In Delhi, price of art has real estate tag to it!

A locality of artists sits on land worth 1,000 crore. It has gone to a builder for 6 crore. Even if the people survive relocation, their art may not


Puja Bhattacharjee | March 22, 2014

Pooran Bhatt is famous in Kathputli Colony, and he is famous in the many countries where he has performed. But between this informal settlement and the international art circuit, he is a stranger. In fact, for the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), he is a squatter who must be evicted to pave the way for tony towers with luxury apartments and a shopping mall, to be erected by a real estate developer.

The plight of 3,370 families living in Kathputli Colony, categorised as a slum in western Delhi, has hit the headlines in recent weeks. Five years ago, DDA sold the 13 acres of land of this settlement to one of India’s largest builders, Raheja Developers Ltd, who plan to build a 54-storey-building here, the capital’s tallest. The controversy has to do with the price of land: Raheja have paid '6 crore for 13 acres that is even valued at '1,000 crore by conservative estimates.

The settlement’s value, though, is not just in real estate. For its inhabitants are mostly performing artists of international renoun. The DDA-Raheja deal includes offering the residents low-cost housing in apartment blocks, on which the builder is to spend an additional '6 crore. A question not asked in the current controversy is: will the artists be able to continue their occupation in the apartments they are being promised?

Of course they cannot, says AK ‘Dunu’ Roy, a chemical engineer-turned-social scientist, who runs the non-profit Hazard Centre. “A sculptor will keep banging wood all through the day. Imagine living in the apartment underneath!” The low-cost apartments will have a built-up area of 20 square metres, which will include two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom, he points out. This space is inadequate for a family to live and practise its craft.

But then how do they manage right now in the congested slum? Roy says the artists have access to a whole lot of public space they can use, without encroaching on it. That public space is impossible in a cramped apartment. Roy and his Hazard Centre have been mobilising the artists to demand justice for themselves, and have filed a case in the Delhi high court against irregularities in the public-private partnership (PPP) deal between DDA and Raheja.
The neighbourhood is in a state of disquiet. The artists are not be found at work. There are meetings every now and then to decide on the course of action. Pooran Bhatt is not to be found, but his nephew Prakash is at home. A skillful puppeteer like his uncle, he sees no margin in pulling puppets by strings. He is part of a song-and-dance troop that performs at weddings, festivals and corporate events. At his home in Kathputli Colony, his eldest son Siddharth gives a live demo of a technique he has been practising.

He creates rhythm by beating his chest and clapping, and sings along for melody, rendering the theme song of the popular TV show Satyamev Jayate. He has featured in one of the promos for the programme. With no instrument, only the training that comes naturally to children who grow up in this slum. His father pulls out a tattered piece of paper; it is a certificate of participation in the name of his mother from the world puppetry festival held in 1980 in Washington, DC.

“Aisa koi minister nahi hai jiske ghar pe humne perform nahi kiya hai (There is not a minister at whose residence we have not performed),” says Prakash. He has stayed five-star hotels in India and abroad. He names the Maurya, the Ashoka and the Siddhartha, where he stayed to entertain foreign tourists. In the early 1980s, when Jagmohan was the lieutenant governor of Delhi, he promised to shift the residents to DDA flats in Pandav Nagar Park. After building the apartments the government sold them. Since then, increasing population and a steady influx of people has increased the population. The administration’s false promises have also increased. The residents are wary of any deal now.

Under Roy’s stewardship, they had proposed to the current lieutenant governor (and DDA chairman) Najeeb Jung that they be given pieces of land at the Anand Parbat site that is to function as a transit camp for them for the duration of Raheja’s redevelopment of their colony. Jung was amenable to the idea and gave them till April 1 to decide. The community is deliberating the proposal. Roy said he requested Jung to remove the police stationed there, so that the tension is diffused. The police was present at the time of this story going to press.

The police is here to provoke us, to elicit a reaction from us, and thus make it easy to evict us, says Dilip Bhatt, the pradhan of the Rajasthani community and a magician and percussionist by trade. The station house officer of Ranjit Nagar police station slapped a resident who was dissuading people from moving to the transit camp. The officer has since been transferred. People here are proud of the restraint and patience they have exercised. They are instead relying on the love and regard of old friends and admirers.

Among them is Rajeev Sethi, art curator and cultural impresario who was in the headlines recently for his design of the Mumbai airport. Sethi has a large network of artists and associates, and the artists of Kathputli Colony count him a friend. He was the inspiration for the Bhule Bisre Kalakaar Cooperative Society in the 1970s. This association saved the colony from the slum demolitions during the 1975-77 emergency.

“The community needs neighbourhood facilities like a museum where a vast repository of materials are available on the itinerants, which is like a point of talisman for them to understand what they were good at,” Sethi explains. This is critical, for artists are increasingly abandoning the traditional occupations in search of greener pastures. Sethi says this is because they do not have recognition or demand – and “no pedagogic point of excellence”. Instead of evolving and growing, these extraordinary traditions will shrink and disappear, he fears.

Sethi is not striking a strident note against Raheja Developers. He stresses the redevelopment of the area should account for the residents’ special requirements, not just be another slum development scheme. This is where Roy, a labour activist, disagrees. He says the deal must be scrapped, which is why he has gone to court. “Slums are not a problem, rather a solution to our problems. Who built all the flyovers, malls and the offices?” he asks.
“There is a large labour class that subsequently changes into a service class. They come here to work, they need housing. Since the government does not give them housing they build their own houses. Once the building is completed, they either move on to the next building or they stay around where they are. From there they will provide the services that are required whether it is in the informal sector or the domestic labour. But they do not get any entitlements in return,” Roy says.

Little boxes to fit slum dwellers

People here are averse to the change because they can extend and modify their houses as per need here, he says. “In slums people occupy space where it is available, but flats are exclusionary domains. The flats are smaller than the smallest of the DDA flats. There is no shortage of money or land. The government has completely forsaken its social responsibility,” he says.

He noted that the few people who have agreed to shift to the EWS (economically weaker section) flats will not be able to survive there as the maintenance costs will be unaffordable. “Who puts in the resources to maintain poor people’s flats? Besides, the rich people next door will never want their view spoiled by the EWS inhabitants. They will be driven away eventually,” Roy cautions.
He says this would not have been such a problem had the government followed the Delhi Masterplan. This is where Sethi differs; he feels if the residents do not resettle and choose to stay on, it will be worse for their art.

“Don’t treat them like numbers. They are a vital community. They can do better for themselves. Give them an environment they deserve,” Sethi says. They function as a community. They cannot rip themselves away from the rest of their people. A puppeteer is assisted by a group of musicians, sculptors (who carve the puppets), and tailors who make dresses for the puppets.

Hazard Centre is trying to map the settlement to make a viable plan for them. It has surveyed the Kalandar, Rajasthani and Bihar communities. The services available in the colony are being listed, and the centre is assessing how institutions like schools and religious places can be preserved in a redevelopment plan.

Bhagwati Hatwal, an associate of Sethi’s who works to help artists in need, stresses the need for a space for wandering artists to display their talent. “Each city of the world has a square where itinerant performers perform. Why not give a square of the city for them in return for a fees? If art is to be kept alive for the next generation then this can be a way,” says Hatwal.

“I don’t rate them as artists whose graph is going up. Having worked with them for four decades, I see that graph going tragically down,” laments Sethi. But he is not shorn of all hope. He does not doubt that the children of the artists will flourish in the trade of their forefathers if they are given an environment that nurtures their creativity. He envisions a modern approach, with greater attention to imagination, presentation, packaging and proper scripting people. “Their art has to be modernised,” he sums.

Bhatt and his fellow artists in Kathputli, meanwhile, have to battle more day-to-day concerns, like the police posted outside their settlement. And a political class that parades them when it wants to put up a good show, and then evicts them for real estate development. The residents say they were Congress loyalists but will vote the BJP this general elections. They will get to vote from this location, even if their houses are relocated.


Puppeteers and troubadours arriving in Delhi settle in an empty scrub forest in Shadipur. Somewhere down the line, it gets the name Kathputli Colony, for there are several families of puppeteers.

Bhule Bhisre Kalakar Cooperative Society established, with the help of the Asian Heritage Foundation. Puppeteers find work via the Sangeet Natak Akademi, a performing arts council in Delhi.

Several surrounding slums are demolished during the emergency. Kathputli Colony is spared, the settlement organised around its artistry.

The artists in Kathputli begin to gain international recognition for their performances. Festival of India in the UK (1982) and in the US (1985). Delhi Development Authority begins to push for slum resettlement.

DDA proposes the resettlement of Kathputli residents in the southern Delhi locality of Vasant Kunj.

DDA Slum Wing architect Anil Lall drafts a detailed plans for upgradation, with a duplex-style housing model.

DDA drafts another proposal for resettlement in Mehrauli, also in southern Delhi. Artists reject these proposals for the location on the fringes of the city is not feasible for plying their trade.

A member of Lok Sabha seeks a clarification on the allotment of Janata flats (EWS housing) in Dwarka. The government replies that 1,478 Janta flats in Sector 16 of Pocket B in Dwarka are reserved for the rehabilitation of residents of Kathputli Colony. This plan never materialises. Later, DDA chooses the colony as the first site for its project for “in-situ rehabilitation” of JJ clusters, in accordance with the Masterplan 2021.

DDA issues a tender calling for professionally sound individuals to explore and adopt innovative, futuristic ideas and cost-effective technologies for slum redevelopment projects.

Residents of the colony learn something is amiss after DDA carries out a survey, but refuses to share any information, claiming the final list had not been prepared.

DDA invites applications for the empanelment of developers for 21 sites identified for in-situ rehabilitation of JJ clusters.

DDA awards its first slum redevelopment project. It allocates to Raheja Developers about 13 acres of land for Rs. 6.11 crore, with the developed obliged to rehabilitate Kathputli Colony. The project's total cost is estimated at '254.27 crore.

DDA proposed to use Delhi Cloth Mills (DCM) Area as a transit location, a region acquired by the DDA in 2003 after a long legal battle with DCM. DDA then chooses another site for a transit camp in Basai Darapur, about three kilometres from the current Kathputli settlement. Neighboring communities dissent, claim the plot was earmarket for a community centre. Another site at Jailorwala Bagh in Ashok Vihar is proposed, about 10 kilometres north of Kathputli.

Delhi's auditor general estimates the value of the land at '1,043.2 crore. DDA indicates that Jailorwala Bagh is approved for the transit camp. This move fails after resistance from residents there, supported by their MLA. Three other sites proposed: near Ghazipur flyover, in Rohini, and on a vacant plot of land at Anand Parbat.

In March, Anand Parbat is chosen as the spot for relocation. About five kilometres from the current location.

In August, DDA seeks police protection to prevent any resistance during transit (as also to protect the transit camp from agitation from local neighbourhoods). Police provide “adequate arrangements, deployment of police force, anti-riot police, fire tenders”.

Protests erupt in February after DDA officials arrive with policemen to begin registration for shifting the residents to transit camps in Anand Parbat. 

(This story apperared on the March 16-31, 2014 isuue of the magazine)



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