Slum Demolitions and the Everyday Construction of Urban Citizenship

The Yamuna Pushta And Delhi’s Developmental History

While there is no official record of when the Yamuna Pushta settlement came into being, oral testimonies and government documents point to the presence of farmers on the river banks from pre-colonial times. After the partition, refugees from Western Punjab settled on the banks and established the first non-agricultural settlement on the banks. With the formulation of the Master Plan in the 1960s, Delhi saw a boom in construction activity, bringing in many more migrant workers. During the Emergency (1975-77), over one hundred and eighty thousand jhuggis were removed from Yamuna Pushta and the people were resettled in the peripheries of the city. However, by 1982, many were welcomed back into the city to carry out construction activities for the Asiad Games. No housing arrangements were made for these workers and the Pushta once again became home to a substantial chunk of the city’s working masses. Through lobbying and political action, the residents of the Pushta gradually received civic amenities like water, electricity and toilets. The presence of political parties and NGOs enabled the Pushta to occupy a grey zone in terms of ‘the right to the city’. 

Over the course of these decades, Delhi’s own policies saw a shift from that of socialized land to privatisation. Prior to the 1990’s, Delhi had no formal private property system with land being leased from the state. Private land sales needed to be deemed as for public interest before receiving approval. In the 1990’s, with the advent of the New Economic Policy, public land entered the private marketplace so that the Indian economy could access the reserve of land representing “untapped” capital, attract foreign investment and build world-class infrastructure. However, a big chunk of this “untapped capital” housed more than 50% of Delhi’s population in unauthorised settlements. These settlements had a complex legal and political history that included formal entitlements to 25% of residential land, only a fraction of which were provided overall in Delhi. Under the new economic model, central land gained artificial value, the Pushta also came to be seen as public land that was not being put to “productive use”. This rhetoric was used to evict urban dwellers from their home in the interest of financial powers. Undercutting this economic motivation was an aesthetic one, visible particularly in judicial action from the 2000s. 

Demolitions Driven By Neoliberal Aesthetics

Following the rise of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) in the early 2000s, there was a massive growth in cases filed against working-class settlements particularly by the middle classes – represented by the Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) and property owners’ associations. Weaponized by the middle classes, the courts issued a massive number of demolitions and became the primary mode through which slums are removed. 

The courts tried to push state agencies to clear slums by invoking records of ownership and authorisation, but they soon realised that there was a complete absence of such bureaucratic records and baseline surveys. In fact, the Municipal Corporation records of the time showed that 70% of Delhi was “unauthorised” or violated land use codes and building bylaws – this includes not just slums but shopping malls and other large commercial and industrial properties. A strict enforcement of the Master Plan would then involve asking for all such properties to be demolished. 

Contrary to the official narrative that settlements on the banks of the Yamuna need to be evicted due to environmental concerns, Yamuna Pushta demolitions have always been and continue to be about the aesthetic of a ‘world-class’ city.

In this situation, rather than determining legality through records and calculations, the court began to reinterpret “public nuisance” to include not just objects and actions but entire populations. By invoking phrases that pointed to an innate “uncleanliness” of slum dwelling populations, they gratuitously invoked Section 133 and Section 91 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (relating to public nuisances) to clear the city of slums. The petitions filed by the RWAs too were rife with such language, even invoking Article 21 to justify the clearing of the slums that were considered “unsightly”, “offensive” and “unhygienic”. While slum-dwellers were denied the status of “legal subjects” with urban citizenship, the middle classes constructed their subjecthood in opposition to the slum-dwellers. 

The courts participated in this process by referring to Delhi as India’s “showpiece to the world”. Instead of directing the municipality to build better drainage, housing and waste management infrastructure to improve the city’s hygiene, the courts made a scapegoat of the working-class settlements and sought to eliminate them.  

In The Name Of The Environment

In March 2003, the Delhi High Court took suo moto cognizance of the problem of pollution in the Yamuna River with respect to a petition about slum clearance. The bench baselessly blamed the Yamuna Pushta cluster of settlements for the pollution by claiming that they discharged sewage water and other filth into the river. Rather than scientific evidence to prove this claim, the court used photographs from a proposal by the Ministry of Tourism; the photographs showed slum dwellers as unsightly polluters, unfit for the eyes of foreign visitors and dignitaries. “Of the Pushta’s population of 3,50,000, an estimated 1,50,000 were displaced over the course of just one week in June, with the rest to follow”. Only 16% of those displaced from Yamuna Pushta were given resettlement plots. Others who qualified for plots found their names missing from municipal lists. 

PC: Daily Sabah

Following this, the court continued to target slums on the Yamuna’s banks in the name of the environment and claiming that the settlements violated the layout plan of the area. An additional 10,000 jhuggis were cleared between 2006 to 2008, and 30,000 more jhuggis were identified for future removal. Meanwhile, other developments on the ecologically sensitive river bed, including the Akshardam Temple, the Commonwealth Games village and a Delhi Metro Rail depot, remained completely unaccused of the same. More projects, such as a shopping mall and housing for Delhi metro workers were waiting to be built on this ecologically sensitive zone. None of these projects met the same criticism as the settlement with regards to the area’s land-use designation. Indeed, while the slums appeared to be “filthy”, these projects fit neatly into the judge’s aesthetic sense and imagination of  world-class developments. 

The Delhi Water Board publicly acknowledged that pollution in the Yamuna River was not due to the presence of the slums but came from the twenty-two open drains (nalas) that carried untreated sewage from mostly middle-class residential colonies directly into the river. Despite this acknowledgement, important figures such as the managing director of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation and the Chief Minister continued to claim that the slums were responsible for the pollution. This did not change even after the Central Pollution Control Board found that there was no improvement in water quality after the removal of 40,000 jhuggis from the banks of Yamuna. As showcased by the standing NGT order and the comment made by L-G VK Saxena, this false rhetoric continues to hold space even today. 

Since then, Yamuna Pushta demolitions on these grounds are routine. For example, in 2015, the DDA had carried out a series of demolition drives in over 100 acres of the Yamuna floodplains. In September 2020, more than 100 houses were bulldozed in Dhobi Ghat, a slum in Batla House. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) cited the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) law against construction on the river bank. In 2021, the DDA carried out a demolition drive near Lalita Park and Ramesh Park, rendering hundreds of people homeless. During this period, approval was given to various large projects like the construction of waste treatment plants that clearly violated the municipals solid waste management rules, and events like the World Culture Festival in December 2017, which was organised by the Art of Living Foundation and irreparably damaged the floodplains

World Culture Festival in December 2017, which was organised by the Art of Living Foundation

Tool To Curb Dissent

Recent times have seen yet another dramatic increase in demolitions, with over 70 demolition drives being carried out since the start of this year in South Delhi alone. The MCD recently stated that these drives are being carried out to keep property construction within the parameters of the Master Plan 2021, and Unified Building Bylaws 2016, and that the drives would be further intensified. The BJP government, who’s empire is itself built on the historic demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1996, has begun using demolitions as tactic to threaten the minority Muslim population and curb dissent. By demolishing slum after slum, the government is able to simultaneously appeal to middle-class aesthetics that frown upon markers of poverty, acquire central land for very low prices to carry out ambitious development projects, and criminalise a largely Muslim working-class population. Demolitions now neatly tie together the current government’s neoliberal and hindutva ambitions. 

The following sections draw largely from Asher Ghertner’s Ruled By Aesthetics (2015) to examine the role played by the globalised neoliberal aesthetic of “a world-class city” in Yamuna Pushta demolitions.


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December 2023


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