On Tuesday, the 3,600 families of puppeteers, magicians, dancers, acrobats, traditional healers and snake charmers who live in Kathputli Colony in West Delhi found that their narrow lanes were filled with more than 300 police personnel – including armed commandos. Four days earlier, on December 16, the headman of the settlement that is thought to be the world’s largest community of street performers, had been told by the Delhi Police (Central) deputy commissioner that the colony would be demolished to make way for luxury apartments. Since Sunday, the Delhi Development Authority has been issuing notices to residents, asking them to keep their documents ready to evaluate whether they were eligible for the relocation.
The redevelopment of Kathputli Colony, which began to be settled in the 1950s by itenirant Rajasthani performers, is part of the DDA’s Delhi Master Plan 2021, which seeks to transform the Capital into a global metropolis by upgrading its slums. The website for the ambitious project states that the area will soon be the site for high-rise buildings. After selecting the colony as a test case for its In-Situ Slum Rehabilitation Scheme, to be implemented via public-private partnership, the authority floated tenders in 2008. The winning bid went to Raheja Developers Limited.
The plan involves shifting the residents to transit camps in central Delhi’s Anand Parbat area, following which their homes will be demolished. Later, each family will be allotted a 30-square-metre flat in apartment complexes at the redeveloped Kathputli Colony.
Residents were initially against the project and moved court against it. But in March 2014, the Delhi High Court rejected their petition and gave the Delhi Development Authority’s relocation plan the green signal. Since then, a few hundred families have agreed to the move, but the majority of residents are still standing their ground.
Ready to go
At around 2.30 pm on Monday, 32-year-old Mohammad Ijaz stood in line outside the Delhi Development Authority’s makeshift office in the colony, which was set up in 2014, to get himself registered. All those in queue were residents who have agreed to shift to the transit camps. Among them, those who had been included in a list based on a survey conducted in 2010-’11 had come to submit their documents with the office. The ones who had not made the list for some reason or the other had to get themselves registered first. Ijaz and his family was one such case.
“I am worried about my shop,” said Ijaz, who sells biryani in one of the lanes. His biggest concern is whether he will get space for a shop in the redeveloped colony. “The authorities have discussed a new market in the redeveloped colony, where we have been told we can resettle two years after the project starts, but it is not clear who will get the shops in that market,” he said.
Standing in front of Ijaz in the queue was Patashi Bhat, 55, who belongs to the community of puppeteers. She put her thumb imprint on a form filled up by a volunteer, and said, “Had there been no parties with vested interests who operate in the garb of NGOs and receive grants on the pretext of development of Kathputli Colony, we would have seen brighter days much before.”
As the paperwork continued through the day, senior officials of both the police department and the Delhi Development Authority stood around, monitoring developments. “This is the beginning of a better life for them,” said JP Agrawal, principal commissioner with the land and housing authority. “Once the paperwork is done, the residents will be given a copy of a demolition notice and a tripartite agreement among them, the DDA and the concerned developer.”
Two senior police officials, who did not want to be identified, said their deployment was to maintain law and order and ensure no untoward incident happened. However, the residents alleged the police presence was one way of threatening them to leave their homes.
By 4 pm on Monday, 100 residents had registered themselves, the authority’s nodal officer at the makeshift office said, adding that 523 families had already shifted to the transit camps in the past two years on their own.
“But how big a number is 623 when there are nearly 3,600 families in the locality?” asked 65-year-old Dilip Bhat, the colony’s headman.
He pointed to a gap in the authority’s plan – it pegged the total number of families in the colony at 2,641, on the basis of the old survey, when there were at least a thousand more households that had settled here till January 2011, the cut-off date for the rehabilitation plan. Their documents were still being verified.
“The other problem is that we have never been shown the terms and conditions of the agreement in question,” Bhat added. “We do not want a tripartite agreement. What goes on between the DDA and the developer company is none of our concern. We want an agreement with the DDA, which is a government body.”
Sharing these concerns and more, many residents are still opposed to the plan. Among those who have refused to move out are the families of Sherman Bhat, Prakash, Mahaveer and around a hundred others. They were huddled in groups in the narrow lanes leading to the headman’s house on Monday.
Their reasons for opposing the relocation ranged from livelihood issues to the safety of women in the transit camps. But their biggest fear was that there was some catch in the agreement working against them.
“We have lived here for generations,” said Sherman Bhat, a puppeteer. “What is the guarantee that we will not be sent away when we come back after the building project is completed?” Adding that they would be reassured only if the high court intervened, he said, “We shall not move and we cannot be threatened with these policemen parading the lanes every half an hour.”
His neighbour Mahaveer, also a street performer, listed out other problems with regard to relocating. “Leave aside the problems about toilets, supply of water and size of rooms in the transit camp, we cannot live here because of our profession,” he said. “We need adequate space for practice arenas and to accommodate our belongings.”
Prakash Bhat, also a puppeteer, said, “Let the policemen parade in our lanes for days, we will not shift. It is a matter of our livelihood.”
These residents also asked if the authorities had the power to forcibly evict them, with many of them convinced that they would not be able to do so. But this may not be true.
While upholding the redevelopment plan in 2014, the Delhi High Court had observed that the Delhi Development Authority’s supportive role to enable the colony’s residents to shift to transit camps “should not be interpreted to mean that DDA is permanently precluded from taking appropriate steps available to it in law for relocating the residents in the settlement colony to the transit camp, if faced with continuing resistance”.
However, the residents who are unwilling to move out have gained confidence from Delhi Urban Development Minister Satyendra Jain’s visit to the colony on Monday, when he promised to join them on dharma if the Delhi Development Authority tried to force them out.