Maya Pawar is an acrobat who’s lived on government land in the Indian capital of Delhi all of her life. Although Kathputli Colony has become a haven for traditional art forms that range from sword swallowing to miniature painting, the land the artists live on doesn’t belong to them.
“In our family, we remove fear from a child’s mind at a very young age,” Pawar, told the makers of Tomorrow We Disappear, a documentary that chronicles the uncertain fate of the people who live in the region.
Although she can bend metal rods with her sternum and walk tightropes whilst balancing earthen jugs on her head, Pawar has lived much of her life in fear.
“Until now we’ve been living in a place that’s not our own,” Pawar said. “We know that the land is not ours; it’s government land. But our people think they’ve built sold, finished homes, so it’s theirs now. They think that they own it. They don’t realize it can be torn down at any moment. It can all crumble.”
That longstanding fear came to a head in 2011 when the government announced that it had sold the land to Raheja Developers, one of the largest development companies in India. The 10,000 residents of the area — many of them artists like Pawar — felt tied to the land that many of their forebears settled more than 50 years ago.
“The government things that we’re powerless,” Puran Bhat, a puppeteer, said. “They think we don’t have any idea about how to get things done. That we’ll just take whatever they give us.”
What the government offered the residents of Kathputli through Raheja Developers were flats — but only after they moved into temporary housing in another part of town. He and many others feared that those were merely false promises to get them to move from the area they had developed to serve their various crafts.
“It’s the unseen connective tissue of architecture and culture,” Adam Weber, one of the documentary’s directors, said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “[Residents believe] you can’t change the context of how you’re living and your identity and not be affected.”
He and co-director Jimmy Goldblum believe that if Kathputli has staved off demolition for so long, it’s because of the tradition of art.
“In India, it has notoriety,” Goldblum said. “[It’s] little bit safer than other slums in New Delhi, so when other slums get knocked down as they very often do, they try to relocate to Kathputhli.”
Many of the artists in the Colony have traveled to dozens of countries to showcase Indian folk traditions. Some, like Bhat, have even received national awards for their skills.
While the residents of Kathputli maintain an important connection to India’s past, much of the country is far more interested in shaping the future.
Several Indian cities have initiated so-called “slum redevelopment” policies that often make promises of free housing to those whose homes are destroyed as its already swollen cities grow even bigger.
India’s tallest twin residential building, for example, was built on a land that was formerly a sprawling slum in Mumbai. Around 2,500 families from the slum are now living in brand new buildings. But such stories are rare, not least because those worst affected by the highly lucrative deals lack the channels to fight back against developers or the government agencies that give them the go-ahead for new building projects.
While some promises of new housing have been fulfilled, many people have been rendered homeless by the changes to their neighborhoods.
Just last week, the Delhi government reneged on an earlier promise not to demolish an informal settlement in the eastern part of the city with the announcement that it will bulldoze more than 1,000 shanties.
Such harsh tactics are deployed around the world. Bulldozers demolished hundreds of huts in Nairobi earlier this month, leaving some 500 people homeless. The homes of 40 families in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil were razed in April. City officials in Islamabad, Pakistan have deployed bulldozed across the city in recent months as part of a campaign to clear 42 slum settlements, some of which house 15,000 people.
The fight over slums isn’t limited to the developing world, either. An informal settlement north of Paris that houses 300 people is due to be destroyed at the end of this month.
Raf Tuts of the United Nations Human Settlement Program said that while slum development policies have become less severe in recent years, many still do the bare minimum to notify people of demolition plans.
“Many countries try to avoid unlawful forced evictions by giving people notice and then showing up with a bulldozer and no promise for compensation or alternate housing,” he said in an interview. “That’s the most extreme case but there are actually international protections against that sort of action.”
The United Nations has developed guidelines that regulate slum redevelopment. They require giving adequate notice, offering alternative housing, and imparting monetary compensation. In some cases, those rights apply to even de facto residents who never held titles to the land they lived on.
While he said that evictions have not been totally outlawed by national governments around the world, it is illegal according to international laws as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affords all people the right to adequate housing. Still, he said, “Eviction is not something that cannot ever happen. There are situations when the public interest is greater than the people living in a specific area.”
Tuts noted that several countries, including Colombia, Rwanda, and the Philippines, have tried to get ahead of the issue by creating housing for low-income people in urban areas to prevent the rise of informal settlements. Taking these kind of measures can improve the quality of life for all city residents, since informal settlements often lack proper sanitation methods and legal electricity grids.
I don’t see how the world economy can lift [people in slums] up under the current circumstances.
Although it’s never been very desirable, those who flocked to slums with the hopes that urban jobs would save them from rural poverty now have less reason to make the move, according to Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University.
“I don’t see how the world economy can lift [people in slums] up under the current circumstances,” he said in an interview.
He pointed to a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute that found megacities — or cities with populations exceeding 10 million people — have “not been driving global growth for the past 15 years.” It’s actually medium sized cities that are more likely to deliver real financial gains to people.
“Now cities get big but they don’t get more important,” Kotkin said. Pair dwindling economic gains with increased disease, crime, and even traffic deaths in cities, and fewer and fewer people will want to move to the world’s largest hubs.
For many, the promise cities once held has faded. Droves of people in China, for example, have already begun to move away from large cities with high costs of living back to villages — taking the opposite route of many in the generations before them.
Despite the difficulties, many cannot bear to leave. The residents of Kathputli Colony, for example, feel that their livelihoods are tied to the parcel of land some of them have lived on for generations. They stable their animals there. They have space to practice walking on stilts or breathing fire. And residents of Delhi know where to find them when they want to hire performers or musicians. It’s for these reasons that most of the artists of Kathputli have refused to leave. According to Goldblum and Weber, they are still battling the redevelopment of the slum they know as home.
The filmmakers have remained in contact with artists like Bhat who cannot imagine leaving Kathputli, even it means moving in to brand new apartments.
“There in the flats, all of my dreams, all I want to learn and do, will go away,” the puppeteer said in the film. “Our art is already half-dead. What’s left, that will die too. If everyone were to come together, if we want to unite and do something, we can fight for things that are critical to our lives.”
And they haven’t given up the fight just yet.