The myth of resettlement in Delhi

Since 2000, activist groups across India have sought to defend slum communities from dispossession in favour of 'participatory' resettlement on the urban periphery. The popularity of such reasoning has lead to the myth that squatters prefer resettlement to illegality, denying squatters a right to remain and masking the real, everyday exclusions in the lives of the resettled.

Ayona Datta
21 May 2013

The landscapes of Delhi’s urban peripheries are changing. Slowly but surely much of its fringes are being transformed into holding grounds for the city’s outcasts – slum and squatter residents. In particular two villages on Delhi’s fringes – Narela and Bawana, both more than 50kms to the North-west of the city have seen large-scale state sponsored slum resettlement projects. Particularly during the run up to Delhi’s Commonwealth Games in 2010, huge numbers of ‘eligible’ slum residents from Delhi’s prime locations were resettled in these erstwhile agricultural market towns. These new resettlement colonies have transformed slum dwellers’ relationships with the city, with its urban fringes and between rural and urban citizens.

Since 2000 successive Supreme Court rulings in Indian cities have labelled slum dwellers as ‘illegal’ and ‘pickpockets’ of urban land and thus ineligible for any compensation or resettlement by law. In this context an emergent social activism led by grassroots NGOs and slum organisations have organised in defence of slum communities, arguing that resettlement should be a mandatory provision if and when slums are demolished. Indeed, survey after survey of slum residents have highlighted that slum dwellers would want to be resettled or compensated for demolition of their homes. This of course is a no-brainer, but it has led to the circulation of a popular ‘myth’ that squatters prefer resettlement to informality or illegality. This myth valorises resettlement as a route to social justice in the absence of right to the city, while masking the real and everyday exclusions in the lives of those who are resettled.

Indeed, the valorisation of resettlement both by those for and against demolition serves to bolster the neoliberal logics which drive current urban development policy, as the state charges squatters for substandard urban housing and services (electricity, water, sanitation) in resettlement schemes which they can ill afford. This myth also sustains the pattern of continuous demolition of slums from the city and resettlement to its urban fringes by the state. Narela and Bawana are spaces mapped through these logics of a ‘desire for resettlement’ which justifies the state’s exclusionary practices of demolition of slums from the city and the relocation of ‘eligible’ squatters into its urban fringes.

Using the example of Delhi’s endeavours towards a slum-free city, my intention here is to challenge the myth of resettlement and further the pervasive language of ‘participation’ that dominates slum redevelopment policy across the global south. Examples of such experiments exist in India and in the rest of the global south – such as the slum rehabilitation projects with Dharavi residents. These examples are used time and again to suggest that when resettled through the involvement of residents, resettlement can deliver social justice and a ‘legal’ right to the city. These experiments however perpetuate a violence of law and development that is used by the neoliberal state to simultaneously attract global capital while maintaining authority and control over marginalised urban populations.

The violence of law and urban development

In his critique of violence, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) articulated two forms of violence which are perpetuated by law. The first type of violence is that embodied in the process of law-making which reinforces the authority of the state over those within its sovereign territory. Law-making, the writing of national constitutions, legal statutes, regulations and policies gives power to the state to impose particular forms of control and inscribe particular legal subjecthoods upon entire populations.

The second form of violence is embodied in the process and procedure of enforcing laws, enacted by subjecting citizens to bureaucracy, statutory regulations, policing, criminal justice systems and so on.  For Benjamin, this is a type of law-preserving violence that ‘maintains, confirms, and insures the permanence and enforceability of law’[1]. Taking Benjamin’s notion of violence of law forward, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) further argued that law itself is an ‘authorized force, a force that justifies itself or is justified in applying itself’[2] and has no connection to justice. Derrida concluded that any interpretation of law by the judiciary in the courts should be understood not as delivering justice, but rather as ‘legal or legitimate in conformity with a state of law’. For Derrida, this interpretation of law itself produces a ‘force of law’ that reinforces the authority and legitimacy of the state in its role of law-making and law-maintaining.

It has become imperative to revisit these critiques of law as found in the writings of Derrida and Benjamin since it is the violence and force of law that has become the most potent tool of urban development and slum rehabilitation in Delhi and across India since 2000. With the law on their side, politicians, middle-classes, business investors and multinational corporations have been largely successful in removing the urban poor from the ‘legal’ city. Taken together, law – making, maintaining and interpreting, all serve to legitimise the state’s use of law as an ‘authorised force’ to produce increased uncertainties and anxieties among slum dwellers towards their future, their sense of place, in the ‘legal’ city.


Homes slated for demolition in an ‘illegal’ settlement in Delhi. Ayona Datta, all rights reserved.

The violence of law in urban India is enacted through the Slum Areas Act 1956, nuisance and trespass laws as well as through urban development practices in the making and enforcing of master-plans and zoning regulations. This violence produces slums and squatter settlements as ‘spaces of exception’[3] whereby special rules, codes, legislations and judicial rulings mark them as ‘illegal’ and hence requiring interventions that are starkly different from the rest of the city. In Delhi this is seen in the use of the Slum Areas Act to demarcate specific (and deserving) slums for legalisation or improvement as well as the numerous schemes on slum improvement and resettlement launched by the state, which construct slums as exceptional and outside the law. It can also be seen in the manner in which private property and nuisance laws are used to criminalise slums and squatter settlements and to legitimise their removal through the judiciary. In doing so, the state retracts from its responsibilities towards those in need of housing and basic services in the city.

These processes reaffirm to squatters, on a daily basis, the precarity of their homes and lives in the city. They reaffirm to squatters that a violence of law is enacted not just in its making, maintaining and enforcing but also through the ‘uncertainty regarding one’s right to habitation’[4]  in the city. Resettlement was never a condition that squatters desired; but in a context where their everyday lives are now increasingly shaped by a violence of law and urban development, they have come to accept resettlement as the only way out of continuous uncertainty, anxiety and temporality.

The myth of resettlement


Road dividing a resettlement colony on the left from a squatter settlement on the right. Ayona Datta, all rights reserved.

The violence embodied in the uncertainty of habitation further perpetuates the myth and valorization of resettlement. This is because squatters, planners, and development professionals all know that the political patronage of the 1980s and 1990s that largely provided informal security and led to the rise in squatter settlements has now shifted to a state obsession with the rule of law. This obsession tends to a form of valorization of a rule of law that Zizek has called tautological – ‘Law is law’ or ‘God is God’ [5].  In this context squatters can no longer rely on informal assurances made by slum lords or politicians; rather their future in the city is being determined by a force of law produced and perpetuated by the state and judiciary. Thus while state-orchestrated slum demolitions are becoming increasingly common across Delhi and other metropolitan cities in India, the uncertainties and anxieties surrounding squatters’ future home in the city often circulates as a politics of hope. This politics highlights not as a loss but as gain – a legitimate and legal future home in the city via the demolition and relocation of squatter homes to resettlement colonies in the city fringes. Squatters are under no illusion that resettlement means the loss of their current homes in the city, but in a context of a ‘culture of legality’[6] pervading urban life in Indian cities, squatters argue for the demolition of those very homes which they seek to legitimise in the future.

This is also the irony of resettlement whereby demolition of one’s home in the city provides moral grounds for squatters to argue for a secure legal home in the urban peripheries. But how secure is this new home; under what conditions is it realised, and what forms of urban citizenship and belonging does it produce?  

The state ideology of resettlement has often pushed those in state provided ‘legal’ resettlement colonies back into informality in order to meet their basic needs. However, resettlement by the neo-liberal state is more precarious and insecure than it was ever before. In Delhi for instance, Narela and Bawana have become holding grounds of the ‘illegal’ citizens of Delhi who were deemed eligible to receive legal housing on condition that they leave the city. ‘Eligibility’ for resettlement depends upon whether slum dwellers can provide proof of residence before the established ‘cut-off’ periods (1989 and 1991). While in the 1970s and 1980s, ‘eligible’ squatters in Delhi would get a 25sqm plot of land with a freehold title, since the 2000s they receive a 12.5sqm plot of land under a 10 year lease which they can neither sell not transfer to their children. They can also be evicted if municipal inspectors come while they are away from their home or if they are not carrying ID cards. Half of Delhi’s resettlement colony residents do not have individual water connections, there are few individual toilets and community toilet facilities are far from adequate, garbage is rarely collected by the municipality, the roads are in severe disrepair, street lights do not work, and education and health facilities are grossly inadequate [7].

The Delhi government is now enforcing a new masterplan (2001-2021), which proposes to relocate squatters in high-rise tower blocks in the city. Unlike the earlier resettlement ideology of a plot of land, this new ideology of verticality is neither adequate nor appropriate for the notion of flexibility and incrementality embedded in changing family needs for space. 

Resettlement is not an outcome that squatters link in any way to justice, rather they see resettlement as an entitlement from the state which when achieved would acknowledge their inclusion as urban citizens within the ‘legal’ city. To this end squatters use resettlement as a resource/route to make claims for a right to the city, although this claim itself is subject to proving their ‘worthiness’ to the state amidst the impending demolition of their homes.  Thus while the violence of law produces precarious lives in the city, the same law is often used as a ‘resource’ by slum dwellers to bargain with the state for resettlement. They do this not just through informality and informal networks (as argued by many scholars) but by gaining a working knowledge of the law, through explicit engagements with formal and legal processes, through active engagements with development based NGOs, and through the legal subjecthoods offered by the Indian constitution to campaign for their rights and entitlements to legitimate housing in the city. In doing so, they empower themselves through law as active citizens, but also often ironically align themselves with the very violence of law which they seek to overcome in their daily lives.

But what about those deemed ‘ineligible’ for resettlement – those ‘unworthy’ of any form of state compensation? These are the residents of slums and squatter settlements who cannot show any proof of living in Delhi’s squatter settlements before the cut-off dates or those renting rooms in slums, or those without any documentation of their identity as Indian citizens. These are entire populations who are new arrivals to the city, or circular migrants, those who do not possess the ‘right’ documents, or who do not have the means to buy these documents in the informal market.

These are the populations not counted in slum surveys, outside the radar of NGOs and of most urban development policies of slum improvement. While the ‘pioneers’ who settled in the squatter settlements in the 1970s and 1980s have been slowly empowering themselves through knowledge of their legal and legitimate entitlements, it is those without any claims to ‘worthiness’ who usually lose out on state-sponsored resettlement. Continually moving from one demolished home to another in the city, they live under flyovers, next to railway tracks, along sewage canals, and on road verges. So while the politics of hope around resettlement continues to gain ground, we should also ask fresh questions around the violence of law enacted on the lives of those living on the precarious edges of worthiness, law and citizenship. What are the different ways that those ‘unworthy’ of state resettlement respond to a violence of law? How are the links between resettlement and entitlement maintained by those considered unworthy by the state? How is justice perceived through the frame of violence – of law and urban development? The answers to these might help us in exposing the myth of resettlement and present its ideological links with the neoliberal state.

Agamben, G. 2005. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Benjamin, W. 1978. Critique of Violence. In Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings by W. Benjamin and P. Demetz, New York: Schocken Books, 277–300.

Chatterji, R. And Mehta, D. 2007. Living with Violence: An Anthropology of Events and Everyday Life. New Delhi: Routledge.

Comaroff, J. and Comaroff, J. 2006. Law and Disorder in the Postcolony. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. 1992. Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority'. In Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, edited by D. Cornell, M. Rosenfeld and D. G. Carlson. London: Routledge, 3–67.

Menon–Sen, K. and Bhan, G. 2008. Swept off the Map: Surviving Eviction and resettlement in Delhi. Delhi: Yoda Press.

Zizek, S. (1991). For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. London: Verso.

[1] Benjamin, 1978, p. 295

[2] Derrida, 1992, p. 925

[3] Agamben 2005

[4] Chatterji & Mehta, 2007, p. 129

[5] Zizek 1991, p. 203

[6] Comaroff and Comaroff 2006

[7] Menon-Sen and Bhan 2008

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