The world’s largest settlement of street performers is under siege in Delhi. Home to more than 3,500 families on the Capital’s western fringes, Kathputli Colony is a slum, according to government records. The 50-year-old neighbourhood of puppeteers, street magicians, snake charmers, acrobats, singers, drummers and dancers will soon make way for luxury apartments and a mall.
While the government wants to improve the living conditions of the residents, the residents themselves aren’t too convinced of the plan. A week since the eviction process began, Kathputli Colony resembles a Delhi Police garrison.
With police personnel swarming the colony, residents are being convinced to pack their belongings and move to a temporary transit camp 4 km away.
The move is part of a public-private partnership (PPP) project to develop the area. Residents would be relocated to a transit camp for a period of two years. Meanwhile, Mumbai-based Raheja Developers will develop 156 premium flats and a 10-storey commercial complex on the reclaimed land in lieu for constructing three multi-storeyed residential towers to house the displaced residents.
“We don’t want flats. We need space for our art. We have huge wooden frames, puppets, instruments, animals and stilt walkers. Where will we work?” asks 60-year-old Dillip, a drummer and one of the 12 pradhans (community leaders). “People across the world know that this is where we stay. They come looking for us here. This area is centrally located and we get transport at all hours of the night,” he adds.
A Delhi court has refused to stay the development project and the case will next be heard on 11 March.
With both the court and the government turning a blind eye to the predicament of the residents, they have no option but to register for relocation or sit in protest. The DDA, assisted by a sizeable contingent of the Delhi Police, has been carrying out registrations since 24 February. Residents are expected to register themselves and relocate to the transit camp.
“This is a great deal! Residents sign over their small houses and move to a facility at Anand Parbat. Once the construction is over, every eligible family will get a state-of-the-art flat on prime property in Delhi,” explains SP Auluck, the DDA official in charge of registrations. “People want to leave, but local thugs are holding them back. We deployed the police to prevent violence. By 3 March, 342 families had registered and 31 have already moved to the transit camp. I am certain that in a week, everyone will move.”
Though the project was stalled since 2011, after missing repeated deadlines the DDA has now fast-tracked it. For the past few weeks, bulldozers and police teams have been stationed around the colony.
“The authorities are playing a dirty game,” says Islamji, the pradhan of the Bihari area. “They are offering people money for signatures. They are trying to break us from within so that it becomes easier for them to bring in the bulldozers. When money doesn’t work, they use intimidation.”
The transit camp in Anand Parbat is far from acceptable for the residents. Not only is it inaccessible, it doesn’t meet their requirements. “The rooms are small. People can either sleep or choose to store their professional belongings in one of those houses. They are built of metal and asbestos sheets and only have a window each for ventilation. During the summer, the temperature inside would soar beyond 42 degrees and people will be forced to sleep on the road,” says Rajeev Sethi, the chairman of the Asian Heritage Foundation. He has offered to surrender his Padma Bhushan to the President if the government continues to evict residents from the colony.
Not only are the conditions of the camp deplorable, the agreement signed by the residents specifies no time-frame for completion of the project nor does it suggest how much each flat will cost. The camp is built on land leased to Raheja Developers for two years. If the flats are not ready within those two years, there is no clarity on what will happen to the residents.
The tripartite agreement between the DDA, the developer and the residents who register for relocation, states that the residents will have to pay a cost stipulated by the DDA, before occupying the flats. The estimated price of a flat is between Rs 60,000- Rs 3.4 lakh.
Bhagwan Das, a folk singer, says, “The DDA, the government, the Lieutenant-Governor and political parties are all here to work for us, right? Then why are they opposed to us? Why aren’t they listening to our demands? Why are they evicting us from our own houses? The police, the bulldozers, it’s a show of strength. If it isn’t intimidation then what is it? People are now scared of losing everything. It is our right to have a say in our future.”
Another big question is, who qualifies for relocation? Earlier, those eligible were the people who came to reside in the colony before 2009. Based on a survey held in 2010-11, the criterion was changed to register 3,046 houses. The residents put the number at 3,500 families. However, the transit camp can accommodate only 2,800 families. And only those families will be eligible to receive rehabilitation.
Interestingly, Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung has given the residents time till 1 April to submit a town-plan of how they would like to develop the area. So, amidst mounting pressure from the DDA and the police, the residents are now chalking out a plan. The idea is to develop a residential system, which works for all the different communities in the colony.
While the DDA officials are confident that people will move out, residents continue to live under the constant threat of demolition.
As the pressure continues to mount on them, the State need to take a moment to consider that these are cultural icons and traditions at stake, people who represent India across the world. This is the last bastion of our living heritage. Why not preserve it and embrace those protecting our tradition?
Photo: Vijay Pandey