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Book Review


Swept off the Map: Surviving Eviction and Resettlement in Delhi

by Kalyani Menon Sen and Gautam Bhan

Published by Yoda Press, India in 2008



Delhi lives in different time zones of development. Here, it is possible to find the level of development of Switzerland as well as of Sub-Saharan Africa, and the two located cheek by jowl.

In 2004, Delhi Administration “voluntarily resettled” approximately 3000 families living in the heart of the city to its fringes. The families were relocated from Yamuna Pushta to Bawana.

The Pushta is a 100 square meter strip along the river Yamuna, located at a stone’s throw away from Delhi Government headquarters at Delhi Secretariat. Bawana, on the other hand, located on the northwest fringe of Delhi is far removed from the imagination of Delhi’s mainstream population.

Bawana is ‘that place where those kinds of people live’.

This massive relocation was a preparatory step to chisel out a “World Class City” image for Delhi which was to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

Much happened during the Commonwealth Games and most often it made news for all the wrong reasons - media was abuzz with news of 'games' politicians, bureaucrats and contractors played to maximize corruption in the name of building infrastructure and much less about sports. The middle class completely disoriented with its level of helplessness moved deeper into its shell.

But that is a better known story. The lesser known is the fate of 15,000 Pushta dwellers that paid a high price for Delhi’s march towards becoming a ‘world class city’.

Kalyani Menon Sen and Gautam Bhan demonstrated the courage to document this charade of what officials claimed was “voluntary resettlement” of Pushta residents to Bawana in their book titled “Swept off the Map: Surviving Eviction and Resettlement in Delhi”, first published in 2008.

The authors argued that official perception of “resettlement colonies as clean open spaces with all the facilities that people require – is far from any truth". The authors, through a well-structured methodology, established how most families were better off before they were forcibly evicted from Yamuna Pushta to resettlement colonies in Bawana.

This eviction was carried out without any consultation with the affected families. The state provided no support to help them cope with their new situation. Lack of public infrastructure at Bawana further aggravated the pain of relocation for these families.

The authors put forth well researched data that demolishes the assumption that the security of tenure offered in the resettlement colonies was enough to provide a decent life to the resettled population.

The authors have focused on the family in a disaggregated manner. Rigour is observed in highlighting how resettlement impacted various members of a family differently. For example, in the absence of any water supply, it was the girl child who was forced to drop out of school and not her brothers. This one small decision had a spiral effect in shaping the lives of so many girl children in resettlement colonies. The authors convincingly established that infrastructure is not gender neutral.

The book has been written in a research format and has exhaustive data to support each argument. Refreshingly, it supplements its dry graphs and data with narratives of human stories, putting names and faces to sterile numbers and graphs. The many case studies and personal interviews capture the pain that men, women, girls, boys and the elderly suffered because of the relocation, and how some of them were victims of such relocations more than once.

The book has four chapters. The first establishes the methodology and the central arguments. In the second chapter, it establishes how a thriving economy was brought to a halt by destabilizing the known environment of these 3000 families. The third chapter focuses on the lack of even basic facilities in Bawana and its impact on different members of the family as against the official version that claimed these places offered improved basic services. In the concluding chapter, a central point that “informal sector occupations can provide sustainable livelihoods only if they are linked to the larger economy of the city” sets one thinking if this is the point that one is missing all the time. The moot point is – is it possible to have a World Class City when the economy is predominately informal and for whom and to what purpose is this World Class City?

I wish the book had incorporated maps to articulate how this resettlement colony and other such resettlement colonies are as a rule located far away from a city's core area. The authors have titled the book “Swept off the Map” but maps are not used to articulate these ideas.

Last October, along the Yamuna bank, as part of the German Year in India, the Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) celebrated Yamuna Elbe, an artistic exchange between two countries, i.e. Germany and India. Sitting along the river Yamuna with the Iron Bridge in the background, I was reminded how colonizers would cordon off Yamuna from the local people on the pretext of public health. Local artists and wrestlers who needed the river for practicing their skills were denied access to it. That was back then in the regime of colonizers. But what happened during the Commonwealth Games of 2010 was no different.

During the Yamuna Elbe event, sitting on the manicured lawns of Millennium Park over the graveyard of Yamuna Pushta, I was nauseated by the soft fragrances of perfumes and ruffles of silks. I tried but could not ignore that the place where I sat was where once stood poor Rehana’s hut. Her hut is no more and Rehana now lives in Bawana, barely making ends meet. But that was me as a citizen of Delhi. As a planner, I continued with other enthusiasts in Delhi’s journey towards becoming a World Class City.