One morning in December 2019, under a flyover bridge in Mansarovar Park in northeast Delhi, Angoori watched her son Manish Kumar work. Angoori’s appearance stood out even among Delhi’s diverse inhabitants. The 65-year-old had six tattoos on her cheeks and forehead, a large gleaming brass nose-ring, and thick metal anklets under a long pleated skirt. She sat outside her tiny house that has space to fit only two beds. Next to her was a table with all manner of metal goods – woks, pans, hammers, sickles.

In this settlement of Gadia Lohars – a traditionally nomadic blacksmith community – the women keep a watch over the metalware on display. Older men huddle around hookahs while younger men like Manish keep up production. Manish picked up a red-hot iron bar from a charcoal pit and set it on a metal base. His cousin Prakash Kumar, standing opposite him, struck the rod with a hammer as Manish quickly turned it between blows, moulding the metal slowly into a spanner-like implement.

About 25,000 Gadia Lohars live in Delhi. These former nomads adopted sedentary lives only to find themselves compelled to move several times within the city as governments repeatedly demolished their homes.

Frustrated after years of forced relocation, in 2018, the Gadia Lohars of Delhi decided to organise themselves. They demanded that demolitions must end and the government must give them land and houses to live a dignified life.

With the Delhi assembly elections scheduled for February 8, the Gadia Lohars are keen to have their demand heard.

Mukesh (left) moulds spanners from hot iron sticks. It takes nearly 15 days to make 100 kg of spanners. Photo: Nihar Gokhale

‘Address-less people’

India has about 84 million nomadic people, which is 7% of the country’s population. But almost all of them lack land rights and more than half live in tents or similar temporary structures, according to a 2008 report of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic, and Seminomadic Tribes.

Indian nomadic communities include pastoralists, hunters and gatherers, herbalists, healers and fortune-tellers. There are acrobats called Bazigars in Punjab and Haryana, Ghatiya Jogis of Rajasthan who make grinding stones, the Lambadas who moved from Rajasthan across the subcontinent.

Colonial policies that took over forest and agricultural land disrupted their lives and livelihoods. The advent of television for entertainment and the use of machines for production reduced demand for their services. Many of them have moved to cities in search of work.

“They are address-less and asset-less people,” said Balakrishna Renake, a former chairperson of the National Commission.

Most nomadic communities now beg because their skills – for instance, training bears and snakes – are outlawed or out of demand. Gadia Lohars’ original skills, however, can still support them. But for that, they need land rights to build houses where they can continue their work.

“Otherwise, the community may also be pushed into begging,” said Renake.

Forced change

The Gadia Lohars trace their ancestry to royal blacksmiths of Maharana Pratap, a 16th century king who ruled from Chittorgarh fort in present-day western Rajasthan. In 1568, the Maharana lost Chittorgarh to the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The blacksmiths fled and vowed to return only when their king was restored to the throne.

For centuries, the Gadia Lohars travelled in bullock carts or gadis across North, West and Central India, making and repairing agricultural tools and kitchenware for villages. But by the 1950s, many Gadia Lohar groups gave up their itinerant mode of life and business and moved into urban centres. They set up small huts and furnaces on vacant land along railway tracks and roads. They continued to make and sell tools and utensils. Few from the community today have ties with Chittorgarh.

“Our elders tell stories of Chittorgarh fort,” said 30-year-old Vikas Sisodia, who lives near Angoori’s house. “But my only memories are of this flyover.”

A video showing India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's visit to Chittorgarh, where Gadia Lohars greet him.

Cycle of settling and eviction

Angoori first arrived in Delhi with her family of six about 40 years ago.

“We used to roam around in the villages in Rajasthan with our gaadi,” said Angoori. “But we had no savings and our children couldn’t go to school because of the travelling. They said that they wouldn’t live like that anymore. They said ‘Let’s go to Delhi’. So, we came here.”

The family settled down among 62 other Gadia Lohar homes in the Lal Kuan neighbourhood in Old Delhi. Soon, Congress leader Hari Krishan Lal Bhagat asked the group to move to a government-owned plot in nearby Shahdara on which he “allowed” them to live, said Angoori’s husband Chandrapal. They moved, set up homes and foundries, and sold metalware to wholesalers in Sadar Bazar market. But they could never build up savings or grow their businesses because they were frequently evicted as different governments came to power.

Various government bodies have evicted Gadia Lohars from across the city after claiming ownership to the land they were on and justify the demolitions as removal of “encroachments”. The Gadia Lohars have had to depend on the patronage of politicians like Bhagat, who asked for their votes but never gave them land titles or security from eviction.

“A government comes to power and tells us to live somewhere,” said Chandrapal. “But nobody does rehabilitation to let us live permanently.”

Chandrapal has lost count of the number of times they have been asked to move. Municipal officials have often carried out forceful evictions, driving bulldozers through colonies before residents could retrieve their belongings. The bereft community would begin rebuilding the next day on some vacant land nearby, each family spending a month setting up their homes and foundries.

“Each demolition would take away a whole year’s savings,” said Chandrapal. “We took our children out of school to do daily wage work. They dropped out eventually.”

A hundred Gadia Lohar houses were demolished in Delhi in 2017 and 2018 alone. In 2017, bulldozers arrived without notice at Angoori and Chandrapal’s house under the flyover in Mansarovar Park, the largest Gadia Lohar settlement in Delhi. Angoori did not know which agency’s officials accompanied the bulldozers. They took away all the iron raw material and finished goods, and demolished houses along with television sets and refrigerators inside. The Delhi High Court issued a stay on the demolitions the next day and the community rebuilt their houses, while waiting for the court’s final decision.

Angoori and Chandrapal rebuilt their house entirely with plywood, which is easy to salvage after demolition and reuse.

Gadia Lohar houses can be easily spotted by the display of ironware on sale outside their homes. The Gadia Lohars want to be rehabilitated near roads – and not on the outskirts of town – so their business can continue. Photo: Nihar Gokhale

Unfulfilled promises

In 2008, the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic, and Seminomadic Tribes recommended special state protections for nomadic people,. The commission said that the Central Government should reserve half of its housing scheme funds for such communities and set up Special Socio-economic Settlement Zones where they can live and work. It recommended that state governments allot land and housing to Gadia Lohar communities.

Being closest to the country’s center of power, Delhi’s Gadia Lohars could have been an example of rehabilitation. Instead, the government has left them with unfulfilled promises.

In 2003, the Atl Bihari Vajpayee-led central government built 34 tenements and workplaces for Gadia Lohars in Mangolpuri, a northern suburb of Delhi. The houses were never allotted to beneficiaries and now lie in disrepair. Gadia Lohar families still live in shanties outside the locked gates of the compound.

In 2009, the Delhi government demolished a number of slums for a “beautification drive” ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, including a Gadia Lohar settlement at Prem Nagar in south-central Delhi. The Gadia Lohars, along with other slum communities, filed a petition in the Delhi High Court asking that the Municipal Corporation of Delhi implement its resolution to allot 25-square yard plots with ownership rights to the evicted families. The corporation wiggled out by saying that the resolution had not been adopted by the Commissioner and had “no legal sanctity and cannot be legally enforceable”.

The Delhi High Court delivered its judgment in 2010, recognising affordable housing as a human right and directing the state to prepare a rehabilitation policy. But it did not say anything specifically about the Gadia Lohars.

The only successful case of rehabilitation of Gadia Lohars in Delhi is a small settlement near Nangloi, a north-western suburb close to the Rajasthan border. In 1996, Delhi’s chief minister Sahib Singh Verma of the Bharatiya Janata Party helped 20 families settle down on what used to be a fodder market.

On a recent December evening, 60-year-old Bhim Singh, sat outside his house smoking a hookah and praised Verma. Earlier in the year, the government sent bulldozers to demolish the houses but they turned back after seeing a granite plaque announcing Verma’s inauguration of the “Chittorgarh Camp”.

Singh said the government had given everyone at the camp land allotment papers but the unlettered community gave the papers back to “Verma sahib” for safe keeping. When I pointed out that Verma had died several years ago, Singh said, “Yes, but our papers are still with him. We trusted only him.”

A plaque near Nangloi is a testament to the only successful case of rehabilitation of Gadia Lohars in Delhi. Photo: Nihar Gokhale

Calling out the government

In 2016, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party government framed a policy saying that slums would not be demolished in Delhi without their residents being rehabilitated, as long as residents could prove that their house existed on January 1, 2015 and the slum in which it stood existed in 2006. The government then surveyed and published a list of nearly 800 recognised slums.

Many Gadia Lohar settlements did not figure in the list. According to the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, these settlements were excluded because they were not part of larger slum clusters called jhuggi jhopris.

In 2019, the Gadia Lohars along with Housing and Land Rights Network, a non-profit based in New Delhi, carried out their own survey of Gadia Lohar settlements in Delhi. They found 58 settlements across Delhi. Of these, 53 settlements had not been recorded in the Delhi government survey even though they were eligible under the policy. These included settlements at Mansarovar Park and Dwarka that had been demolished in 2017 and 2018.

The report forced the government to survey the left out settlements. But Bipin Rai, expert member of the shelter improvement board, said that work may begin only after the elections in February 2020.

This has made the Gadia Lohars of Mansarovar Park sceptical again. “Something should happen before elections, or else they will forget about us again,” said Angoori.

Even the existing rehabilitation policy falls short, said Mukund Singh, a community leader. He lives in Prem Nagar but was allotted a flat on the outskirts in Najafgarh. “The house was fine but the locality was like a jungle, with nothing around,” said Singh. “Nobody goes there. How would we find clients there?”

Meanwhile, the business of the Gadia Lohars is withering. Their woks and pans cannot compete with commercial kitchenware. They buy utensils wholesale and sell them for a Rs 10-15 profit. Most blacksmiths have moved to making small instruments like spanners, which they sell to wholesalers, earning only Rs 10-15 on each kilogram. Each blacksmith family saves about Rs 3,000 a month, which is just enough to buy food, Angoori said.

“Now it is the high-tech age,” said Vikas Sisodia, Angoori’s neighbour. “When people think of metal goods, they think of shops. When they want something made, they think of machines, and not us. Slowly we are fading out of society’s and the government’s attention,” he said.

Warming his hands over fire, Sisodia said he often thinks about is to blame for the community’s predicament – the Mughals, the British, or the Indian government. “Maybe it’s no one’s fault. It’s the times. But the government can still do something. It does so many big projects” he said. “Surely it can give us a little bit of land?”

Nihar Gokhale is a contributing writer with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers and journalists documenting ongoing land conflicts across India.