Sunday, September 26, 2010

After the Games - the slums of Delhi

The Delhi Commons Website has this humorous (and very apt) badge illustrating the state of Delhi in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games.

Anyone who has experienced the city's nightmarish traffic and dug-up roads for the past few years will tell you how very well this sketch represents what's happened in Delhi. Now that the games are upon us, I can only pray this effort was worth it.

To build all this infrastructure, over 400,000 migrant workers have made the capital their home (see photo series here). No one really knows what will become of these workers once the games are over. Some will go back, no doubt, to their villages. But I'm guessing many will stay back, adding to Delhi's slum population.

The exact size of Delhi's slum population is a bit of a hit-and-miss guess. Of the total population of about 20 million (National Capital Region), there's one scary estimate that says 52% live in slums. Another estimate says that Delhi's slum population is growing at a rate which is 4.5 times that of its non-slum population.

If this continues - with large scale additions such as the Games - we are soon going to see a city that is mostly slums.

Delhi Settlements Classification: Source Economic Survey of Delhi: 2001-2002
This table shows both slum as well as non-slum settlements in Delhi.

According to this table above, slums made up half of Delhi's population 10 years ago, and I can only imagine that it has gotten worse since then.

Delhi's slums are not a homogenous mass. Researchers, writers and government departments recognise that Delhi's slums are of different types:

  • Jhuggi/Jhopri settlements - these account for the bulk of the slums in Delhi; they are illegal squatters on public or private land. The primary characteristic is that the houses are makeshift and 'kutcha', since they have no land rights and constantly fear eviction. Unlike Mumbai, where there are dense slum clusters like Dharavi, Delhi's jhuggi clusters are widely dispersed, and can be found near railways tracks, nullahs/streams, parks, river banks, and some roads. The typical squatter settlement has about 100 families; larger ones have upto 300. They are often organised along caste/community affiliations.
  • Slum designated areas - Many of these are 'katras' in the walled city (Shahjahanabad, Old Delhi). The walled city was designed to hold 60,000 people, but it holds several times that number. These areas have been specifically notified under the Slum Areas Improvement and Clearance Act.
  • Urban and Rural Villages - Delhi has several such zones; places that started out as villages but have gotten absorbed into the city as the limits of the city have grown. I have classified these under slums because conditions here are slum-like, with low incomes, poor access to water and sanitation, as well as low literacy levels. There are 135 such villages in Delhi; but not all are poor. The photo below is from Khirki Village, where this family lives in a broken down structure that is a remnant of a village home.
  • Resettlement colonies - these are slum dwellers who have been resettled from their original location to new approved locations such as Trilokpuri, Kalyanpuri, Kichripur etc. Resettlement began in 1961 in Delhi. Earlier, it was easy to resettle slums, because prior to 1970, there were only about 40,000 slum households to be resettled. As the city's slum population has grown, resettlement has become impossible. But the existing resettlement colonies have better access to infrastructure than the slums; and with land rights secured, they have invested in improving their living conditions.
So much for the slums. Apart from slums, we have two more classifications that are very interesting:
  • Unauthorised Colonies - These are not really slums, but they are illegal all the same. There are nearly 1700 colonies where agricultural or forest land has been grabbed illegally; and houses constructed and sold. Typically there is a mafia at work, which is in cahoots with the police and the authorities. These colonies create an unregulated demand for water and power; often borewells are illegally constructed and water tables in the adjoining areas are depleted. There's a whole section of the Delhi Department of Urban Development devoted to managing these colonies.
  • Authorised Unauthorised Colonies - Several of the unauthorised colonies have now been "regularised" in populist moves, leading to this funny-sounding new category.
And then, *finally* we come to the Planned Colonies, which form about 25% of Delhi's population. This 25% then, represents the people of Delhi who live in places other than slums, urban/rural villages and illegal constructions. This 25% is made up of all the government babus, the middle and upper-middle class, as well as those living in upscale bungalows and big condominium apartments.

Scary, huh? To think that 75% of the city is either in a slum or in some other form of badly provisioned or illegal habitation? In all the "prettification" and "world-class-ification" leading up to the Games, this is a very sobering thought.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Let there be light

Living in a city, I take electricity for granted. City roads are brightly lit at night, restaurants are packed with smiling diners, traffic moves busily, and headlights cast shining beams everywhere.

I don't think about "light".

It's just there.

But last month, I spent a night at a desert "dhaani" - a small hamlet, with no electricity. When the sun went down, I realised I was in a completely different world.

Gemar Singh's dhani. No electric poles, no wires anywhere.

See the small solar panel sticking out at the top? It provides just enough to power his cell phones and computer, and to charge the batteries of his 3-4 lanterns. His neighbours are simpler folks, but Gemar - who runs a travel company and a homestay - has learned to harness technology. Unfortunately, the solar panels aren't powerful enough to provide more light than the small lanterns.

Cooking while there's still daylight

We got to the dhaani by 4:00 p.m. After tea, we began preparations for dinner while there was still daylight. We cooked using water frugally - I think we must have used about two litres of water in all, including washing vegetables, cleaning the utensils before cooking, etc.

Spending just an hour with a family in the desert teaches you the value of water like nothing else can. My daughter's school keeps running campaigns to teach schoolchildren to turn off taps at home...but really, what every city dweller needs is to go spend a night in the desert. You'll come back changed.

In Gemar's dhaani, there are no government-laid pipes that bring water. Instead, he arranges for water to be brought on camel carts whenever supplies run low. The water is free, but he pays for it to be transported. Gemar stores the water in a covered underground tank that he has built. Why underground? To prevent evaporation, of course.

As we cooked, the light started to fade.

Rawal Singh, Gemar's little boy (who was also Commander-in-Chief of Potatoes!), ran in and out of the kitchen all through the evening. At the door to the kitchen, you can see the slop pail. Water that we used to wash vegetables and dishes was poured into the pail. Later, this water is not wasted, but is given to livestock, or used to water plants.

Glorious sunset

With the last bits of light going, darkness descended inside our little cooking hut. Meanwhile, we had reached the final stage, the making of rotis. For this part, we switched from the gas stove to a traditional firewood oven.

Cooking on a traditional firewood "choolha"

The choolha was lit with firewood collected from the surrounding countryside. One large piece of wood provided the basic heat, while smaller sticks were fed from time to time to raise the heat whenever the flames went low. Firewood cooking produces fantastic food, but it also creates a lot of heat and smoke. Much has been written about the potential health fallouts of long exposure to wood smoke inside kitchens.

Gemar Singh sitting in the courtyard outside the kitchen.

By this time, it had become really dark both outside and inside; and I could no longer photograph anything without the flash on my camera. We ate in the courtyard under the moon, a simple, delicious meal, made all the more tasty because I had participated and watched the cooking. Later, Gemar brought out the desserts - the goodies he bought from Jodhpur - and we ended the meal with sweet memories.

And then it was time to sleep - the day ends early when there is no electricity! No television, laptops, no other distracting gadgets - so my husband and I just admired the stars, sent up thanks for the lovely cool breeze, and went to bed.

Little yellow lantern in our hut. Life-saver in the dark!

When morning came, I pushed open the door and stepped out into the daylight. I actually smiled when I saw the sun, and said to my husband, hey, daylight's here, let's make the most of it! And we set off early to see the nearby sand dunes. I tell you, I won't take light for granted any time soon :)

Sand dunes near Gemar's house at 7:30 a.m.

If you would like to visit this part of Rajasthan, and stay with Gemar Singh, please let me know. He runs a sustainable tourism initiative that supports local communities, and it is a great way to understand desert life. He's roped in a local team of cameleers, and they also organise camping. You can choose to stay in a hut like we did (I slept outside the hut for part of the night, under the stars), or camp out in a tent at the nearby dunes.