Artists’ colony in India resists forced eviction, demolition of their homes

Police attempt to shut down a protest as residents of the Kathputli artists' colony resist eviction. (Photo credit: Bismillah Geelani)

A neighborhood in the Indian capital of New Delhi thought to be the world’s largest community of traditional artists and street performers is being forcibly emptied out. For years the residents of Kathputli – or Puppeteers’ – Colony have successfully resisted several eviction attempts. But  authorities are now adopting a more aggressive approach and have started demolition. But the artists remain defiant and, as Bismillah Geelani reports, are mounting last-ditch efforts to save their homes.

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Hundreds of men, women and children run for cover yelling and screaming as a bulldozer strikes the boundary wall of Kathputli Colony. As soon as a portion of the wall crumbles into dust many surround the bulldozer forcing the driver to stop. Dozens of policemen try to push the crowd back but they refuse to budge.

Forty-year-old Mukul says they are being forcibly driven out: “We have told them time and again that we don’t want to go anywhere else. This is our home and we are not going to leave it, but they are hell bent on making us homeless. We know there is no future for us if we leave, there are no guarantees. They are liars trying to fool us. They want to dump us in the transit camp like trash and we’re not going to accept it.”

More than 3,000 families of puppeteers, magicians, acrobats, dancers and musicians live in Kathputli Colony and some say they make up the world’s largest community of street performers.

The specter of eviction has haunted the residents of this six-decade old slum settlement since 2010 when city authorities entered into a partnership with a private developer for a huge construction project that includes high-rise apartments and a large shopping mall. But this time it looks inevitable.

For more than a week now, the entire area has been turned into a fortress with a massive deployment of police and paramilitary forces. Riot control vehicles, bulldozers and fire engines alongside the armed soldiers clearly indicate aggressive intentions, says activist Himshi Singh from the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements.

“I can’t understand what the paramilitary forces are doing here. We have paramilitary forces in places where there’s an insurgency like Nagaland and Kashmir. Now by deploying them by the hundreds here, what do they want to convey? The people living here are artists who make you proud, but they treat them like terrorists,” Singh explains. “Soldiers are roaming everywhere here, they go into people’s homes by the dozen, make them sign papers and demolish the structures. They are terrorizing everyone into submission.”

Slideshow: Street performers defend community against bulldozers and high rise plans

Municipal officials have been trying to convince residents to move into a transit camp until the construction work is complete. They say all the Kathputli families will receive special deals on housing units in the proposed high-rise buildings.

Some families, including that of Mohammad Islam, have agreed to move to the transit camp: “The court is the highest authority and has the final say. I am moving out because the court says we should do so and has assured us that nothing wrong will happen to us. Everyone wants development, but if poor people are cheated in the name of development it really hurts. I’m sure if anything goes wrong the court will come to our rescue.”

But most residents are still refusing to leave their homes.

Many of them have serious doubts the authorities will actually keep their promise to relocate them once they leave Kathputli. They can point to multiple cases of broken promises made to other evicted slum dwellers in the city. Others worry about the viability of practicing their art in the limited space of small apartments.

Pooran Bhat is an internationally acclaimed puppeteer and arguably the most famous resident of Kathputli: “Here is a group of people who have kept these traditional art forms alive even in the midst of suffering, poverty and hardships. But nobody thinks about their survival. If our work doesn’t get enough breathing space, it will simply die and we will be forced to do something else to get by… street vending or maybe rickshaw pulling. After all, we are not educated enough to be able to get jobs where we have to sit at a desk and push a pen.”

Slideshow: Inside the world’s largest colony of street performers

In addition to the presence of armed agents and demolition crews, local authorities have stopped municipal sanitation services to the area. The resulting piles of garbage and overflowing sewage are turning into a serious health risk.

Residents say the move is yet another pressure tactic to make them vacate the area.

But for now, most appear to be in no mood to give in. Just how long they can sustain their resistance remains to be seen.

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