The illusion of urban renewal and the magicians' ghetto

Priyanka Jain, Delhi Community Manager
Delhi, 20 July 2014

In the late 1960s, a group of itinerant puppeteers from Rajasthan were allowed by the then government to live in makeshift tents on the outskirts of Delhi. Today, this settlement is called Kathputli (Puppet) Colony after those first settlers, and houses hundreds of artists. The folk artists — magicians, snake charmers, fire-breathers, and myriad conjurers of everyday spectacle — are representatives of India's rich cultural achievements at international meetings and reception galas in foreign consulates. But the residents of the magicians' ghetto — immortalized in fiction by Salman Rushdie's portrait in Midnight's Children — live in imminent fear of eviction in their own city.

Kathputli Colony is among the first of the in-situ rehabilitation projects announced in Delhi Master Plan 2021 under the national housing policy called Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY). According to the DDA's plan, the current residents of the settlement would be temporarily relocated to a transit camp for the duration of construction. Through a public-private partnership, the DDA would work with Raheja Developers Ltd. to provide 2,800 flats for slum families free of charge. For financial profit, Raheja will partner with Arabtec Construction LLC to build Delhi's first 'official' skyscraper. It is a 54-floor tower with a sky club and helipad with 170 premium apartments at more than 1,000 square feet each.

But five years after the project was launched, only 70 families have moved to the transit camp. The project stands at an impasse, as the resistance to development within the community is stronger than ever. There are several reasons for the lack of consent. First, the community argues that they weren't consulted for the development scheme. They don't want the proposed flats but just the land so that they can build more floors for the next generation. This will also enable them to use little roofs to practice their art and store their numerous props without disturbing their neighbors.

Second, the deep mistrust was exacerbated by a long history of official betrayals of slum dwellers. For instance, in order to qualify for a rehabilitation flat, a household needs valid proof of identity and residence (such as a ration card or voter's identity card). The initial cut-off date was announced to be 2002, but until January 2014 the date was extended thrice, from 2002 to 2007, and then to 2009. These changes in policy are certainly not minor details, as it would entail the exclusion or inclusion of a number of families in the rehousing scheme.

Despite the presence of pro-active local leaders or pradhans, cooperatives such as Bhule Bhisre Kalakar and NGOs such as Sarthi and Kalakar Trust, the local government has failed to bring the community together. Slum redevelopment under RAY was supposed to be more sensitive to the people being displaced — and was expected to set an example through practicing community participation. But the lack of transparency regarding the project implementation, as well as the lack of proper consultation procedure and involvement of the affected community, is a matter of concern.

The residents of Kathputli Colony are well versed in creating illusions with sleight of hand. But today they fight the desire of elite urbanites to magically disappear those residents and give the spatial morphology of Delhi the appearance of progress. To bridge the gap between reality and illusion in Kathputli Colony and other unauthorized settlements of post-colonial Delhi, the local government would have to implement the community participation, stipulated under RAY, in its full capacity. Close.

Photo credit: Harsha Vardhan Durugadda and Pooja Pant

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