Thursday, March 4, 2004

An update on Yamuna Pushta Slum - March 4, 2004

Yamuna Pushta Slum Update – 3/4/04

Yamuna Pushta follows the Yamuna River. It was January 10 that I first visited the slum. I wrote these impressions about it soon after. I’ve been back a couple of times since.


The narrow alleys between the simple brick homes of Yamuna Pushta are comfortably walked single file. If we walk two next to each other, we’re constantly quickly stepping back to allow those walking the opposite direction to pass. Even single file, at every corner, which is every few meters, we slow down getting closer to the wall foreseeing a possible collision at the blind turn. Each corner we pass presents new angles and views of slum life: naked children gathered around the communal spigot, soap suds dripping off them into the stream of water and sewage following the alleyway; ankle high outdoor stoves made of mud smolder outside of doorways, unattended.

My favorite sight in the alleys of Pushta was a group of five or six women and girls squatting in the shade outside a home. They were straining their eyes. Half were picking lice from the other half’s hair. Those having the lice removed from their hair were bent over small beads, stringing them on a wire bangle. Anisa had already asked about these bracelets. They’re to be sold to a US company. The bracelets of tiny beads will most likely find their way to the US malls where they’ll be sold in stores like OLD NAVY and URBAN OUTFITTERS. And so, two images of modern life touch.


On January 10, there was an article in the lower left hand corner of the newspaper, The Hindu, telling of a new park to be built in an effort to make Delhi “a world class city”. The term “world class city” is thrown around so much. Those of us from places (like Geneva, Ohio) that have no desire to be a “world class city” wonder what the appeal is. Mostly I’d interpreted “world class city” to mean a nice airport and well organized traffic. Though I like Delhi’s airport (for its efficiency, not its beauty), the traffic…well, there are a lot of people in Delhi.

I didn’t look closely at the article in the newspaper but a few days later Anisa brought it by. It went into describing the plans for the park along the Yamuna River, behind Raj Ghat. It said the first step to building the park was removing the squatters living there now.


Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance set in 1975 India, describes how slum residents moved in. The characters, an uncle and nephew looking for jobs and ahome in the city, ask about the masses of houses on the land they are about to move to themselves.

“But then, whose land is this?”

“No one’s. The city owns it. These fellows bribe the municipality, police water inspector, electricity officer. And they rent to people like you. No harm in it. Empty land sitting useless – if homeless people can live there, what’s wrong?”

The problem, of course, is when the land is wanted again. In Yamuna Pushta today, it’s not just renters falling victim to decades of corruption. It’s people who have been farming the land, maintaining businesses and holding deeds for over 20 years who are now told they’re squatters. In return for the land and the structures on it, the Pushta families are offered small bare plots outside the city, which would be a 20 rupee (45 cents) bus fare to and from any job they had near Pushta. The land will be given for the reasonable price of 7000 rupees ($150).

A notice will come to a family telling them their home will be the next to go. The trucks come as foretold. Sometimes they come, park for a few hours then leave. Other days the excavators do their work. The strong arm crushes the brick, metal and bamboo homes. The families pile what they can on cycle-rickshaws, sometimes taking the bamboo walls themselves. Very few head to the land offered them. None will leave the city. Most will set up shanty homes elsewhere.


I don’t pretend to know the solution to urban housing problems. It’s true; one does not solve housing problems by perpetuating a slum. But one doesn’t do it by eliminating what housing there is either.