It only takes one visit to the basti at Kidwai Nagar to understand why its residents want to be relocated.
On a scorching hot New Delhi day, Mathura Prasad slips through a crack in a brick wall adjacent to a partially constructed elevated highway. He offers his hand to those behind him as they negotiate their way down the precarious makeshift path below.
Soon, they’re walking along another path which cuts across an open drain beneath the unfinished flyover. The drain, full of raw sewage and wild pigs, gives off a stench that can be overwhelming, but it fails to deter the group from moving forward. When they reach the other side, one of the pigs runs by, greeting them with a plume of dust in its wake. If the group follows the dust they may not be able to go more than 15 feet before hitting the fencing of another construction site—this one for a new high-rise apartment complex.
But Prasad and those with him aren’t going that far anyway. It’s the narrow strip of land sandwiched in-between an elevated highway and the apartments they’re interested in. It’s all that remains of the “basti”—a colloquial term for an informal settlement—in the area of Kidwai Nagar that Prasad has called home for the past 34 years. “There used to be around 600 families here. Now there are only 334,” he laments.
Dubbed a “smart sub-city” by the government-backed corporation building it, the apartment complex coming up behind the basti costs around $786 million. And in 2016, India’s current Vice President Venkaiah Naidu described the project as a “role model for redevelopment.” The elevated highway, meanwhile, is part of an expansive four phase corridor aimed at reducing traffic congestion in the city.
But for Prasad and other residents of the basti, the projects that have sprung up on either side of them have boxed them in, making life unbearable. “This was an open air settlement and oxygen used to flow through. There used to be cross ventilation,” says Prasad. “Now that they’ve closed the area [on both sides] it has become very bad. The drain smells terrible.” The smell comes with health consequences. Residents of the basti say they used to have a public toilet where the smart sub-city has since arisen. With that facility now gone, many are forced to relieve themselves by the drain. They say the situation has led to illnesses and the constant threat of dengue fever through an infestation of mosquitoes. But despite the health hazard posed by the drain, it also serves as a lifeline for residents of the basti.