The ‘problem of slums’ is dominating discussions over India’s development. How are these areas treated? What does this mean for the people living there? 

Kathputli Colony is a slum redevelopment project. Located in the centre of Delhi it is home to over 2800 artists and performers . This colony is caught between multiple tensions; tensions between visions of urban future and development; tensions between Delhi’s classes; and tensions within the colony over who stays and who goes.

Figure 1: A ‘problem slum’ in Delhi. Photographed by the author

It is India’s  first public private in-situ slum redevelopment project between the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and Rajput Developers Ltd. Kathputli is a piece in India’s larger puzzle of sustainable development to make “Clean Delhi, Green Delhi”; a slum free ‘world class city’. Of key concern is who this development is really for? The interest of private capital serving middle-class demands or Kathputli’s residents? 

Urban development is a project of class divisions and ‘speculative urbanism’ (Goldman, 2011). This means, the amount of financial capital funnelled into the urban environment is changing how cities are being developed and who can participate in development – those who can afford rising rents. This process has been documented in academic literature as ‘gentrification’, referring to the reinvestment of capital to produce space for more affluent (Smith, 2005) with the middle class encroaching on areas previously home to the working classes (Glass, 1964). 

Kathputli’s redevelopment will demolish the existing settlement and replace it with two 15 storey apartment blocks for the current residents alongside a luxury complex ‘Raheja Phoenix’. This complicates the concept of gentrification as residents are being pushed aside rather than pushed out. 

Despite ‘upgrading’ the Kathputli living conditions, the project has a limited impact on transforming livelihoods. Although residents are not displaced physically in the long-term, they are displaced in the short term to the even worse temporary camps. Yet, despite DDA’s promise residents would only be in these camps for up to two years, those who were due to be rehoused this March have been forced to wait in dismal conditions for another year

Figure 2: Conditions in the Anand Parbhat transit camp (Source: Kattakayam, 2012)

Displacement is not just physical (Davidson and Lees, 2010). Residents will face the trauma of social displacement in being uprooted from their livelihoods and networks. Will new flats be able to compensate for this deeper erosion of culture

These impacts question the ability of the project to radically change the lives of Kathputli’s slum dwellers. Indeed, the closeness of their new housing to the luxury complex raises question of what is the true motivating factor for this project – to alleviate poverty or create a new consumption-centre for India’s rising middle class

The ‘world class cities’ this project is based on is about making Delhi a key node in the global economy (Robinson, 2002). It is about promoting economic development in line with Western modernist ideals or order and consumption – the antithesis of how slums are perceived. Encouraging the growth of the middle class (Dupont, 2011) is increasingly being seen as a way to become ‘world class’. Interestingly this ‘status’ is not something that is physically achieved or endowed but an association based on ideology and aesthetics. Ghertner (2015) describes this as a ‘rule by aesthetics’. Urban development is becoming co-opted by what the elites see as ‘development’: shopping malls, business districts and sky-scrapers. Indeed, it is the middle class who are influencing what a “Clean Delhi, Green Deli” means; no informality, no visual poverty and no slums. 

Figure 3. Child’s drawing for the “Clean Delhi, Green Delhi” competition by Ministry of Petroleum. Note the Western children as a key component of ‘world city’ aspiration 

This ‘bourgeoise environmentalism’ (Baviskar, 2003) ignores the environmental impacts of middle-class consumption habits and critical issues of social inequality. Being ‘slum free’ does not tackle the issues of embedded inequality and stigmatisation and lack of government support that have facilitated the emergence of slums and caused them to be so widespread. Tackling these issues needs more radical policy that engages with – rather than criminalises – the vibrant nature and entrepreneurialism of slums.    

Despite being largely excluded from ‘world class’ lifestyles, the urban poor are participating in these visions of urban futures; some residents of Kathputli wish to be rehoused to better their livelihoods and become homeowners. This is a prominent aspiration of the poor and working class to be able to engage in these spaces of consumption. However, though located in close proximity of Kathputli tower blocks and Raheja Phoenix this does not mean residents can access this elite space. Ironically, the desire to be homeowners is the same middle-class ideology that excludes them.

Figure 4. Image from the January protest, celebrating Kathputli’s culture and history. (Source: Hindustan Times, 2017)

‘Slum residents’ is not a homogenous category. Alongside those wishing to be rehoused, others are resisting redevelopment. In January 2017 100 residents protested through song, dance and magic against the demolition for its effect on community ties and the lack of community participation. Protest through legal channels has also been used through Public Interest Litigations; Kathputli residents filed one in October 2017 against the little notice given for their eviction. These acts show the contested nature of the redevelopment and how it is not as inclusive in practice as it is aims to be on paper.  

Ultimately, this redevelopment is a step forward in creating meaningful change for the lives of Delhi’s slum residents. But we must be critical of who this redevelopment is for and its on-the-ground impacts. Given half of Delhi’s population live in slums we cannot ignore the significance of the informal economy on economic growth.  Such are broader questions of what is a ‘slum’? How do we see them, and how should be engage with them – rather than acting upon them? Only when these questions are answered will we have a truly “Clean Delhi, Green Delhi” for all. 

References

Baviskar, A. (2003). Between violence and desire: space, power, and identity in the making of metropolitan Delhi. International Social Science Journal 68: 199-208.

Davidson, M. and Lees, L. (2010). New‐build gentrification: its histories, trajectories, and critical geographies. Population, Space and Place 16(5): 395-411.

Dupont, V.D. (2011). The dream of Delhi as a global city. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35(3): 533-554.

Ghertner, A. (2015). Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi. New York: Oxford University Press.

Glass, R. (1964). Aspects of change. The Gentrification Debates: A Reader, pp.19-30.

Goldman, M. (2011). Speculative urbanism and the making of the next world city. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35(3): 555-581.

Robinson, J. (2002). Global and world cities: a view from off the map. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 26(3): 531-554.

Smith, N. (2005). The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. Routledge

Notes:

  • This article was originally written as coursework for GY438 Cities and Social Change at LSE in spring 2019.

About the author

After spending last summer in Delhi and now having finished her masters degree, Katie McCoshan is entering the world of work in International Development and hopes to continue questioning the inclusivity of social policy.