India’s urban population is growing. More than 50% of the country’s population is forecast to be living in cities by 2030. This is a major challenge for the government because the country’s cities lack the infrastructure (affordable housing, roads) and basic services (sanitation, water, health care) for existing inhabitants, let alone the influx of people over the next decade.

Globally, one in eight people live in slums where they face issues of durable housing, access to safe drinking water and toilets, and insecure tenure. In India, one in every six city residents lives in a slum.

However, estimates of slum populations differ widely in many Indian cities due to differences in the counting criteria. For example, in Mumbai and Delhi, it is estimated that more than 50% of the populations live in slums, but the 2011 Indian Census put the figures at 41.3% and 14.6%, respectively.

Many Indian children are growing up in very disadvantaged circumstances. These children live in Mahmudi Chak slum next to Rajendra Nagar Railway Junction in Patna. Photo credit: Sujeet Kumar
Many Indian children are growing up in very disadvantaged circumstances. These children live in Mahmudi Chak slum next to Rajendra Nagar Railway Junction in Patna. Photo credit: Sujeet Kumar

Launching the national Smart City Mission in 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “If anything has the potential to mitigate poverty it is our cities.” He said the mission, which has a target of 100 smart cities, aims to ensure access to basic services for the people. This includes houses for the urban poor.

The programme aims to fulfil the aspirations and needs of the citizens through comprehensive development of institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure. This comprehensive development would also ensure increased public participation, Modi said.

Smart city plan has a dark side

In one of the 100 cities selected for the Smart City Mission, Patna, I witnessed the flip side of the smart city. Patna, the capital of the state of Bihar, has a rich history, but 63% of its population lives in slums. And 93% of them are from the historically oppressed “scheduled castes” and “Other Backward Classes” (based on data collected in 42 slums).

The city administration often demolishes slums without following due process of law in order to seize the land in the name of beautification and development of Patna.

In slums like Meena Bazar (near the famous Nalanda Medical College Hospital) and Amu Kuda Basti (near Patna airport) people have been living for generations in houses often partially funded by government housing projects. These have been bulldozed.

Promises of social justice ring hollow for residents of slum settlements such as Amu Kuda Basti. Photo credit: Sujeet Kumar
Promises of social justice ring hollow for residents of slum settlements such as Amu Kuda Basti. Photo credit: Sujeet Kumar

The city administration usually makes ad hoc loudspeaker announcements before bulldozing these settlements. A massive police presence and riot vehicles are on hand in case residents protest the demolitions. The officials use derogatory language and forcefully enter houses and thrash male members, said women in Amu Kuda Basti.

The government could have given them more time or relocated them elsewhere in the city, rather than just bulldozing their houses, which they had built with hard-earned money, the slum dwellers said.

There is apparently reason to smash these homes. There always is. The usual arguments for demolition include: beautification of the city, construction of a government building or enterprise, extension of the airport, crime locations, governance, illegality, encroachment etc. The state says demolitions of such slums are necessary for the development of the city.

Residents of slums such as Amu Kuda Basti say the houses they built with their own money are being demolished with little notice. Photo credit: Sujeet Kumar
Residents of slums such as Amu Kuda Basti say the houses they built with their own money are being demolished with little notice. Photo credit: Sujeet Kumar

In 2011, the state proposed a slum policy to relocate slum dwellers who had lived in the city for generations to the outskirts in a plan to develop Patna and make it a smart city, says Kishori Das, an advocate for the rights of slum dwellers. Faced with widespread protests, the state deferred the policy, but it is silently applying it on the ground, he said.

Who speaks for the marginalised?

Local residents and mainstream media are not reporting these demolitions and forced evictions, especially when it happens in non-metro cities like Patna. Civil society and advocacy NGOs also take little notice of these frequent demolitions, probably due to threats to life and, if not, then to cooption by the state. The roles of the ruling party and the Opposition are also dubious.

Bihar has been ruled by leaders who attracted votes by campaigning on issues of poverty, caste and social justice for the past three decades. In the early 1990s, the prominent leader Lalu Prasad Yadav mobilised the poor and the oppressed caste groups through the slogan of “Vikas Nahin, Samman Chahiye” (we want dignity, not development). The sitting chief minister, Nitish Kumar, also known as Sushaasan Babu (good governance man), adopted the slogan “Nyay Ke Saath Vikas” (development with justice).

However, the frequent injustices suffered by the urban poor negate the political commitment. These actions are also in conflict with the principles of the Indian Constitution, which frames justice as a balancing wheel between the haves and the have-nots.

Children sleep in the open in a slum near Harding Park, Patna. Photo credit: Sujeet Kumar
Children sleep in the open in a slum near Harding Park, Patna. Photo credit: Sujeet Kumar

These challenges are not limited to one city. In the name of smart and developed cities, the government is not only taking over urban land where millions of the poor have lived for decades but is also acquiring fertile land and violating the constitutional rights of farmers, tribes and other indigenous groups in various cities.

These reports of struggle and forced evictions contradict the statements by Modi that the development of smart cities would strictly follow large-scale public participation in preparing these plans.

Slum demolitions reveal a dark side to making Indian cities smart and cast serious doubt on claimed government commitment to the urban poor. These actions hardly live up to the idea of the rights of the poor. It became more challenging when the head of the biggest democracy in the world denounces those who speak up for the poor, oppressed and voiceless as “urban Naxals”.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, democracy is “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. For India, this means the urban poor need help both from political parties and the civil society so that their voice finds expression and their demands and concerns are heard and considered in public policy.

Sujeet Kumar is senior research fellow, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.