The Hindu (read the original piece here) today published an op-ed about the development at Kathputli Colony. The author raises many important questions in this — development for whom? And by whom?– being a very pertinent one. The piece focusses on how what the people in Kathputli actually need is an upgradation of basic services and not a total change in the way they live their life. I cringe at this assumption that the author knows what they need, and it’s not apartments but upgradation of services. The piece also talks about an Artist’s Village being the ideal solution. In my work at Kathputli, I have heard mention this as well. And yes, it does seem like the ideal solution– not just because of the romantic notion of what the village might be like but also because in some ways the solution is coming from the artists themselves.
However, the piece and most of the things that I have read about Kathputli in the media and elsewhere paint a picture of the colony where there are no others. Official estimates show that 40% of residents actually belong to professions that are not considered artistic or they are not descendants of traditional gypsy clans. Both in the colony and in what is written about Kathputli, these people have very little presence. The present model of resettlement and rehabilitation paints all those living in slums, with the same brush. And essentially the struggle in Kathputli is about individuality of the artists, because their livelihoods and the spaces they inhabit are very tightly intertwined. By moving them to apartments that are generic and in no way respond to their ways of living, the DDA and the Delhi Govt. is essentially asking them to change how they live and what they do.
However, by presenting Kathputli as a colony where only artists live, the same brush is applied to the non-artists or rather their presence is completely negated. To me, Kathputli brings to the fore more than anything, the need to understand each of these slums and communities individually, to understand what keeps them together, where are they coming from, how do they live etc. For like Kathputli is not just another slum, it is also not just an Artists Colony. This requires a major shift in out understanding of who lives in these spaces– not just migrant workers, not just artists, not just criminals– but people. People and not just numbers, people who have families, who have their own ways of living, who like you and me, are trying to work towards a better tomorrow for themselves and their children.
Last summer I spent a few weeks in Kathputli Colony Delhi, interviewing and talking to its people. This 50 odd year old “slum” in West Delhi is one of the first sites for in-situ rehabilitation of slum dwellers being initiated by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). To say that Kathputli has taken over my thoughts would not be an understatement. As I sit here trying to work out the framework for a paper on the research that we carried out there, I can’t help but think how far removed this is from the lives of the people at Kathputli. Today someone asked me “What is your aim in writing about this? Are you hoping to change policy?” and my answer was “yes, of course”. But immediately a thought popped up in my head- “This is not going to change their lives or perceptions of others! Kathputli might not be there when you go there this summer”. When we were in Kathputli people would often say “You are educated and you live in Amrikaa. Please do something. Please talk to the DDA and convince them not to move us!”. Even then, I used to feel unable to convince them of how, like them, I too was helpless. I guess I am cynical, you see there is an ingrained cynicism in us Indians, that I am unable to let go of. A cynicism that keeps telling me that nothing is going to change, that I am but a mere Ph.D. student. I am no big mover and shaker! I don’t know any politicians, or bureaucrats. I also feel like a hypocrite- for what is going to change if I choose to live in the US and write about Kathputli from thousands of miles away, while the people of Kathputli face the fear of eviction every day. Then I remind myself that we all have a path, and this is mine. At this time, my path has led me to a place where my job is bring this to the notice of the movers and shakers.
And as I go back to the framework, I also thought I’d share a few pictures from Kathputli. I ended up with more that 500 pictures of the children there. It seemed like the first word these kids learnt was “photo”. They would grab at me, not let go till I promised to take their pictures with their friends, on their own, with their mom or dog. They have beautiful smiles like all children!