Slumdog Millionaire, an award winning movie, presents a tremendously powerful idea of a slum boy tapping into his street knowledge to win a multi-million-dollar reality grill show and turns it into a universal tale of exploitation, love and human destiny. But while rolling his camera, Danny Boyle, the director of the movie, perhaps missed a potential plot of the modus operandi of slumlords flourishing on the margins of the Indian capital.
Few years ago an affidavit filed by the Delhi’s civic body in the Supreme Court revealed that little less than 50 per cent of Capital’s 18 million population lives in slums, which include more than 800 jhuggi-jhopri clusters. While most of such settlements thrive in trans-Yamuna areas like Bhalswa, Seemapuri, Welcome, Shahadra, Bhajanpura, Shastri Park etc., similar settlements are also found in south and west Delhi, in areas such as Israeli Camp, Rangpuri Pahari near Vasant Kunj Pahadi and Kathputli Colony near Jhandewalan. The residents of these settlements are mostly migrants, whose parents moved in years ago.
Amusingly, today’s slum, an urban phenomenon, bears no resemblance to the village from where they migrated. In contrast it’s more like a city within a city, it is one unending stretch of narrow dirty lanes, open sewers and cramped huts.
In a city where house rents are among the highest in the world, these jhuggi Jhopdi clusters provide a cheap and affordable option to those who move to Delhi to earn their living. From ration card to water, from toilets to tents, inhabitants of the slums have to be reliant on these slumlords or pradhans as they are locally called. Under a liberalised economy, the urban cities in India are renowned for its entrepreneurs who spot business opportunities, convert them into reality and in the process make money by way of profits. Increasingly, it is also acknowledged for its ‘lords of the slum’, who similarly dot on the opportunities and turn them into a profitable business.
According to the experts, in stark contrast to the former, these pradhans or slumlords prosper on the gloom of the destitute, by providing them all the essential service that the state has not been able to deliver. Delhi’s slumlords are infamous, well-organised and adequately sheltered. For years they have been encroaching on the vast tracts of open public land that are owned by the various government agencies including central and the state government department.
While investigating the footprints of the slumlords in a slum located in the Vasantkunj Pahadi area, covered by a heighted wall and construction signage of the Metro rail, almost hidden under the radiant world class shopping mall Promenade, many residents of the area found claiming that they were allotted house by the Delhi government, but could not get them just because notorious slumlords have had seized their all the documents, including the Voter Identity Card (VID) a lone proof of residence.
Somesh Mehto, a resident of Vasant Kunj Pahadi shanty, said: “I came to Delhi 25 years ago, dreaming a better life, unfortunately, I could not manage my own house. I still live in a rented hut, paying Rs 60 a day to my landlord, who resides in Munirka and visit us every day.”
“I, with my six member family, are totally reliant on our landlord, they get us water and electricity for which, I pay Rs-100 a month.” Mehto revealed. “We are even forced by the area slumlords to purchase grocery items from their shops,” Mehto, conveyed his helplessness.
Once, I was thrashed by a slumlord who operates in my cluster, he warned me against life when I asked him to return my Ration Card (RC)”, Surjeet Kumar, another resident of the area said.
Kumar also claimed, “Few years back, when I came to know that the Delhi government has planned to rehabilitate us by giving a small house on the edge of the capital, I was cheerful but when I asked to Pradhan ji about my documents, which was with him since years, he denied of having any such document.”
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t produce my proof to the official surveying the locality,” he mentioned.
“The slum mafia has mastered the tricks and techniques of encroaching on the land”, said, Bijendra Jha, a scholar of Jawaharlal Nehru University. Jha, who carried out an extensive research in the city’s slums, scattered across the region, asserted, “Initially, you will find just one tiny shade coming up on the land.Slowly, those appointed the task of protecting the land – officials in the District Collector of Land Revenue (DCLR), ward councilors, local policemen – are bribed and soon an entire colony emerges on public land.”
According to him, the slumlords operate more like a Latin American “Patron”, who enjoys the greater power against its “Client”, without having any responsibility or obligation.
“Politicians, backed and funded by the mafia, pitch in demanding basic services including water supply, drainage, electricity and roads, and within a few years the colony – named after some leader or reformer who fought during the national moment – is ready to be regularised. However, these slumlords and residents have no consciousness about the “nationalist ideology discourse”.
As Interestingly, Boyle’s cinematic expression takes, in which, Jamal, the central charter of his film, is unable to answer the questions that asses his “nationalist knowledge” but he is amazingly comfortable with those that mark his awareness with international details.
Perhaps the plot was meant to suggest the insignificance of the nation to its most marginalised citizen, but less obviously, also indicates its redundancy under a globalised and neoliberal world.
While narrating the story about the genesis of most of the slums and its ‘lords’ across the National Capital Region (NCR), Jha opened up, “Of course, things are not very easy for the poor residents. Many of them are ruthlessly driven out if they do not pay increased rents when free services are provided. And when the slum colony is acquired by a for a ‘redevelopment,’ often the resident is paid a few thousand rupees and expelled, while the slumlord gets the flat in the new building, which he then sells off at the market price.”
Around six-month back the Delhi government initiated an in situ development work in Kathputli colony, a slum located near Jhandewalan Extention, and started the process of relocating these slums, they were forced to stop the initiative and the task became a heroic one for the state government.
After rounds of deliberation and exercising the force, the state government’s planning body could start surveying the colony, which was being carried out to ensure the real beneficiary under its rehabilitation scheme. “Many of the surveyors were attacked by these slumlords, who have also started throwing out many of the residents. The slumlords started to move around these colonies, forcing slum-dwellers to divide their land in small plots, and surveyors were offered bribe to mention these new divided separate units.” Said a non-profit organisation member, who wished not to be named.
According to the NGO, instead of providing two free flats of 50 sq ft to the resident of the 150 sq ft jhuggis, the revised official record will show eight tiny cabin existing there. The result, the government will have to provide eight free flats to different families. Only two flat will go to the real allotee and the remaining six flats will be sold at a market price.
Coming up of a new slum, is like a never ending soap opera, a circle which starts from shed and takes a round to rehabilitation, and it goes on. Many slumlords will again acquire the land, would plan a slum-dwellers unit, government would come with a promises to provide a suitable alternative quarter on the margins of the city, with the promise of free water, electricity, roads, drainage and other infrastructure, and also the possibility of being ‘rehabilitated’ again a few years later.
In order to evaluate a the larger picture of these slums and its “lords”, one needs to understand the master work carried out by the Partha Chaterjee a decade ago. Political theorist , Chatterjee, articulated a concept “political society” that has now acquired wide currency, the crucial part of what defines activities in this domain (slums) is ‘illegality’, or, at any rate, non-legality, where the state itself places the law in suspension in order to recognise the claims of the governed. Thus for instance, squatting by the poor on government land that is strictly speaking, encroachment in legal terms and can never acquire the status of a ‘right’, is nevertheless allowed by governments to continue through the recognition of some kind of moral claim of the poor on governments and society at large.
At the end, most of the slumlords exercising their associations, using the moral obligation of the poor’s living in these slums, successfully converts its practice into profit. But, unlike urban entrepreneurs they use to involve ‘human destiny’ and ‘illegality” what was presented in the Slumdog Millionaire bioscope.