Mention slums to Indians who live in multi-storeyed blocks of flats or gated and guarded colonies and it's a good bet they will talk of demolitions. It will be generally approving talk. To a lot of city residents, the only acceptable answer to the whole question of slums is to destroy  them. I've always felt that one reason it is so acceptable is that we don't refer to this process as what it really is: smashing people's homes, and therefore their lives. If we see it that way, I wonder if it would be so easy to carry out what we instead call “demolitions”.

Imagine if we had read the recent news from Delhi under a headline like this: “Row over 1,200 homes torn apart."

There’s an apparently reasonable reason to smash these homes this way. There always is. This time in Delhi, it’s that the Railways want to build a new passenger terminal on the land on which this slum colony stood. The people in our cities who don’t live in slums usually nod their heads at reasonable reasons such as these. This is about the “development of the city”, they say, convinced that this is a clinching argument that necessitates such demolitions. For “development”, as many of us envisage it, is a process that will take us to a pristine shiny future in which there are no slums, nor even people who might need to live in slums.

But people who advocate that future rarely consider why city real estate is so expensive; how that makes it nearly impossible for vast sections of our population to find affordable housing; how much a part of our economy these people are; and thus how it makes zero sense to simply destroy their homes. Nor is there a consideration of the humanitarian cost of such destruction.

Another time, another demolition

Nearly 11 years ago, the Mumbai municipality, with full support of the Maharashtra government, destroyed nearly 100,000 homes in the northern suburbs of this city. That’s about half a million Mumbai residents who were suddenly rendered homeless. That episode, of course, is now long forgotten. Still, here’s a little bit of what I learned, visiting those areas, about what it means when governments destroy lives on our collective behalf.

The natural question to ask in the middle of man-made devastation in the northern Mumbai suburb of Ambujwadi was this: when did you arrive here? Because when it comes to slums, but only slums, you have to keep in mind a peculiar notion called a cut-off date. With no more logic than throwing darts, the government picks such a date and sets it in stone. In early 2005, the stone was inscribed with January 1, 1995. If you were in your Mumbai slum home before that date, you were legal. If you were not, you were not. Legal status, in slums and in government policy that deals with them, was and remains this trivially determined.

Imagine if the government pronounced that anyone born in the city after this same arbitrary cut-off date lives here illegally. Would you stand for that? (Are my two children illegal for having been born after January 1, 1995?) But compare the logic in both cases. After all, babies come into the city on certain dates. If you walk in here after January 1, 1995 and you’re illegal, why are you legal if you’re born here after January 1, 1995?

In any case, every few years the government moves the cut-off date up. In fact, the then-government of Maharashtra had run for office on an explicit promise to move the date to January 1, 2000 (at least this would make my son a legal Mumbaikar). Once in office, though, they changed their minds and returned the inscription to 1995. Just so was Ambujwadi determined to be illegal, therefore to be reduced to rubble.

In Ambujwadi, such illegality was a serious concern, but also carried a certain resonance. Most of the people who lived there were Pardhis, members of a tribe that our laws once actually defined as criminal, who are still widely seen that way. If you’re born Pardhi, you’re criminal, period. So to a Pardhi, cut-off dates were entirely in the scheme of things: I'm born, I'm criminal; I live here, I'm illegal.

So I asked that natural question again and again in Ambujwadi. By way of reply, the Pardhis, sitting on their belongings amid piles of rubble, would rummage around and show me pieces of paper and plastic. Ration cards, letters, election ID cards, xeroxes of appeals, municipal forms . Not just one, not just a few, but the majority of the people I met there had ration cards that listed them as residents of this very spot – mentioning “Ambujwadi” in their address – and were dated before January 1, 1995.

That is, by the government's own mindless cut-off date criterion, these people were legal residents here. Even so, their homes were razed.

Searching for water

Wells dotted the entire expanse of Ambujwadi. This was once swampy, overgrown land, and the people living here cleared it when they moved in. Water remained a problem, though. The municipality did not supply them any – after all, these were “illegal encroachers” living in illegal homes – and thus Ambujwadi residents dug their own wells.

I stood over one such, looking in. Not that there was much to see. There was no water, but a lot of mud and rubble, pushed in there during the demolitions. Umabai Chavan, getting ready to nurse her baby daughter Parvati on the rubble of her home, shouted to me: “All the things from my house are inside there! The people from the municipality threw them in and pushed mud in to cover it!”

A few wells did survive the destruction, because residents laid planks over them. These were the sources of water for about 3,000 people who were still here, perched atop all the rubble. An old woman called Bhimabai Kale lifted the plank off one such well and lowered a battered metal tin, tied to a string, into it. When she pulled the filled tin back up, there were dark specks and a few dirty leaves on the surface. Bhimabai smiled at my hesitation. “Taste it," she said. “Go on, taste it, this is what we drink every day, it's ok!”

I did taste it. It was indeed ok.

The challenge

Researching his 2005 book on slums around the world, Shadow Cities, the New York journalist Robert Neuwirth spent several months living in a slum in Jogeshwari. In the book, he wrote: “The true challenge is not to eradicate these communities but to stop treating them as slums – that is, as horrific, scary and criminal – and start treating them as neighborhoods that can be improved. They don’t need to be knocked down and built new, because in most cases this will only produce housing that is not affordable to the people who are living there.”

Exactly my thoughts in early 2005, as I wandered the destroyed flatland that used to be Ambujwadi.