The Hindu introduces one Amita Baviskar as sociologist and Ciriacy-Wantrup Fellow at University of California, Berkeley, and her presence in its Sunday magazine as follows. “As slums in Delhi are being bulldozed to yield ground to parks, river-front promenades, and other ‘prestigious' projects, AMITA BAVISKAR looks at what it means to the people who actually suffer – poor workers”. But does the Baviskar piece, referring to recent clearance of slums from Yamuna Pushta, do that? Or does it use Pushta to push some other point?
Baviskar’s Pushta piece has, by way of assessment of impact on workers, Baviskar’s account of despair of (1) Mohammad Faim, dhaba owner, and (2) Ramadevi, vegetable seller, set against backdrop of vague facts like ‘working class settlements that range along the Yamuna Pushta’ and ‘resettlement sites … 20-30 km from people's place of work’ and half-truths like ‘economics of everyday life in the city … dictate that people live close to their workplace’ and ‘all people have the right to work and shelter’. Impacts on Pushta citizens have been raised with far greater specificity and rigour with the authorities as well as in public media, but I will not dwell on that, since this is not about the truth about Pushta but about what the Baviskar Pushta piece.
The Baviskar piece reinforces stereotypes to make victims appear beggarly and irritating. Where portraits of resilience are more in order, it freeze-frames moments of demolition despair – white-haired Mohammad Faim breaking down and asking at-my-age-what-am-I-to-do-where-will-I-go, Ramadevi wondering gareeb-aadmi-kahan-jayega, Ram Kumar Sah expressing anger and despair. Where instances of rare courage abound (saving a drowning officer, helping Police recover minor girls, etc) it focuses on petty goodness of poverty – Ramadevi barely-making-enough-to-feed-her-four-children saves every paisa to send them to school, Ram Kumar Sah pushed his thela for miles to bring bricks and mud and built his house with his own hands. Where people are not unintended (like, say, MNCs and MN-NGOs, NRIs, bureaucrats who stay on, etc) it suggests they are – Faim, native-of-Siwan-Bihar after nineteen-years-in-this-city, Delhi in which penniless-refugees-have-prospered.
And the Baviskar piece blurs culprits. The state as vaguely guilty (state's-desire-to-discipline-poor-people's-lives-in-urban-spaces, all warily-avoiding-the-police, Ram Kumar Sah saying Government-should-just-strangle-us-at-least-that's-quick), but no mention of the ‘good’ the state had been doing in Pushta at instance of NGOs, notably of police officials. The usual remarks against court orders for clearing Pushta, but no mention of the flaws in the petitions that led to them or of favourable orders in Pushta matters that people tried in vain to make use of amidst the anti-Courts tirade. The usual anti-Jagmohan remarks, but no mention of the changed political regime and its CMP (flouted in an attempt-to-evict in Pushta on the same Sunday). The usual comparisons with Emergency, but with question about excesses-of-the-Emergency-being-repeated-in-these-democratic-times stopping short of questioning why the political opposition and NGOs and bureaucracy were unwilling to stop Pushta demolitions from violating law as well as court orders, even as people kept raising these violations and asking for a public hearing.
Baviskar asks why the displaced are not being heard. The answer to that is simple – the victims do not reinforce irritating beggarly stereotypes of themselves, nor do they blur culprits, and so the ‘bourgeois consensus that the poor don’t matter’ that Baviskar deplores lets the Baviskars speak for the poor. Typically, Baviskar does not tell, for instance, that the need for people to ‘live close to their workplace’ and their ‘right to work and shelter’ are not vague desirables but imperatives of solutions settled in planning law in Delhi. Or that ‘Delhi's real estate market offers scant legal housing for poor workers’ only because of flagrant disregard of law, with help from those who deny, disparage and obfuscate it. The Baviskar piece does all of that.
About housing, Baviskar, relying on analysis of one NGOrganisation-researching-urban-issues, says DDA-promised-to-build-16.2-lakh-dwellings-but-built-only-5.6-lakh-dwellings. The fact is that, as per Delhi Master Plan (DDA’s statutory mandate or, if it be preferred, promise), 16.2 lakhs is the estimate of housing units to be added in 1981-2001, indicative percentages for various subsystems (including only 3% slum housing and 25% EWS plots) are explicit, and what DDA had to build is part of 43% built housing assigned to cooperatives and DDA. This is already done, meaning the only housing DDA can do, as per its promise, is the 25% EWS plots. By insisting that DDA has some huge backlog for all classes, Baviskar is helping build public opinion in favour of excessive upper income housing by DDA, which is contrary to the demand of several slum groups (including from Pushta), is eating into land meant for the poor, taking infrastructure demand beyond carrying capacity and, having become unsustainable in purely market terms, now also driving DDA to bankruptcy.
About resettlement, Baviskar demands to know why-is-the-resettlement-policy-not-being-implemented (while simultaneously complaining, on basis of visits-to-the-resettlement-sites, that entire-families-are-squeezed-into-plots-smaller-than-a-three-tier-railway-compartment far away with no amenities). The fact is that such resettlement is illegal in terms of Delhi Master Plan provisions for plot sizes (minimum being 25 sqm), amenities (standards for numbers of schools, dispensaries, markets, etc, being explicit), locations (integration for optimal workplace-residence relation being mandatory) and processes (eligibility criteria based on cut-off dates and ration cards being devoid of basis). It is pertinent to mention that in November 2002 Delhi High Court had quashed this resettlement policy and called for an alternative not connected to encroachment. The NGOrganisation-researching-urban-issues that Baviskar draws upon and others prevailed upon the NDA government to file an SLP, now hanging in court. More recently, the Pushta case against inadequacies in resettlement, lost in both High Court and Supreme Court (I maintain because of not referring to statutory measures of adequacy), was fielded from the only Pushta settlement that Baviskar mentions (Sanjay Amar Colony). And coincident with the Baviskar piece were news reports of Chief Minister visiting resettlement and concluding that the only major problem is lack of crematoria and graveyards.
For ‘solution’ Baviskar concludes (in complete resonance with World Bank, DfID, draft national slum policy prepared in consultation with NGOs at DfID initiative, etc) that ‘affordable housing be made a priority. Displacement and resettlement is a costly and traumatic process. It is preferable to adapt existing bastis where residents have already expended considerable labour and thought to make habitable places’. As if on cue, Delhi Government is sending to UPA government a proposal for the NGO-Builder Mumbai-model of flats on slum sites, announced by NDA government in October 2002 after a meeting at which, besides politicians, (only) NGO-Builders from Mumbai and NGOrganisation-researching-urban-issues from Delhi and select bureaucrats were present. This defunct model, notwithstanding Prince Charles’s personal endorsement of it, is proven failure incapable of any solution for the city and designed to benefit builders. In Delhi it is grossly illegal ploy to spare 2000 hectares of land meant for a durable solution to the slum problem.
In ‘justification’ of her status-quo in-situ ‘solution’, Baviskar pulls the oldest trick in the book – a vote for the deep blue sea in face of the devil – to claim it is ‘an option that residents welcome’, even as numerous Pushta citizens have formally requested other lawful options that Baviskar pretends do not exist and even as her own piece has Abdul Barik asking, "You think we want to live like this? We are also human. We also want to live decently." But, as Baviskar points out, the poor are not heard. Naturally, Baviskar does not justify her ‘solution’ on any technical grounds, since it is viable in only few situations and quite impossible in cases like Pushta, sub-optimally located and not amenable to meaningful cost-effective upgrading. In fact, the only justification Baviskar offers is an ‘aesthetics’ one – “A secure home, a house with a toilet and a tap, in a vibrant basti, has a beauty all its own”.
The aesthetics justification cannot be applied with any rigour to slums like Pushta. A section of civil society is, however, pitting this home-grown aesthetics against arbitrary consumerist aesthetics. Both are equally bourgeois and sit harmoniously in the ugly portrait of wilful endowments that downsize entitlements and are incapable of any durable solutions. When consumerist aesthetics starts driving massive displacements it becomes loot and demands not a counter-argument to portray the looted (and hence the loot) in terms of some alternative aesthetics, but deconstruction to build consumer awareness about implications of the aesthetics on sale – in terms, especially, of the environmental catastrophe they are driving the city to. Pushta, located on the riverbed, provides a case of rare clarity for doing this. But Baviskar prefers to blur the environmental issue, on which she does dwell at length.
Baviskar fails to point out that the issue on the riverbed per se is NOT river pollution (which has city-wide causality) but ground water and that the protected aquifers in the Yamuna flood plain, duly notified by CGWA for drinking water potential, hold the key to solving Delhi’s water crisis and Pushta citizens were doing no damage to this resource and the cultivators among them were helping protect it. While vaguely mentioning bourgeois projects, Baviskar does not specifically indict, say, the Metro Depot that illegally draws ground water for washing trains and discharges waste water in the river bed. (It is unlikely that she would have cared to object in response to Public Notices about such projects, since that inclusive method of participation is not favoured by advocates of particular alternative-solutions). Instead, Baviskar accepts blame for pollution on behalf of Pushta, with two-decimal statistic (2.96 mld out of 3,296 mld) of percentage of city sewage Pushta would generate in proportionate population terms. Even if all of this was going untreated into Yamuna from Pushta (despite (a) investments on community toilets and toilet-training of communities by NGOs and (b) non-users of toilets not squatting in the river per se), the statistic is immaterial, since the same sewage is going to flow from Holambi or Bawana as well. The issue about untreated sewage polluting the river (to extent of 80% of its total pollution and flowing from the whole city) is hardly that people generate sewage or where they generate it, but that there are not enough sewage treatment plants. For this all citizens across the city are equally guilt or not guilty and there is no cause at all to try and apportion blame.
Baviskar’s sundry points do not make a line. Indeed the line in contemporary urban discourse is reducing to a point – status-quo. All the discourse is churning out is opportunities for perpetuating the loot that that the status-quo represents. “Jagmohan's projects, the High Courts orders, their selective implementation by city officials, and the virtual silence in the media”, Baviskar says is what signal ‘the consolidation of a bourgeois consensus that the poor don't matter’. Her prescription is typical – that we let NGO-Builders join in to profit from the bourgeois status-quo, such as through her in-situ solution. This, she says, “can only be achieved if planners, politicians, judges and middle-class citizens recognise the constraints under which poor workers struggle to survive and help them overcome these.” Baviskar’s presumption that all planners, politicians, judges and middle-class citizens are, besides being unaware of the constraints facing the poor and opposed to circumstances in which they can overcome them, need or desire to be guided by her imperialist ideas, is entirely without basis.
I consider this comment necessary because Baviskar’s seemingly Pushta piece is typical of a growing tirade in name of scholarly research on urban issues, in which I am unable to see anything scholarly or researched or any lucid perspective on urban issues. I am posting it in public domain and do not consider it necessary to privately write to Baviskar or The Hindu because I owe them reciprocal courtesy for not privately bothering me with their views on Pushta, slums, planning, etc.