Saving Kathputli Colony

It is said to be the biggest single concentration of traditional street artists in the world

March 20, 2014 07:00 pm | Updated May 19, 2016 10:08 am IST

Residents of Kathputli Colony performing a puppet show. Photo:Sushil Kumar Verma

Residents of Kathputli Colony performing a puppet show. Photo:Sushil Kumar Verma

The police are bored. They doze on steps near the fruit juice stand, or on plastic chairs opposite the Ramdev tea stall. When ordered to protect an employee of the local authorities as he sets out to walk through the narrow lanes of Kathputli Colony, they stand, stretch, pick up their bamboo staves and set off.

But tempers are running high in this small, choked west Delhi neighbourhood after a court refused to block a bid by a property company to flatten its 3,000 homes and build a 54—storey tower block with a mall and luxury flats instead. Because this is no ordinary slum — and its demolition has become a test case indicating the trajectory of India’s ongoing economic development and its cultural cost.

What is so special?

Named after the centuries—old string puppets of India’s Rajasthan state, Kathputli Colony is said to be the biggest single concentration of traditional street artists in the world. Its narrow lanes and teetering brick houses are home to dancers, sword-swallowers, singers, fire–eaters, sculptors and other practitioners of fast-ssdisappearing arts. Kathputli Colony was the inspiration for the “magicians’ ghetto” in Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s 1980 magic realist novel.

“We keep Indian culture alive, we are its ambassadors across the world, but look how we are treated in our own home,” said Puran Bhat, a 62—year—old puppeteer.

Few doubt that change of some kind is needed. Kathputli Colony’s alleys are strewn with garbage and human faeces. Children paddle in stinking black drains. Electricity supply is intermittent and the water undrinkable. Social problems such as alcohol abuse are rife.

“The aim is simply to give this community a safe, hygienic environment in which to raise their children,” said Dimple Bhardwaj, a spokesperson for Raheja, the private firm which, in partnership with local municipal authorities, hopes to redevelop the site.

The story of Kathputli is being watched across the country’s capital and beyond. “It raises many absolutely critical questions about India’s growth model,” said Dunu Roy, director of the Hazards Centre, a campaigning thinktank in Delhi.

The beginning

More than 4 million people — around a quarter of the total living in the vast sprawl of Delhi and its satellites — live in similar conditions in areas officially defined as slums. Across India, the total may be as high as 110 million.

Many, like Kathputli, were onsce squatter camps for migrants from the poor rural hinterland to major cities. “When we came this was just woodland,” said Shoba Naren Mohan, 50, who has lived in Kathputli since she was 10. “We had to clear it and build everything ourselves. No one helped us with anything. We made it beautiful with our own hands.” As in other cities, the huge expansion of India’s capital means that areas that were once on its distant edges are now relatively central. For a commuter using the classic local combination of a pedalled rickshaw and the new metro, Kathputli is only 15 minutes from parliament, museums, ministries and the central business district. What once was scrubby forest is now some of the most valuable land in the world.

The plan for redevelopment

For many decades, slum clearances simply meant local authorities evicting inhabitants, demolishing their homes and banishing tens of thousands to distant, poorly built “resettlement villages” on the outskirts of Delhi. Launched before the major campaign that preceded the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, the Kathputli redevelopment was meant to pioneer a more community—friendly strategy and set a nationwide example.

Both the financing and the mix of housing to be built on the redeveloped site were, officials said, “innovative”. Raheja, a major property company, paid 61m rupees to the Delhi Development Agency, a municipal body, for the right to develop Kathputli. The plan was to house the community in a comfortable “transit camp” two miles from their former homes while the GBP40m scheme was completed. Each family would then receive one of 2,800 one—bedroom flats built on around 60 per cent of the five-hectare (12.5—acre) site. Luxury flats and the mall would be built on the rest.

But five years after the project was launched, only 70 families have moved to the transit camp, according to the developers. Campaigners in the camp say the number is lower. With several homes razed in recent days and dozens more now marked for demolition, residents say a final battle looms — and that their resistance to the redevelopment plan is stronger than ever.

“We have 30ft puppets. Where are they going to go? What will the acrobats do with their stilts in a small flat? Some have drums which weigh 80kg each so what will they do if the elevator is broken,” asked Bhat, the puppeteer.

The biggest problem appears to be deep mistrust, exacerbated by a long history of official betrayals of slum dwellers and an almost total lack of community consultation by authorities who, on an official website, describe the residents of Kathputli as “very simple people”.

“We’ve been here for decades and no one has ever shown any interest in giving us anything. Now there is money around to be made they suddenly want us to have better lives. We don’t believe their promises,” said Mohan.

The scenario today

Public officials and the developers deny anyone will be forcibly evicted but the police reinforcements who have appeared in recent days worry residents. Last weekend patrols were deployed to protect officials distributing leaflets which said “mischievous people acting for personal interests” were “misinforming” residents about the development plans.

Bhardwaj said: “A lot of the resistance is coming from people who rent out rooms and get an income that they would lose in the redevelopment. There are musclemen too. It will take some time but the rest will realise that for all of them it would be better to have a lifestyle which offers every facility.” Some observers describe Kathputli as the frontline a conflict between authentic local cultural traditions against predatory globalised capitalism. Bhat, the puppeteer, complained that only “western culture” was favoured in India today.

Roy, of the Hazards Centre, said the idea of “inclusive growth” in the country was a “contradiction in terms”.

“The kind of development that is taking place cannot provide space for artists such as those in Kathputli. Either the private developers and the state succeed in pushing this growth model or the community . . . is able to win this kind of battle and change the model of growth itself.” Supporters of the scheme accuse its critics of romanticising life in the slum.

In recent days mechanised diggers have appeared around the edges of the neighbourhood, residents said. But Dilip Bhat, 62, a renowned singer, drummer and sculptor, said the community would not be intimidated. “We will fight the bulldozers,” he said. “We don’t want to leave this land and we want to build our own homes. That is all.” - © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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