Saturday, June 29, 2002

When the Administration demolishes common sense
Kuljit Bains

Demolition drives have become a part of everyday life in city slums --- Photo by Pankaj Sharma
Demolition drives have become a part of everyday life in city slums ó Photo by Pankaj Sharma

EVERY few months a municipal corporation wakes up to the slum problem and sets out to solve it. It gathers a few bulldozers, babus and cops, and the "right" legal documents and pushes the machines through loosely stacked bricks that constitute walls, ragged beddings, a few tins of flour, tarpaulin and little else.

A particular area of a city is thus sanitised. But is it? Even if we grant that the area was "dirty" to begin with, what is left behind after the action? A typical scene would be haggard women sitting on boxes with children in their laps, many of them mere infants. Young men would make angry noises; may even overturn a few cars and buses, but the cops usually take effective care of that.


This lot of miserable people is not going to disappear because they are not dead, yet. To begin with, the menace that troubled us (the newspaper-reading-bed-tea drinkers) was the slum-dwellers and not the slums. The reasons being that they use foul language, bathe in the open, even defecate, and are suspected to be thieves. But our conscientious municipal corporation has done the job by the book and done it completely ó it issued notices, made announcements, gained the SDMís requisite orders, demolished the offending shacks and even removed the rubble.

The slum-dwellers are still going to live in the city, bathe and do everything else they did earlier for they donít do these because they like to, but because they have to. And they continue to live the morning after demolition. They are there in these cities that keep them homeless because they are obviously better off in them than wherever they were earlier. It must make economic sense to them to live in filth and eke out a living in the otherwise clean city because they canít do so elsewhere.

How are they able to make a living? From us; because we, after finishing our tea and breakfast and reading about a demolition drive, go to offices and factories that employ these men who perform their morning ablutions in the open. Our children are pedalled to schools in rickshaws by these very men, while their womenfolk clean our houses.

It is OK for them to be there during work time, but ideally they should somehow disappear after that and, preferably, not have any children because they donít work much and just beg on the streets. Unfortunately, this is not possible.

Letís, for argumentís sake, presume that our aim of bulldozing away the problem of slum-dwellers is somehow achieved, where would our economy be and how would our "labour chowks" look? The answers, obviously, are: nowhere and bare.

Our aim is not to remove the tarpaulin and mud walls, they are just the symptom. It is the sun-burnt people living in those slums we find unbearable. And because the law doesnít allow us to kill them, we do the next bestódonít allow them to live.

These demolition drives have been on at least ever since I started reading newspapers. Why do we not realise the futility of repeating an act over and over again to no end?

Our problem is the lot of humanity that deserves attention because it makes our cities go. The reasons behind their condition are embedded deep in sociology and economics and so are the solutions, even though the problem may specifically be of slums in urban areas. Whatever be the solutions, issuing notices in the meantime is surely getting us nowhere.