical Institute, was removed some years ago and its inhabitants sold tiny plots of land in a resettlement colony on the southern outskirts. A double-lane inner-city highway has come up where the old slum existed, as part of the feverish building activity before the next year, and the resettled population, it seems, is comparatively better off. They have built pukka houses, pressurised authorities for water and electricity connections and dug supplementary tubewells; there is basic sanitation, a primary school and dispensary (none of them very efficient but they exist). The displaced people have even organised a private bus service to ferry them to old places of employment. Overall, the example appears to be one of reasonable improvement in the lives of the urban poor. The bigger picture, however, looks bleak as races ahead to fulfil its ambition of becoming a “world-class city”.

For one, I notice an eruption of new slums everywhere as private and public construction rapidly gathers speed. For another, the statistics for migrants to Delhi, the growth of slums and the spectre of slum-clearance drives, demolitions and resettlement — demographers call it “double displacement” — are alarming. Whereas migration nationally seems to have peaked and may even be declining in recent decades, new arrivals in Delhi are steadily rising — up from 1.78 lakh for the year 1991 to 2.75 lakh in 2001, according to the National Capital Territory’s economic survey. Roughly one-third of the city’s population of 14 million now live in slums. Nearly 64 per cent of migrants come from the most backward regions of UP and Bihar. According to some analysts Delhi’s population may outstrip that of Mumbai and Kolkata, in terms of percentage increase, by the middle of the century.

Delhi’s land size and prosperity are the main reasons for this phenomenon. Delhi’s political map, the national capital, covers an area of 1483 sq km but the National Capital Region (NCR) which includes large tracts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan is a staggering 33,578 sq km. Shining indicators (per capita income: Rs 66,728; literacy: 82 per cent; highest car density etc) contribute to the city’s lustre and, if you take in the glittering high rises and malls of NOIDA and Gurgaon, the Metro that will soon link the airport to the city and the low-floor CNG buses that ply its roads, Delhi is a national chart-topper. And Chief Minister has promised that there will not be “a single hungry mouth” by the end of her third term.

So where will the ill-fed millions who pour in every year to its slums go? Where, and how, will this growing stream be housed with rudimentary amenities? For all the comprehensive data the NCT and reports provide, they are surprisingly silent on the subject of “double displacement”. Evictions and resettlement remain politically explosive and fiercely contested issues, with elected leaders, municipal authorities, the courts and activists at loggerheads. Only micro-studies by academics, the National Sample Survey and NGOs are available, and they paint a grim picture. In Swept off the Map, Jagori, a women’s resource group, describes the horror of what happened when 150,000 slum dwellers along the river Yamuna were evicted in 2004; another NGO, the Hazards Centre, reports that conditions in Delhi’s slums have actually deteriorated in the last five years and only about one-fifth of its slum population received housing plots. The rest is socially excluded, an invisible, floating population difficult to enumerate.

Identification—a ration card or BPL certificate—is another problematic issue, with new migrants open to extortion and harassment. Until they can procure one, they are officially missing. But now that Nandan Nilekani is to resettle in Delhi, to embark on his biometric identification project, maybe he will start by identifying Delhi’s missing millions. Charity begins at home.

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