Slums, NGOs and “Development”: An experience of Mansarovar basti (Delhi)

January 21, 2014

By Siddhi

[Author’s note: The visit was made by a group of people including Chaitanya, Anu, Bharti and myself. The note is written based on our combined experience.]

[Cover Photo: Chaitanya Khandelwal]

On the morning of 26th of December 2013, when a new chief minister had not yet sworn in for the state, four bulldozers mowed down an entire slum basti of at least 165 jhuggis along the railway track that runs near Mansarovar Park metro station in Northeast Delhi. The demolition had been ordered by the Railways on the basis that the land around the railway track, on which the basti was settled, belongs to the Railways. On 27th of December, we visited the place where men, women and children struggled in the freezing cold to re-start their lives- attempting to retrieve their meager belongings from beneath the piles of debris and mud, trying to collect resources to put up a semblance of walls and roofs to guard themselves against the biting cold. It rained that day in Delhi. The residents told us, as was also reported in some newspapers that reported the demolition, that around a thousand people (of which at least five hundred are children) resided in that basti which was razed from ground, nay, deeper. The officials who administered the demolition ensured that the ground where the jhuggis of bamboo, bricks and polythene sheets stood was dug deep by the bulldozers- so as to render it extremely difficult for the people to resettle there.

The details of the demolition were outrageous to us. The demolition was done in the freezing cold, even as newspaper headlines reported of children dying of cold in the relief camps of Muzaffarnagar in the neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. There was no prior notice served- even though many of the families settled in the basti have been living on the locality for 18-20 years and have ration cards, Adhaar cards and voter cards issued to them with permanent address of the basti. Families were not given time even to evacuate their jhuggis of the little belongings they possessed. Young girls and women were manhandled. Those away from their homes were not called in or informed of the demolition by the authorities. A woman undergoing labour pain was verbally abused and insulted by the men administering the process of demolition.  She had to be lifted out by other females of the basti– and was forced to deliver her baby-girl at a near-by water-tank, even as her jhuggi was mowed down by a bulldozer.

There was no reason specified for the urgent need to evacuate the land. Not even an “infrastructural work” or a “development project”.

But for the residents of the basti such humiliation is a regular reality. Sanjana, a resident of the basti and mother of two, expressed her anger and pain to us. Social vulnerability- caused by poverty and young girls in the family- is the only reason that she tolerates the insults heaped on them regularly by local authorities, including the policemen of the locality.

In the days that followed, some newspapers and news channels covered the issue. The demolition was termed inconsiderate by the media. Inconsiderate. Not unjust. AK Sachan, Divisional Railway Manager, passed responsibility to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi on the basis that Rs. 11.25 crore was paid to the MCD in 2003. The East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) passed responsibility to the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) of the Delhi Government. Manish Sisodia, who won from Parpatganj assembly constituency in East Delhi under which the area falls, visited the basti and gave verbal assurances of rehabilitation. The basti dwellers have now been given a notice period of three months, beyond which their future is once again uncertain.

On the 5th of January 2014, we visited the place again. In the aftermath of the demolition which had struck the basti like a disaster, the day-to-day struggles of the people had intensified.  While interacting with the people, we noticed repeated references to an NGO that has been distributing food, blankets and other items of relief in the basti. On closer examination, we found that Humana People to People India (HPPI), an international NGO, is in fact much more deeply integrated into the lives of these basti-dwellers.  Humana representatives gave interviews to newspapers after the demolition and are now actively participating in the planning and talks of resettlement of the basti residents. This particular NGO functioning almost as a representative of the people to the government would seem justified to some- given that it has been working in the basti for four years now- operating two night shelters amidst the basti, engaging with children of the basti during day (attempting to impart some literacy) and is currently actively involved in providing relief goods to the people. But there is more to it. The two night shelters in the area are in fact shelters of “rean basera”- initiative of the Delhi government- but are being closely operated and managed by HPPI. Further, the Adhaar cards, the unique identities of residents of the basti, are issued with permanent address of mentioned as: ‘c/o HPPI, jhuggi no…..’

For us, the question arises that why should a citizen of the Delhi, who votes from the locality, be identified to the government as being under the “care of” a private agency like an NGO? What gives the NGO the authority to represent people in this way? Further, the outsourcing of government night shelters to NGOs, often justified through the “efficiency” argument, is not as innocuous as it might seem.

It is not uncommon to find NGOs functioning in urban slums in Delhi. At first glance (and in popular imagination), funded, managed and operated by certain “benevolent” organizations and individuals, these NGOs provide medicines and health care, some primary education, blankets and clothing in the winter. But with the outsourcing of the State’s responsibility of public welfare to private agencies (even if these agencies are funded from the government to carry out the welfare activities) comes a change in attitude with which the welfare activities are carried out. What should be a matter of right, the right of the people to receive certain welfare measures from the State, becomes a matter of benevolence- the benevolence of private agencies like NGOs towards those entitled to the welfare measures.  The fact that NGOs are not accountable to the people in the way that the government is, plays an important role in this. For instance, while we were talking to one of the two (informally elected) pradhans of the basti about the problems faced by the people there, a representative of HPPI intervened. She directed the entire discussion, quite conclusively, to a “mentality” problem and went on to make a series of generalizations about the reasons behind the continued sufferings of the people of the basti. As people gathered around, she spoke haughtily about their unwillingness to accept “help”, unwillingness to work, a perpetual habit of begging, unwillingness to educate their children, unwillingness to move to the area to which the government rehabilitates them and even accused them of selling off the blankets provided by the NGO to purchase alcohol. The crowd listened uncomfortably. It was when we raised the concern of lack of livelihood in the remote areas to which the urban slum dwellers are often rehabilitated, that the people began speaking. Many young men of the basti claimed that they wanted to work but the jobs available were not sufficiently remunerative to maintain their families. At that point, the HPPI representative left for a meeting. However, the disturbed pradhan kept clarifying that no blankets had been sold off and invited anyone concerned to hold an inquiry. Soon after, we met a young widow who requested us to find someplace where her children could receive quality education; she did not want her children to live the same life of misery as her.

This incident caused us to consider the extent of the feeling of gratitude with which the ‘benevolent assistance’ of NGOs is accepted- so much so that it causes the basti dwellers to tolerate such degrading, baseless allegations without protest.  It diminishes in them the understanding that they have, in fact, a right to a dignified life. This incident also caused us to question the level of understanding  that these NGOs really have of the material problems faced by the people that they’re working for (it would hardly be correct to say ‘working with’). Amidst the uncertainty of shelter and livelihood, the struggle for daily bread, the lack of access to quality education, the constant humiliation from the middle class society and the State, the people of living in slums are expected to “change their mentalities” and adopt middle class notions of cleanliness and hygiene. How can one who eats the old-discarded food of middle class households, or collects meat from bones thrown out by these households, who has no access to toilets and travels long distances to collect drinking water, be expected to value “cleanliness” and “hygiene” in their lives? How can one whose shelter and livelihood is uncertain to the order of a week, plan their children and children’s education in terms of years?

Such shallow understanding of material problems is not surprising, given that most NGOs (apart from some regular salaried employees) depend hugely on young ‘interns’ for their functioning. These interns may be students pursuing Masters in Social Work from various institutions (we met one such intern, who was pursuing MSW from IGNOU, at the basti in discussion), or simply students who want to have certificates of having done ‘social service’ on the CVs. Many of these young interns, even if equipped with good intent, fail to treat the slum dwellers with a feeling of equality. Also, most of them enter these temporary jobs with pre defined notions about the problems of the slums (largely the “mentality problem”) and work for very short time (a month or two) without engaging very deeply with the people. While outsourcing welfare activities to NGOs, the State does not consider that these agencies are functioning, to a large extent, on the basis of such ad-hoc arrangements.

Further, we understand that while many people working with an NGO may be genuinely concerned about the well-being of the beneficiaries of the NGO, a privately operated NGO by its very nature creates a hierarchal relation with its beneficiaries and provides no solution the systemic problem of poverty. The ‘projects’ (note the contractual nature) undertaken by NGOs are funded by various agencies on the basis of an estimated size of the population of beneficiaries; this leads to a narrow vision of concern of the NGO workers- who have limited resources to aid a specific set of people. For instance, the Humana representatives we interacted with were outraged that after the demolition, the number of poor people requesting blankets and food was higher than the ‘recorded 165 jhuggis’ in their ‘data’. The made the ‘data’ and the people figuring in it sacrosanct (and all others insignificant) to Humana representatives was their own resource constraint.

And finally, the functioning of NGOs in urban slums, while providing a humane face to the private corporate sector, only placates the toiling masses and infuses some stability into the capitalist system. By its very nature, an NGO would not allow these toiling masses to organize themselves politically to demand their rights and fight against the state for social justice. Thus the youth of today, envisioning a systemic change in society (as reflected in the frequently used phrase “system ko badalna hai”, or “we have to change the system”) should seriously reconsider the NGO-based approach with which most of them are currently engaging.


No Comments »

Leave a comment