It’s difficult not to be dazzled by the different art forms that can be found in every scrawny street of Kathputli Colony, the slum in West Delhi that is home to several generations of traditional folk artists. The families, which consist of acrobats, puppeteers, folk musicians, dancers, snake charmers, sculptors, magicians, painters and bioscope makers, among others, settled here from different parts of the country almost four decades ago. Once peeled off, however, the colony’s endlessly fascinating veneer reveals a plethora of issues, and an endless wait for its residents. In 2014, the tensions between the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the residents of the colony were at an all time high. The DDA, which has partnered with the real estate company Raheja Developers, was trying to get the residents to move to transit camps at Anand Parbat, as part of its ‘in-situ slum rehabilitation scheme’. The promise made to the residents was that once the colony was vacated, the construction of multi-storied buildings would begin, with modern flats set aside for them.
About 525 families out of an estimated 3,000 moved to the transit camps, but the rest decided to stay put. For almost a year now, there has barely been any dialogue between the DDA and the residents of the colony. The sounds of the media attention, the NGO interventions and the daily demonstrations are playing at very low decibels now, and although normal life goes on, there is a sense of uneasy calm here. I walk through the morning bustle and a crazy amount of filth to Phad artist Shankar Lal Bhopa’s grocery shop, located next to his house. Talking about the current state of things, he says, “We haven’t been told anything about what’s happening. Our internal meetings about the issue have stopped too. But we still don’t feel safe, as all this can change any moment, and the biggest fear is that they will evict us.”
While the colony’s residents’ reasons for not moving remain the same – they want only four to five storey houses, with enough space to store their musical instruments, props and other art materials; a way for their way of living to remain intact; and a formal assurance that all of this will be provided to them – there has been little effort from them to initiate conversations with the DDA.
64-year old Puran Bhaat, an acclaimed puppeteer, says that most people in the colony keep waiting for an external source to come and help them. In a tone heavy with the sense of being in the thick of things, he says, “If you have a problem, you need to go to a doctor. The doctor won’t automatically come to you. If we don’t initiate any conversation now, the middle men will start pouring in again, each with their own vested interest. We have to learn to do things on our own. It’s our fight.”
As to why they have resisted the transit camps so far, Bhopa says that they are not “good enough” and there is no surety that they will be allowed to come back to this colony. “It’s highly convenient to commute from here. We are right on the main road, two minutes away from the Shadipur Metro. All the facilities like schools, hospitals, markets etc. are close by,” he says. Bhaat says that the people who have moved to the camps are now under the control of the builder, who is providing for them, and that even their lives are in limbo, because they don’t know when they will be able to move in to their promised flats.
Like Bhopa, he too feels that the biggest problem is that they have never been given any official documentation about their promised flats. As a result, they have little trust in both the builder and the DDA. “They should have shown us the design of our flats. They should have designated the number of the flats to the respective families. They should have done some research on the way we live and our specific needs as artists. They should have also thought about making our work situation better, so that eventually we will be able to provide for the maintenance of the flats. They have done nothing,” he says.
As I cover the small distance from Kathputli Colony to the transit camps, time expands irrationally, due to the heavy traffic on the way. Manoeuvring my way uphill on the Ghaati Road in Anand Parbat, we finally find the camps, guarded by massive iron gates and a guard who takes us directly to the “office”. The quietness and the cleanliness here immediately provide a striking contrast to the colony.
At the office, Sachin Sachdev, AGM- Services, Raheja Developers, informs us that he cannot allow any kind of documentation or media interaction with the camps’ residents. However, once he begins talking, his tough stance softens a little. He is quick to list out all the facilities at the camps – filtered drinking water, fixed and mobile toilets, one room per family, a primary school for children; all these are the things that are highlighted on the DDA’s website on Kathputli Colony (kathputlicolonydda.com).
He still doesn’t allow us to take a look inside the rooms, or talk to the residents in private. However, he calls Husaain Bano and Shano Begum to the office. Both women moved here almost two years ago, along with their families, and their main line of work is magic shows. When I ask Bano about her living conditions at the camp, she says “We get a lot of space here. We get mineral water to drink. We have proper toilets. And most importantly, it’s so clean. I go mad now when I go to Kathputli Colony. These people also help us find work many times.”
Begum, whose many family members are still staying in the colony, says, “They have stayed back because they have been influenced by the pradhans (local heads of the colony)”. While she agrees with Bano about the facilities at the camps, she adds that there are some issues, like spending a lot on the commute of their children, who still go to schools near the colony. Ultimately though, she feels that it was a good decision, and hopes that her other family members move here soon. Thus far, all the families have been living here free of cost, and haven’t had to pay for their utility bills. However, Sachdev subtly hints that things might change soon.
In all of this, the DDA remains conspicuous by its absence. It has apparently not been talking either to the residents of the colony or to the developers. “We were told to create the transit camps for about two years, so that we can construct their new flats at the colony. It’s been two years already. The DDA has been very quiet lately, and has not been playing its role properly,” says Sachdev. An email we sent out to the DDA went unanswered, too.
Sachdev feels that the DDA and the media should communicate to the colony residents that they should move to the transit camps, which have 2800 units in total, so that they can ultimately get their own flats. “We will give them notarised papers for everything. This is a temporary phase. The main mission is to build flats for them,” he says. Back at the colony, despite the sense of uncertainty, many residents remain optimistic too. As Bhaat puts it, “If the conversation is steered in the right direction, it would not be difficult to find common ground.”
The need of the hour, then, is a constructive conversation between the DDA, the developers and the residents. Kathputli Colony, which is a microcosm of the rich cultural heritage that India is so immensely proud of, must get the future it truly deserves.