Ayona Datta

Ayona Datta ist Professorin für Stadtgeographie am University College London. Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte sind postkolonialer Urbanismus, Smart Cities, urban futures und gender citizenship.

»Establishment or creating of slums, it seems, appears to be good business and is well organized. The number of slums has multiplied in the last few years by geometrical proportion. Large areas of public land, in this way, are usurped for private use free of cost. It is difficult to believe that this can happen in the capital of the country without passive or active connivance of the landowning agencies and/or the municipal authorities. The promise of free land, at the taxpayers’ cost, in place of a jhuggi, is a proposal that attracts more land grabbers. Rewarding an encroacher on public land with a free alternate site is like giving a reward to a pickpocket. The department of slum clearance does not seem to have cleared any slums despite its having been in existence for decades. In fact more and more slums are coming into existence. Instead of Slum Clearance there is Slum Creation in Delhi.«
Almitra Patel vs Union of India 2000.

Road dividing legal slum on the left and illegal settlement on the right., Foto:  Ayona Datta
Road dividing legal slum on the left and illegal settlement on the right., Foto: Ayona Datta

Houses slated for demolition in an illegal settlement in Delhi., Foto: Ayona Datta
Houses slated for demolition in an illegal settlement in Delhi., Foto: Ayona Datta

This ruling, considered as a landmark in Indian approaches to slums, came about as a result of the increasing focus by concerned citizens to clean up the city of Delhi. What was significant about this ruling however, was that the initial petition was not brought against slums, but rather against the increasing inefficiency of the local authorities in removing waste from the city. In the ruling however, the judge connected the dirt and filth of the city to the proliferation of slums. Slums became the source of dirt in cities and their removal therefore became the route to cleaning up the city. Consequently, their occupation of public land without legal tenure became the argument for their removal, and slums therefore became the battlegrounds of sanitised cities like Delhi. Since 2000, a series of judicial rulings in India such as the above, have subsequently criminalised squatters as illegal, encroachers and pickpockets of urban land, and have led to a spate of demolitions of squatter settlements across Indian cities. In Delhi and other Indian metropolises, this has also seen mass- scale demolition of squatter settlements, often without any compensation to its residents. But while these demolitions are carried out by the state, many of the litigations, such as those brought forward by Almitra Patel against the Union of India, are made by concerned citizens from the middle classes. In India and elsewhere these Public Interest Litigations have increased in number as a result of the rising dominance of the urban middle classes in re-making the city. The devolution of power to the urban scale since liberalisation in India has meant that the urban middle classes have become actively involved in urban civil society organisation, and this has often resulted in recourse to legal institutions in order to reclaim urban spaces from slums and slum dwellers (Fernandes 2006). One of the striking effects of this in Delhi is the increasing focus on the making of a green city, where the urban middle classes, through their presence in civil society organisations, have time and again drawn the attention of the courts to the inefficiency of the state in maintaining and policing urban public spaces and ridding them of pollution, soiling and a range of other civic disorders. The Almitra Patel vs Union of India case above was one such example, which has been reinforced by subsequent judgements across other Indian cities. In this context, the judiciary has emerged as the most significant arbitrator of legal rights to the city for the urban poor, often becoming the voice of the urban middle classes. Indeed since the above ruling, the judiciary has threatened the municipality with police action if they do not comply with the court order and clean up Delhi’s dirt and filth. In the aftermath of the ruling, as the Municipality demolished unauthorised settlements, the Chief Minister of Delhi after coming under pressure by a variety of NGOs, simultaneously pledged to regularise 1,071 unauthorised colonies in the city through an Unauthorised Colonies Development Board. As the local bodies began the process of executing court orders and clearing slums, political parties and leaders stepped in – they attempted to circumvent the rule of law – to provide protection to slum dwellers in their constituency, delay the process, and appeal to the judiciary, since the demolition of slums and relocation of slum dwellers made politicians fearful of losing out on precious votes in the next election. While the judiciary attempted repeatedly to reorganise, reorder and reinstate an objective rule of law, the urban local bodies attempted to deal with the sheer numbers and logistics, and the political leaders attempted to retain vote banks, a different kind of city-making was produced – one that was fixated on the issue of illegality and the rule of law. Making Delhi into a legal city was argued to be the only route to producing a world-class Delhi, ready to compete with other global cities. The process involved in the making of Delhi’s aspirations for world city status, allows punitive use of the rule of law to be made by the state, judiciary and middle classes in order to remove illegal slums from the city. In attempting to produce this world city, it is the erasure of the illegal city that is at stake. By removing squatter settlements and slums to the urban peripheries, Delhi is being created for and by the middle classes – as a city that has no place for the type of illegality vested in informal settlements.

Slums in modern Delhi

Squatter settlements in Delhi have by and large developed since the 1970s from a set of makeshift shanties into established neighbourhoods. Since independence from British rule in 1947, as the refugees of partition began to arrive from across the borders, without any possessions, they often took to occupying available land in the city – along the railway tracks, by the river, under bridges, along roads, underpasses, along canals, in open land, and amidst rubbish heaps. As the state hurriedly put together its first Five-Year Plan (1950  955) to rehabilitate refugees of partition through large-scale construction of row houses in the capital, rural landless farmers began to arrive in the city and take the place of refugees in squatter settlements. These landless farmers were victims of the state five-year plans, which mechanised agriculture in order to bring about a green revolution. The city with its rapid urbanisation and job opportunities became the destination of a large number of these rural migrants, who began to access informal housing in urban slums. The coming of the squatters into the orderly post-colonial city of modern India presented a moral attack on the city’s sanitised order – it was seen as haphazard, disorderly and chaotic. For the urban elites, the presence of peasants in the city was related to an annoyance or offence that was dangerous to life or injurious to health or property – a notion that drew its definition from English common law (Ghertner 2008). When the first Delhi master plan was put together in 1962, provisions were made to relocate squatters to designated residential zones on the urban peripheries – a notion that was put in practice on a large scale during the Indian Emergency in 1975-1977. Large parts of the city centre slums were demolished as part of a city beautification scheme, which led to a large-scale population movement from the centre to the periphery. During the early 1980s however, slums and squatter settlements enjoyed a period of political patronage whereby political parties sought to provide them with a variety of official and unofficial documents in order to secure vote banks. These documents, which ranged from voters ID cards, food ration cards and passports, were not able to guarantee tenure, but were able to provide a sense of security to those living in these squatter settlements. In this form of patronage, legitimacy was never complete or absolute – it was always left to negotiation and bargaining with the state and local authorities. From the late 1980s however, certain transformations have taken shape in global and national contexts, which have made these earlier securities unreliable for slum dwellers. This transformation began in 1988 with the United Nations General Assembly of the Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000 (GSS), which recognised the severity of the housing problem and called for the adoption of new roles and responsibilities by various actors in the shelter-delivery process. Although it did not propose that governments should withdraw from housing, it placed significant responsibilities on the public sector agencies for creating an enabling environment and ensuring the availability of shelter for all (United Nations Chronicle, 1988). In 1996, the Rio summit further articulated the Agenda 21 objectives, which required participation at the local level in planning and implementing environmental, social, and economic policies. This was further reinforced in the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements as part of the Habitat Agenda in the same year, which argued for a new era of cooperation between the state, civil society and private sector to create sustainable human settlements. It was around this time that a shift in focus took place from national territories to city regions as arenas for intervention. In 1999 the Cities Alliance declared the action plan for Cities without Slums, which was subsequently endorsed by 150 heads of state and governments (including India) attending the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000. Among many other policies the action plan stressed the need to provide a legal system where property rights and security of tenure are seen as sustainable approaches to slum upgrading. The lack of legal security was seen to »vitiate their ability to access credit and constrains their motivation to improve their homes and neighbourhoods« (Cities Alliance, 1999). The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which emerged from the Millennium Summit, were particularly relevant in this context. Goal seven of the MDGs aimed to make »significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2020« in line with the Cities without Slums initiative. Goal seven had targets to »halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water« and to measure progress on the basis of the »proportion of people with access to secure tenure«. However, there are many complex forms of housing tenure in informal settlements »ranging from the existence of national legal rights to subjective assessments of security, through to actual evictions« (UN-Habitat, 2003, p. 8), which has led to prolonged debates over what the target value of security of tenure should be. These transformations have had significant impacts on Indian approaches to slums and squatter settlements. Till then India had always functioned as a federal system, local level institutions only had statutory status under state law. In 1992, two important amendments were made to the Indian Constitution, which established a three-tier system of local governance giving increased powers to local authorities and to Urban Local Bodies (ULB). Delhi however was particularly unique in this reorganisation since, as it is a capital city, the Delhi government has always maintained a certain degree of autonomy over formulating its development policies. These amendments nevertheless empowered and entrusted local authorities such as the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Delhi Development Authority to function as institutions of local self-government – to elect the city’s Mayor, to manage and fund their own programmes and to engage directly with local community groups. The transformations at the urban level have seen new forms of partnerships between the state and civil society organisations that enact new models of participatory governance. The role of residents’ welfare associations in shaping urban policies and decision-making powers are becoming significant routes through which the city is reorganising itself around the demands of the UN development policies and the devolution of powers from the state. However, this participation is often on the terms of those more powerful in the urban decision-making process. In Delhi, the Bhagidari system instituted by the urban government brings together Resident Welfare Associations (RWA) in partnerships with NGOs and local government to promote urban renewal. Yet, RWAs are only allowed to participate if their settlements are legal, which excludes most informal settlements.

Informal to illegal cities

The urban poor are trapped in an informal and illegal world – in slums that are not reflected on maps, where waste is not collected, where taxes are not paid and where public services are not provided. Officially, they do not exist. As illegal or unrecognized residents, many of these slum dwellers have no property rights, nor security of tenure, but instead make whatever arrangements they can in an informal, unregulated and, in some respects, expensive parallel market. (UN-Habitat 2003, p. 6) Studies of slums and squatter settlements in the global south have been dominated by a focus on their informality. The informal city and the illegal city have often been tied together as one and the same thing in development policy – as places of the urban poor, of non-existent services, of marginalization and largely located in the rapidly globalizing megalopolises of the south (UN-Habitat 2003). These approaches towards informality however, take illegality as tangential to the concerns of the urban poor. But the distinctions between illegality and informality have become crucial for those living in slums and squatter settlements in Delhi in recent years. As already mentioned, the state, judiciary and middle classes have recently sought to remove those from the city who are deemed to be living in illegal settlements. The punitive and selective use of law is targeted at those living in informal settlements without tenure or rights to the land. Because this use of law is more easily applied to those settlements that have not been legalised or regularised by the state, there now emerges striking differences between two types of slums – regularised informal settlements and unauthorised squatter settlements – the former legal or quasi-legal and the latter illegal. This distinction and differentiation between legal and illegal slums becomes critical to the delineation of who does and does not have rights to the city. As squatter settlements are removed from the city, it is not that the city is erased of all slums; rather that the illegal geographies of the city are making way for a world city.

Illegal cities and Delhi’s worldly aspirations

We have strived to make Delhi a world-class city. We have been given the opportunity to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010, which has provided a wonderful opportunity to strengthen the infrastructure to make Delhi a global city (Times of India 2006). In 2004, Delhi won the bid for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Soon thereafter, the Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit announced her intentions of using the Games to invest in the city’s infrastructure, to improve its urban environment, and turn Delhi into a global city. Yet, as Delhi suffered from the worst power cuts and water problems in 2006, slogans began to circulate of a walled city, not world city being produced in the capital, referring to the dualisms between the historic old city of Shahjahanabad and New Delhi, between the old and new, between the past and future, and between underdevelopment and modernity. Allegations began to fly around of a failure of the urban government to achieve any of its promises made in the Commonwealth bid – to clean up the city, clear pollution, reduce traffic congestion, provide water and electricity – and as a consequence, subjecting Delhi-ites to a general laissez-faire governance. In more recent weeks, these allegations have been directed at the poor quality construction of Games venues, the delays in their completion and overall corruption in the delivery of the Games. Yet, the hosting of the Commonwealth Games has brought the aspirations of the Indian urban elites and politicians into the world arena. Despite controversies over its potential success, India now hopes to use the 2010 Commonwealth Games as a springboard for its planned 2020 Olympic Games bid. Delhi is not the only or indeed the first city to have global city aspirations. In India, Mumbai, Chennai, Jaipur, and Bangalore have similar aspirations. Recently, the Indian state announced an ambitious national urban renewal project that will transform 21 Indian cities into world cities. But this world-city dream is of a kind that connects to economic growth, where squatters have no place. Delhi’s route to world city status has been repeatedly reinforced through a discourse of environment – removing pollution, maintaining and managing parks and open spaces, providing infrastructure and public health, and enforcing these through the rule of law. And it is this discourse that has produced the urgency in clearing illegal slums and beautifying the city for the Games. What then is the position of illegal cities in an aspiring world city? As Delhi is rearing for the Commonwealth Games in October 2010, it has removed most eligible squatters to two specific satellite towns – Narela and Bawana, both more than 50kms to the northwest of the city. These satellite towns are different from others like Gurgaon, Faridabad and Noida, which were developed as hubs for IT, business and global workers. Narela and Bawana on the other hand, house large numbers of resettlement colonies, those removed from the city on account of their illegal status. But only eligible squatters have been provided resettlement. The quality of resettlement depends upon whether they can provide proof of residence in illegal settlements since 1991 or since 1989. These eligible squatters have been provided accommodation in Bawana and Narela on a leasehold basis, often with substandard infrastructure facilities. Indeed many researchers have noted that the resettlement colonies in Delhi’s satellite towns provide worse accommodation than that available to those living long term in Delhi’s slums. Satellite towns such as Narela and Bawana have become holding grounds for the illegal citizens of Delhi who were deemed eligible to receive legal housing on condition that they leave the city. But what happens to those deemed ineligible – those who began living in Delhi’s squatter settlements after 1991, those renting rooms in slums, or those unable to provide evidence of having lived there since 1989 or 1991. It is these illegal citizens who will lose out in Delhi’s worldly aspirations.

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Almitra Patel vs Union of India. 2SCC 0679 at 686 (Supreme Court of India, 2000).
Cities Alliance (1999): Cities without Slums Action Plan.
Fernandes, Leela (2006): India’s new middle-class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Ghertner, D. Asher (2008): Analysis of New Legal Discourse behind Delhi’s Slum Demolitions. In: Economic and Political Weekly, 17 May, p. 57 — 66.
Times of India (2006): Delhi CM vows to solve power, water woes. 15 August 2006.
United Nations Chronicle (1988): Global strategy for shelter to the year 2000. 1988.
UN-Habitat (2003): Challenge of the Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements. Earthscan: London.