Refusing to be inclusive to urban poor, Sabarmati Riverfront project exemplifies neoliberal transformation in Ahmedabad

Sabarmati riverfront project in 2005

By Counterview Desk

A new working paper, “Municipal Politics, Court Sympathy and Housing Rights: A Post-Mortem of Displacement and Resettlement under the Sabarmati Riverfront Project, Ahmedabad” (May 2014), authored by Renu Desai of the Centre for Urban Equity (CUE), CEPT University, Ahmedabad, has said that the Sabarmati Riverfront project, involving beautification of the two sides of the river, is an  “important lens into Ahmedabad’s neoliberal transformation since the early 2000s.” This transformation, the argues, “has involved a spatial restructuring of the city through numerous beautification and infrastructure projects aimed at improving the city’s image, attracting investments and boosting quality of life for the city’s middle/upper-middle classes.”

Pointing out that “given this displacement and resettlement process and its outcomes, neither the Riverfront project can be considered to be inclusive and equitable, nor can urban development in Ahmedabad be called so”, the paper questions the manner in which the Government of India supported the project, neglecting the rights of the urban poor.  Author Renu Desai says, “Despite the evisceration of the rights of the urban poor through the displacement and resettlement, the Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP) programme (of the Government of India, under JnNURM) in Ahmedabad has been given awards by the Central government. This shows that housing programmes for the urban poor continue to be decoupled from any consideration of their rights.”

Desai says, ever since the project was launched in 1997, there was lack of clarity on the R&R Policy of the Riverfront project. The policy stated the following:

(i)                  A socio-economic survey (SES) of slums had been undertaken on the riverfront between 1999-2002. According to this, 8000 families would be fully affected by the project and 4000 would be partially affected;

(ii)                The fully-affected families would be considered for resettlement under the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM) scheme and the partially affected families would be considered on a case to case basis;

(iii)               The resettlement dwelling unit would be of 33 sq.m. built up area;

(iv)              Along with cost of land, each dwelling unit would cost Rs.4.25 lakhs. Of this 50% cost would be borne by the Government of India (Rs. 2,12,500), 20% by Government of Gujarat (Rs. 85,000) and 30% by Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) and the beneficiary (Rs. 1,27,500). The cost to be borne by the beneficiary would be Rs. 87,000, of which Rs. 17,000 would have to be paid in 12 monthly installments while a soft loan of Rs. 70,000 would be given which would have to be repaid over 10 years;

(v)                A cutoff date of December 2002 would be considered for inclusion as a beneficiary since the SES had been completed then;

(vi)              The resettlement unit would be given on a 10-year lease, at the end of which the title would be transferred to the beneficiary;

(vii)             The resettlement unit would be given in the joint name of the wife and husband;

(viii)           A committee headed by a retired High Court judge would be responsible for allotment of units to beneficiaries and verification of their documents, and

(ix)              non-residential structures would not to be compensated at this stage.

Desai comments, “The policy was silent on many important issues regarding R&R. This included who the 8000 ‘fully affected’ and 4000 ‘partially affected’ families were; the criteria for being “partially affected”; the various locations for the resettlement sites and their distance from the riverfront neighbourhoods; the basic services (for e.g. bore-well water or municipal water, etc) and social amenities (for e.g. urban health centres, etc) to be provided at the resettlement sites; who would be resettled where and when and how this would be decided; which documents would have to be shown to prove eligibility for resettlement (hereafter referred to as proof documents); and how the R&R process would be phased and carried out for such a large number of families living across different neighbourhoods. It was thus a minimal and ambiguous policy.”

While the resettlement has been declared as having been completed, in Desai’s view, the allotment of flats in far away locations from the place of their livelihood was done in a manner that “split residents of almost each slum neighbourood across different resettlement sites”, randomly bringing together “residents from different riverfront slums into each resettlement site” leading to serious consequences of “social fragmentation and disruption”. She adds, “This as well as the distance of most of the resettlement sites and the poor conditions at most of them has created social and economic difficulties for the people.”

The writer underlines, “With resettlement having been moved away from the riverfront to unfamiliar areas of the city, and each resettlement site comprising of residents from different slums, religious segregation in resettlement became inevitable given the communal politics in Ahmedabad. While there had certainly been tensions and even violence between Hindus and Muslims living in the same riverfront slum, these were often episodic, such as during the 2002 riots. There were also many periods of peace and interaction and engagement between the two communities on an everyday basis, even though tensions and distrust also weaved through some of these everyday interactions.”

Left: Woman resident witnessing the demolition of her neighbourhood. Right:  Construction at the Rustom Mill resettlement site in December 2011, a month after demolitions on the riverfront
Left: Woman resident witnessing the demolition of her neighbourhood. Right:
Construction at the Rustom Mill resettlement site in December 2011, a
month after demolitions on the riverfront

“However”, Desai regrets, “With residential segregation through resettlement, the everyday spaces for interaction and engagement between religious communities have narrowed for this large group of resettled slum residents and their children. While resettled residents of what were fully Hindu riverfront slum neighbourhoods sometimes speak of Muslims in a derogatory and antagonistic manner, resettled residents of what were mixed riverfront slum neighbourhoods are less likely to do so. One hears a mix of narratives from the latter, some reproducing communal stereotypes of Muslims but many remembering their interactions and participation in each others’ festivals and social occasions.”

Desai says, “Some amongst both the Hindus and Muslims have also stated that they would have preferred to be resettled with their neighbours of the other religious community rather than be resettled with unknown members of their own community. It is clear that with the religious segregation through resettlement, the possibilities for experiences and narratives of the latter type can be expected to decrease over time as well as amongst the younger generation.” She adds, “The evisceration of rights thus led to profound uncertainty, insecurity and harassment during the resettlement process over getting alternate housing and forced demolitions during the process. It also led to a process and form of resettlement that is likely to create long-term economic and social disruptions for many displacees. And finally, it has also led to deepening socio-spatial divides in the city along both class and religious lines.”

Desai explains, “By fragmentary resettlement I also refer to the social fragmentation of residents from the same slum neighborhood across different sites; this happened due to the manner in which each allotment draw lumped together different neighborhoods into a single group for random computerised allotment across different resettlement sites. Taking an artificially constructed group as opposed to the existing neighborhood as the unit for the allotment draws ignored the social networks within the neighbourhoods. Social fragmentation also happened due to different kinds of families from the same neighbourhood (those surveyed in 1999-2002, missed-out-in-the-survey families, new occupants of pre-2002 houses, pre-2002 inhabitants of post-2002 houses) being allotted resettlement flats in different ways and different times, and therefore at different resettlement sites.”

The paper also seeks to comment on the role of the Gujarat High Court in the displacement and resettlement process. “With the support of some NGOs, some Sabarmati Nagrik Adhikar Manch (SNAM) leaders filed a PIL in the court in mid-2005. While the court was not intolerant of the riverfront slum residents and many of its rulings are construed as being sympathetic to them, this sympathy led to its acting as arbitrator between two unequal parties rather than acting to realise slum residents’ rights. So, while the court recognized that slum residents required its protection to get an alternate house, and the court was sympathetic in certain ways in its rulings for this purpose, the question of slum residents’ rights as they were articulated in the PIL was entirely absent from its rulings”, Desai says.

Pointing out that this led to a total evisceration of their rights, the writer says, “The PIL had clearly and expansively articulated their rights, drawing upon the jurisprudence that had evolved in the 1980s, placing the right to shelter within the framework of fundamental rights as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Explaining the economic activities and livelihoods of riverfront slum residents and their contributions to the city’s economy and prosperity, the PIL had explicated at length the link between their right to life, right to shelter and right to work and livelihood. It had also pointed out the uncertainty and insecurity that riverfront slum residents experienced on seeing the implementation of the Riverfront project and the concomitant lack of engagement of authorities with their concerns.”

The PIL had also “argued that the state was a public trustee of community property and resources and should therefore use the river and riverfront for the benefit of the society in general and not for commercial interest or beautification at the cost of the poor.” It had “connected all this to the constitutional, democratic and human rights of the riverfront slum residents to appeal to the court for resettlement in a nearby area so that their work and livelihood were not negatively impacted; for information on their resettlement and rehabilitation so that they did not experience uncertainty and insecurity; and for participation in decision-making processes that affected their lives. It also appealed to the court to restrain the state authorities from pursuing the Riverfront project until they took some steps to ensure these rights of riverfront slum residents.”

The court, the paper says, “did not engage with the PIL’s articulation of rights.” Its stay order on demolition of the slums in 2005 was “narrowly framed with profoundly negative implications for the poor. The narrow framing came from its disallowal of slum demolitions until a R&R Policy was prepared but allowal of the Riverfront project construction to continue.” This led to a precarious situation, enabling the AMC and the Sarbarmati Riverfront Development Corporation Ltd (SRFDCL) to delink the R&R Policy from the planning and implementation of the Riverfront project. By doing so, the court order enabled AMC/ SRFDCL’s entrepreneurial politics of urban mega-project development and their flexible governing of the urban poor. AMC/ SRFDCL did not prepare a R&R Policy for the next three years while continuing to pursue the Riverfront project and other projects (construction of bridges and approach roads to the bridges) on the riverfront. This led to a situation where project construction came up against the riverfront slums, and given municipal politics, this led to (attempts at) fragmentary evictions in small pockets here and there.”

Desai argues, “The court’s narrow framing of the stay order (and the delinking of R&R from the Riverfront project that this enabled) also enabled AMC / SRFDCL to shift the resettlement away from the riverfront. AMC / SRFDCL built most resettlement sites 6-15 kilometres away. The court order thus effectively undermined the PIL’s central appeal for resettlement nearby, an appeal that was based on fusing the right to shelter and right to work and livelihood within a framework of fundamental rights as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Even after AMC / SRFDCL submitted its minimal and ambiguous R&R Policy to the court, it continued to arbitrate between the authorities and SNAM rather than enable the realisation of slum residents’ rights.”

Pix: Courtesy by Renu Desai

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