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India's slum artists caught between a rock and a hard place

The authorities had promised to remodel Delhi's famous artist colony, but the project has landed in hot water due to the residents' reluctance to leave old houses, capitalist greed and the officials' high-handedness.

The Kathputli colony, a shabby settlement for local artists in central Delhi, has been in news for the past eight years. It lacks basic facilities and the inhabitants live under inhuman conditions.

The colony, however, is famous because it houses acclaimed traditional artists, who have won state and foreign awards in performing arts ranging from puppetry (which gives the colony its name) and music to circus acrobatics.

In 2009, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) started a campaign to make the national capital a "slum-free" city. The Kathputli colony was the first "slum" to be re-modeled. But instead of becoming a model for "redevelopment," it has become an example of all that can go wrong with an evidently top-down development approach.

Indien Kathputli Slum in Neu-Delhi (DW/A. Kumar)

The Kathputli colony is famous because it houses acclaimed traditional artists

"In 2009, the DDA told the Kathputli residents that they would be moved to a temporary camp until a new and better housing facility will be established on the vacated land," Dunu Roy, the head of the non-governmental organization Hazards Center, told DW.

Roy alleges that a private real-estate company, Raheja group, which was given the task to redevelop the colony, tried to usurp some of the residential land for a commercial complex that was not originally agreed upon in its contract with the DDA.

"There is a lot of money involved," Roy said, estimating it to be around 70 million euros. Other activists claim the land was sold at a throwaway price to the Raheja group. The DDA denies these allegations.

Still unfinished

Eight years on, the promised new colony is still not finished. Half of the Kathputli colony residents continue to live in their old houses. Last week, the authorities demolished some of these houses, forcing their residents to shift to a makeshift camp.

Benarasi Devi, a middle-aged woman whose house was demolished, told DW she had to leave the camp after moving into it three years ago because the basic facilities, including water and electricity, were non-existent there.

"My husband is a drunkard and spends most of his time outdoors. I didn't want to live in the camp with my four children, including three daughters," Devi said.

Indien Kathputli Slum in Neu-Delhi (DW/A. Kumar)

Benarasi Devi's house was demolished by authorities on May 15

Raj Kumar Bharadwaj, the assistant commissioner of police, says all residents were told in advance about the demolition. He claims the Hazards Center NGO is serving its own "vested interests" by instigating the residents against the project.

"They are doing it so they can continue to receive funding from their donors," Bharadwaj told DW.

The police action started in 2013, which coincided with the first eviction drive. The second one, which kicked off in December last year, received massive media coverage due to alleged police excesses.

Bitter divisions

Around 1,100 families have by now moved to the temporary camp.

Puran Bhat, an award winning puppeteer, initially resisted doing so. "We moved so that our future generations can live in better conditions," Bhat told DW.

The Kathputli colony residents are now divided into two groups: those who have moved to the camp and those who refuse to do the same. The two groups resent each other. Those who have moved to the camp feel the other group is causing the delay in the completion of the project. Those who are staying put consider the move to the camp an act of "betrayal."

"We want the residents to get justice and it can happen only through negotiations," said activist Roy.

But going by the recent turn of events, the negotiations look unlikely, making it a difficult summer for the residents of the Kathputli colony.

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