The Puppeteer’s Pain

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It is hard to breathe. The nauseous stench fills the air, making it hard to force the tea down our throats. A foot-wide open drain, human and animal excrement, rotting food, dimly lit shanties, no bigger than 10ft x 10ft, made smaller by the number of people huddled together inside them. These are the sights and smells that greet you at Kathputli Colony in West Delhi.

Home to thousands of artistes and artisans, this is at the same time a picture of purgatory and a magical wonderland. It is in its bizarre contradictions that Kathputli Colony and its inhabitants reside. The people here might slum it out, but they have style, swagger and travel records that would put seasoned diplomats to shame. Though the streets are filthy and the air far from fresh, the walls of the houses are a palette of colours, the lives even more so. Women live in purdah, but the men dress after the latest fashion. With their gelled hair and piercings, the young men transcend their surroundings. Children walk the streets, bhangra beats emanating from their tiny dhols. This is their school, their education. Others run through gallis, green, pink and blue trees break through the walls, crying for the camera’s attention as some children run by shouting “Hello!!” on their way to magic class, a poor man’s Hogwarts. Magicians in one corner, puppeteers in another, musicians, sculptors, dancers, acrobats, stilt-walkers — every corner has its occupant.

Nestled between a flyover, a Delhi Metro line and West Delhi’s rapidly growing Patel Nagar, Kathputli Colony — Puppeteers’ Colony in English, named after the puppet masters who live here — has been around for over 40 years, where more than 24 communities live together. With time, their place in society has progressively faded, traditional entertainment is losing the battle to cable television, multiplexes and even disc jockeys. To make matters worse, today, they are not only losing their centuries’ old role as entertainers, the residents of Kathputli Colony are also on the verge of losing their homes.

“I was 12 or 13 when I performed before Rajiv Gandhi,” recounts 45-year-old harmonium player and puppeteer Sarvan Bhatt. “My elders put me to it and we rehearsed what I was supposed to say and do. After I finished my performance, I walked up to the prime minister and hugged him. That was my chance so I asked him, ‘What about us? When will we get our houses?’” Bhatt pauses, as one of his four children walks into the room. Adjusting the blanket draped over his injured leg, he barks at him to go out and commences, “He promised we would get housing here, on this very land. But now they want to move us, put us in multi-storeyed buildings. We don’t want to do that.”

Bhatt’s father and grandfather were the first of the 300-odd artisan families that came to Delhi to perform. Kathputli Colony didn’t exist then. “When my father and grandfather performed for Pandit Nehru and Rajendra Prasad, they lived in a tent on this spot,” says Bhatt. “Slowly our family built what you see before you.” Four tiny rooms, two on two, a small aangan that doubles as a kitchen with an open fire, play area and open space for Bhatt, his four brothers, their wives and their 13 children.

“This place is a child-producing factory,” says Bhatt. “If I had the awareness I have today, I wouldn’t have had so many children. But I know that if I want my son to marry within the community and not be shunned, he will have to marry by 19 and have his first child by 20. How will he ever leave this place? I don’t want to live here, it’s like hell, but I don’t have the money to buy a house inside Delhi. Also we are tied to this place, our work, our art, our trade, it’s all here.”

In 2009, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) sold the 5.22 hectare of land that make up Kathputli Colony, ‘illegally’ occupied by 3,500 families (2,400 of whom are artists), to Mumbai-based Raheja Builders for Rs 6.11 crore. This move was part of a public-private partnership (PPP) project for in-site development of the area by 2011. This meant that the residents would be relocated to a transit camp for a period of three years, their houses demolished and three multi-storeyed residential towers constructed in their place. In compensation for the cost of construction, Raheja Builders would be allowed to construct a 10-storey commercial complex as well as 156 premium flats on the same land. However, the project is stuck in limbo as the Delhi Urban Arts Commission has objected to it.

While the deal looks fair on paper, the devil is in the details. To begin with, the actual value of the land exceeds the Rs 6.11 crore by quite a few crores. If we consider that at the going circle rate of Rs 20,000 per sq m prevalent in and around the area, and multiply that by 52,000 sq m (the total area of the colony), it works out to a little over Rs 100 crore. Now, if we take the rate at Rs 1.5-2 lakh per sq m, the going rate for Baljeet Nagar, a nearby slum that was regularised, the cost comes within the range of Rs 1,000 crore. When asked why the land was sold for just Rs 6.11 crore, when the surrounding land was going at much higher prices, both the DDA and the Raheja Group gave no answers.

In the colony, Dilip, 60, a dholak and one of the 12 pradhans in the area, sits in his tenement. His receding hairline neatly combed back, he says, “They told us we were short of space, so they were going to build flats. But then I read in the papers that that they were going to build a mall and premium flats. Then we heard that there would only be 2,800 economically weaker section (EWS) flats for us. But there are 3,500 families here. Where will we go?” Dilip says the residents were not given a copy of the names in the survey that was undertaken. So, there was no question of trusting anyone. “Had they told us that that cost of the land was 6.11 crore, we would have collected the money and bought it ourselves. We don’t want the flats, give us plots, we will build our own houses. We would have made a sewage system, but today the fear is we will invest our savings and then they will break our houses, so we are stuck in this condition.”

Land is, of course, the big issue. It is around land that their fortunes revolve. Unlike agricultural land, where after tilling it for 12 years, farmers are entitled to ownership, in this case, despite living and developing the area for almost half a century, technically, the residents of Kathputli Colony have no right to the land. They could have bought it 40 years ago, when it was affordable, but at current rates, they will not be able to afford anything within Delhi. They can’t afford to move either, for if they move, they lose their source of income.

Magician Azeez Khan pulls out a marble from his mouth. He can tell from our expressions that we are not impressed. He repeats the trick, we are still not convinced. Suddenly, Khan pulls out a ball as big as a billiard ball from his mouth. That caught our attention. “This place is famous, people all over the world know about Kathputli Colony,” he says philosophically. “It is only in India that no one knows us.” Khan has travelled to 75 different countries for his shows. “Wherever we go, we stay in five-star hotels, so we all know that the conditions here are far from ideal. But we can’t leave the place, it is a part of our identity. People come here looking for us and most importantly, it is centrally located. We can easily get transportation from here. It keeps our costs down and allows us to make our living.”

A magician’s paraphernalia hangs from the ceiling; there’s an AC by the bed, all adding to the bizarre. “Flats won’t work for us,” says Khan. “We won’t have enough space to work, but if we did, imagine a sculptor banging and carving away, a dholak practising all day below him and below him a magician. With all that noise, we will have fights. Also, flats can’t grow. I have five brothers. How can we stay in a 25 sq yard flat? But if you give us a plot of the same size, we can build five storeys, each brother has his own home.”

Who is responsible for providing houses to these 3,500 EWS families? Forty years ago, they may have started living on land that belongs to the government, but there are legal compulsions on the government as well. According to the Delhi Master Plan, by 2001, the Delhi government, which had pre-empted a steady influx of citizens to the capital, was to construct 23 lakh EWS houses. They were able to construct less than half that many. The subsequent plans state that between 2001 and 2021, Delhi is to construct another 24 lakh houses — 1.2 lakh houses a year. So far, only 20,000 have been constructed. Things don’t get more dismal than this. There are 32 lakh slum dwellers in Delhi, 24 percent of the city’s population, but they live on only 2-5 percent of the land. What happened to the land and funds allotted for the 47 lakh houses?

Look beyond the stack of paperwork on surveys and land sale, and what meets you is deception. The carpet area of each EWS flat is supposed to be 25 sq m. However, according to the plan drawings, it works out to only 20 sq m. Now, imagine a family of 10 living in that cramped space, without the means to expand vertically and you get the picture.

The price of the flats has not been declared, but since it costs Rs 3.4 lakh to construct, it is not beyond reason that it would be anywhere in the range of Rs 60,000 to the full Rs 3.4 lakh. Based on previous policies of the Delhi government, those who earn more than Rs 1 lakh have to give an upfront deposit of Rs 60,000, after which a payment scheme is worked out. So, the residents not only lose what they have already spent on their houses, they may also have to cough up more money. According to the plans, 60 percent of the land is supposed to be given to the beneficiaries. As it stands, only 10 percent of the 5.22 hectares will be used to build EWS houses and the majority share will be used for the commercial block and high-rise apartments.

There are practical problems as well. The transit camp made for the residents of Kathputli Colony is in far off Anand Parbat in North Delhi. The quality of the construction is suspect, there is no public transportation to speak of and the space is cramped. This is leaving aside the fact that basic amenities like schools and medical centres are conspicuously absent.

Khaleema Khatoon lets loose a stream of profanities. Sanitised, what she says roughly translates into this: “We will not go to the transit camp. Not only is it poorly constructed and short on space, but once we leave, what is the guarantee that we will be allowed back? Does anyone come back from the graveyard? They are going to build expensive houses, so why will they want poor people to live in the same areas as the rich? They want to get us out of here.” Khatoon belongs to one of the 900-odd non-artisan families of the colony.

Then there’s the complete absence of basic services like running water, electricity and sewage lines in the colony.

Even if the Raheja Group was to build the internal mechanisms, can the government meet the demand? How will they fit slum-residents in a posh commercial centre and upmarket flats? Such rehabilitation experiments in the past have failed in Mumbai and Bengaluru.

Shish Ram looks like an everyday Joe. Short, scrawny with a thin moustache, the multiple award-winning classical musician pulls out an old photo album, showing pictures of him with then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in New York and with former British PM Margaret Thatcher. Shish Ram also proudly shows the certificate awarded to him by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, and a 1985 India Today cover featuring him and his brother. “Give us plots and let us live here as artists,” he says, elaborating on an idea gaining currency in Kathputli Colony. “Make this a tourist site, a place where you can preserve history and culture. Where tourists can pay a set price and spend a day or days with us. If you preserve our way of life, we will preserve your history.”

Let good sense prevail.

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