Pipe dreams


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THIS is a narrative of the political from the spatial sites of the ordinary city of Delhi – places that are on the urban ‘periphery’ – a term, indeed a concept I borrow from James Holston.1 He uses the term to refer to land on the margins of the city of Sao Paulo, but more importantly as a way of designating settlements of the labouring poor ‘beyond the perimeter of urbanized services and infrastructure’, and now increasingly used to describe this type of space in place of earlier formulations such as rural or suburban.

There is in the life and imagination of the periphery a constant reference to a ‘centre’ – in this case the sites of imperial power in Delhi – and its contestation with erstwhile spaces of ordinary life and power, but more importantly its distance from the city that lives in an aura of legality bestowed by recognition in a master plan. This is what the periphery is not. Then, what is it? It represents the change and flux in city spaces; more specifically, it helps focus on the asymmetries within the city. Denied the embrace and aura of a master plan, Gautam Bhan calls it a ‘planned illegality’, more meaningfully understood as constructs of power over people, exercised by ways of labelling and ranking space, and ordering government practice towards those on the very bottom of the hierarchy.2


To the south of South Delhi’s richest residential areas, there is one such periphery – the ‘unauthorized/illegal’ colony of Sangam Vihar – viewed in government records both as forest land situated at the foothills of the Aravali, and partly as an archaeological site in proximity of the ruins of the Tughlaqabad Fort. On both counts there is a policy logic that lays emphasis on conservation, to be ensured by the Forest Department and the Archaeological Survey of India respectively.

While maps of the Forest Department show this area as open degraded forest, in real life it is inhabited by more than 2.5 lakh people, mostly the labouring poor, providing services to the richer and urbanized parts of the city. Typically illegal, seen within the prisms of planning, Sangam Vihar is described as an ‘unauthorized colony’ – a category of space where the authority of the state steadfastly refuses to recognize land-citizen relationships in a manner so complete as to not just refrain from grant of tenure and titles, but forbid even the basic right to water and waste disposal, including of daily human excreta.

Yet, its voters are legitimate political actors. Through 24 polling booths established under the seal and authority of the state, they regularly cast their vote to constitute a government for the nation and the city – for India and for the territory of its national capital, Delhi. The dilemma of the legal sovereign constituted by illegal citizens! And just before the elections, especially those for electing a house of legislature for the city state (i.e. the ‘Assembly’), political leaders dangle the carrot of ‘regularization’ from its current unauthorized status – removing in one stroke the stigma of illegality, the prohibition on state-citizen relationships, and incorporating the area in the city’s master plan.


The right to property understood in the classical Lockean sense as that with which ‘man’ mixed his labour, is conferred somewhat tenuously by this type of state diktat, the caveat being that ‘regularization’ is a concept applicable to the entire colony and holds no specific promise of a private benefit to the households or owners. Besides, the procedures of regularization take years to be formally completed. For all its shortcomings, this type of political assurance builds a ladder of aspiration amidst the citizenry – the hope of a move from scarred urban illegal to naturalized city resident.

This gives incumbent governments a clear advantage in the electoral competition – they signal the possibility of going beyond promise and proclaim, since they hold the levers of the complicated policy instruments through which such types of promises can be realized. This was evident right before the 2008 state assembly elections when provisional certificates promising regularization were issued by the Congress party-led government – a measure that came under the scrutiny of the city’s Lokayukta.3


This time around, just before the 2013 assembly elections, the Delhi Unauthorized Colony Sammelan Manch emerged as a ‘political front’ to specially take up this cause, and had as its leader Jag Parvesh Kumar, son of noted Congress leader Sajjan Kumar, a Jat by caste who is widely believed to have incited the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in the city. Jag Parvesh also contested as the Congress candidate from Sangam Vihar in the recent assembly elections – indicating just how significant dangling the carrot of regularization has been to the electoral fortunes of the party. In this urban periphery, citizens are voters with political rights, but with little or no capacity to claim the civic and the social. Pressure and social connections are not enough to make the pipelines flow – this must wait till the ‘final’ changes in territory-authority relationships are enacted – indicating how specifically politics is conditioned in the urban space.4

This article essays a direct plunge into the ordinary lives of the illegal, as lived in Sangam Vihar, and explores their world of political deliberation through ethnographic work over eight months,5 covering two electoral cycles for two different levels of the Indian federal system – the first in October-November 2013 constituting the city’s own government – the ‘state’ legislature (as different from the ‘civic’ authorities – covered under the third tier of decentralization) and the second one six months later – in April-May 2014, constituting the ‘Centre’, i.e. the national government. In retrospect, it was the city elections that triggered a debate on citizenship, saw an assertion of rights, and challenged inequalities on the peripheries. Comparatively speaking, the national elections engaged with the ‘idea of India’ – a political moment when Sangam Vihar residents left behind their grievances about the everyday, the severe constraints of their daily life, and deliberated on ‘national issues’.


This piece focuses on understanding these deliberations during the time of the first set of elections (October-November 2013) to the state legislature. The arguments here are a somewhat stylized presentation of people’s voices – placing an accent on inequality and marginality. These are ‘visible’ and have been ‘sighted’ through thick ethnographic interactions. Specially included are voices of social castes at the margins of the Hindu caste hierarchy, Muslims who perceive themselves as a minority, but more importantly of women, who never really came out into the public spaces of the gali (street), but were strong agents with articulated grievances. There is an accent here on voice as the arena of democracy – a capacity that Appadurai6 understood as being critical for the poor in their effort to alter the conditions of their own existence, and these are presented in bold relief.

Before I present these voices, a small detour to gain a meaningful understanding of the site would be useful, specially the contested perception of the state and the people. Going by the understanding of policy makers, and government agents and functionaries, Sangam Vihar is at best a meaningless landscape, hesitantly admitted to be under the clutches of land grabbing encroachers – commonly referred to as the ‘land mafia’ or ‘colonizers’. The poor residents who have ‘bought’ land (i.e. paid for it without gaining a right to hold) from such mafia, are viewed as an undifferentiated part of this chain of fraud and illegality. ‘Do not think that the residents here are innocent poor people,’ warn government officers I interviewed, ‘they are badmaash log, hand in glove with the mafia to grab land.’


But how do the people who live here understand the landscape? The entire area is understood as being divided into alphabetically numbered blocks – nearly thirty of them, giving it the feel of being a planned, organized colony. I learn that this division was done by private ‘colonizers’ who carved out small plots for illegal sale, and the water mafia, who divided the territory amongst themselves for sale of water through the tankers they bring in. A bunch of neighbouring blocks is also considered part of a larger ilaqa or area – named by the day of the week when a weekly market is set up. The ‘Shani Bazaar ilaqa’ refers to the area where a weekly market comes up every Saturday.

Residents also define the space in a relational way – its location is ‘in close proximity’ to two well known public institutions – the Batra Hospital and the Jamia Hamdard complex. More importantly, it is the three ‘Ks’ – kaloni, kothi and kaam that defines ‘them’ and the ‘other’ in a relational sense. They may live in this kaloni, ‘but our men go for kaam in kothis outside.’ Derived from the English word colony, the term ‘kaloni’ is used for the large category of unauthorized and illegal settlements in Delhi, and reflects an acceptance of distinction and segregation from the outside world. Literally meaning work, ‘kaam’ reflects insecure employment in ‘kothis’, meaning houses of the rich in recognized legal areas. Sangam Vihar must always live in contestation with the state, and in a hierarchical relationship with an outside world where there is work for men. Izzat or dignity is secured through this relationship with the outside.


Arena 1: Near the Shani Bazaar area, in blocks L and L First, we interviewed families of Poorvanchalis, underclass migrants from Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, mostly belonging to the backward caste. It is interesting to note that the poorvanchali has meaning and identity only as a resident of Delhi’s various categories of authorized and illegal human settlements. At their point of migration in Bihar or Eastern UP, none of the migrants, here or elsewhere in Delhi, knew that they would be referred to as such, nor did it give them any specific benefit as members of a shared community. ‘We become collective actors in the city this way, we have identified leaders who we can approach in times of difficulty or more serious lafra, meaning disputes and illegal entanglements. He will take our voice forward if needed. Also, we can have a strong leader of our own. Without this, how can we take on the police?’, says Kamlesh Pal. Mahabal Mishra is named by the Poorvanchalis as their strong neta in the city – a person with pooch and pahunch, recognition and influence, qualities which scholar Anirudh Krishna notes to be the ‘currency of politics wherever ordinary people congregate.’7 In the liminal space between the citizen and the government lies the need for such intermediaries simply to access public services that by law or intention of public policy rightfully belong to the poor.


People almost never openly disclose their party-political preferences, and signal their choices only when a meaningful discussion has been initiated on the issues and grievances they consider significant, and on their political views. Only after they are convinced that the researcher is genuinely interested in listening to them, and empathetic to their problems, and is not merely digging out information for party-political purposes, they may signal their preference. The researcher must be understood as being ‘neutral’. ‘We have no problem here – we live as an extended family as the neighbouring houses are usually those of relatives – only water is a big problem. Supplied once every 10-15 days, for 20-30 minutes at one go, and by a private water mafia that has spread its own pipelines, it is very expensive.’ The strife over water increases in the summer. At this time of year, the women migrate back to their villages – only the men stay behind on ‘duty’. Veerender Pal tells me, ‘There is sar-futawwal in the summer months (on water disputes). The woman cannot be a part of all this. We live here with dignity, and cannot be part of any lafra which brings in the police.’ Neither the Congress nor the Bharatiya Janata Party has done enough to resolve these issues.

Kamlesh Pal’s aunt – referred to as chachi in this L First neighbour-hood – is a hub of sorts, managing the household for an extended chain of migrants, belonging to a stretched-out group of relatives. ‘We live here with dignity, with our sisters and daughters-in-law, while the men go for their jobs. Our houses are clean from inside, just like yours in a kothi. We are women of dignity – we conserve water and sparingly use the toilet. It is the men who must have priority of use as they have to go to work on time,’ she says. Its not just water that is a problem, there is also a lack of drains because of which there is a stench outside. No political party resolves this.

As we begin to leave, she signals: ‘Didi, is baar jhaadu ko bhi dekhiyega,’ pointing to the election symbol of the Aam Aadami Party (AAP). With this firm indication, people open up about their choice – representatives of the AAP party, especially women, had visited them in their homes. They were being seen as a set of trustworthy people – the only ones to promise secure pipelines for bringing water to households and take away sewage. For women, the promise of security in the party manifesto has a special significance. ‘Nirbhaya was like our daughter, a Poorvanchali. Anything can happen if women’s dignity is not ensured,’ says Chachi. In the Lok Sabha elections, or while voting back home in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, they may think about the kamal chaap (the lotus symbol of the BJP), but here it is the jhadu.


Arena 2: Entering Sangam Vihar from near the Jamia Hamdard,8 we reach K Block referred to as the ‘Bakri Gali’ – indicating it to be a Muslim settlement. There is a clear difference here in what the men and women say. For men, voting is their right, a duty they must perform. There is anger and protest in the voices of women. ‘I will not vote this time, I never vote, what is the point? Nothing is ever going to change for us,’ says an elderly Fatima Begum. Then Tabassum, a young student, says in anger that though she has a voter identity card, she is not convinced as to why she should vote. ‘Look at the state of our gali. Our houses are full of the back-flow from drain water. It floods the house, we have to keep our fridge and television sets on a chowki, and our houses stink for months. How can I ever invite friends from school to my home?’

Nuzrabad affirms and says: ‘Frankly we feel embarrassed living here, no one can come and visit us.’ The women confirm there is no water supply. They pay a deposit of Rs1000 and then Rs 100 every fortnight to those who control the bore well. Water comes for 15-20 minutes, and just enough to fill a fifty-litre storage drum. If we refuse to pay, ‘he’ cuts our pipeline. And then we have to pay from our pockets to fix it. What is the point of voting?


Contrast this with what the men tell us – they do not admit to any ‘rent-seeking’ for water. The bore well is under the control of the local masjid, and these fortnightly payments are used to run a madrasa for young children. They will vote for the Congress, but there is also the Peace Party, an independent party of the Muslims which they will consider if the Congress does not listen. An elderly Mohammed Sajid walks along as we leave, and says: ‘Jo neta ke chahete hote hain, unne paani ka connection diya jaata hai. Aur unne, jinse yehaan sab darte hain’ – this is a quiet signal that it is fear of the locally powerful that guides their political choices, fear of those who are ‘connected’ with politicians.

Last month there was a maaramaari between two groups as a new bore well was installed. In this closed arena, the highest symbol of social power and connections is procuring a government water tanker from the Delhi Jal Board (DJB). I hear from the background, ‘Arre dekhta nahi hai kya, DJB ka tanker aa raha hai,’ alerting all to make way for a DJB tanker coming to the gali for supplying government water.


Arena 3: At the end of the nearly kilometre long L Block gali, and hidden from the view of sprawling Sangam Vihar is its Valmiki kaloni for dalits. It is surprising how in a new settlement, where property dealers have sold land in a ‘free’ market operation, the dalits are further segregated deep inside the gali, and restricted to a few by-lanes. No other caste Hindu or Muslim lives here. The residents are mainly migrants from Western U.P., but some are Bengalis (from West Bengal, but suspected to be Bangladeshis). These streets are cleaner than most of the other blocks we have visited, but the safai karamcharis appointed by the municipal corporation refuse to come and clean here. The men tell us that they have contracted a private cleaning agency; when alone, the women admit cleaning these streets on their own.

On asking questions about politics, we are directed to their ‘leader’ Pyarelal, a former employee of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, who boasts of proximity to high-level officers and politicians. He also practices astrology and dabbles in the occult as a tantrik and pujari. He worships Indira Gandhi, a leader of the Congress party and the country’s prime minister until she was assassinated in 1984, like a deity in his temple. ‘All the votes from these 4-5 galis of the Valmiki kaloni will go to the Congress party. It is a party that has done a lot for us. What of me, even my future generations will vote for this party,’ he says. Congress Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit, has appointed a member from their samaj to the prestigious New Delhi Municipal Corporation, a symbolic action likely to yield electoral dividends for the party. No one else speaks in front of Pyarelal and the certitude in his assertions makes us believe that this is the community’s final decision.

We also meet a buzurg mahila Shyamvati, who too confirms the strong bonds of her community with the Congress party built since the time of the national movement and traces her first coming to Delhi at the time of Gandhi and Nehru, and in the spaces of the city (such as Teenmurti) where these national leaders lived and worked. ‘My son, nephew, this entire gali, everybody has a job and money,’ she says, ‘it is water they need the most and only sarkar can give it.’


Other residents of the kaloni, mostly men, congregate around her, and talk: One bore well supplies water to 600-700 households of this area, once every month for half an hour. Men confirm they take leave from work to fill up water. In contrast, in M Block across the pahaari, water comes every three or four days. Powerful people, mainly Jats, who have established control over water, live there. After the elections are over, many of them confirm having voted for the AAP. ‘We respect Pyarelal, and we are pakka Congressi, but this time it was different,’ says Prem Pal.

Reflecting on these voices, and the differences within Sangam Vihar, I gather that it is desperation for water and the lack of ability to make the state hear their grievances that constitutes ‘poverty’ here, not lack of (any) income or money. Indignity is not simply a historical caste hierarchy that Manu created; more importantly, it is a non-responsive Weberian hierarchy which the poor legitimize regularly through elections. The state turns a blind eye to providing social welfare and civic amenities to its citizens, and it is this lack of responsibility which leaves the citizens here at the mercy of the police.


In Sangam Vihar, though the police is gormint (government) who extracts money when they cast their linter (a roof for their house), it is all fixed, bandha hua. When they fight over who gets how much water, the police stands by: ‘…yeh aapka aapas ka maamla hai, aap hi suljhaaiye’ – it is a civil dispute, please resolve it by yourselves. But when they claim water from bore well and tanker owners, it is a route to the life of the illegal. The AAP helped them challenge this twin domination – the social power of the Jats and the extractive power of the police. The AAP government, however, was short-lived.

Rational action (of voting) within this bounded domain was understood as a weapon of substantive change – to change the terms governing exercise of power as domination and subordination, understood in community debates as power ‘over’, and a use of their collective resources to exercise the capacity to act and accomplish goals.

In less than six months, voters here elected a national government to be located in the heart of their Dilli, the Centre that does not smell or stink, which has aesthetic flower gardens and fawwaras (water fountains), and traffic police to ensure there is no congestion. The utopia here is that Sangam Vihar will some day insert itself into the city, and the city into the nation. Equally, that the nation will be an idea, the city a lived communion.



1.Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009.

2. Gautam Bhan, ‘Planned Illegality: Housing and the Failure of Planning in Delhi: 1947-2010’, Economic and Political Weekly 48(24), 2013.

3. Provisional certificates were granted to 1239 colonies in 2008. This process was challenged by a petition before the Lokayukta, who observed that this was a ‘populist measure’ done with a view to electoral gains, and that in some instances regularization had been done without observing the due process.

4. For the city of Mumbai, Nikhil Anand notes that settlers in Mumbai are able to access water by asserting the technology of pressure through politicians or social connections. This type of mediation is not enough in Delhi, where local domination or asserting ‘power over’ poor people is a condition of everyday life. Politicians put off interim changes till only after territory-authority relations are changed to ‘regularization’. See Nikhil Anand, ‘Pressure: The Politechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai’, Cultural Anthropology 26(4), Novermber 2011.

5. The field work was made possible by a European Social Research Council grant for ‘Explaining Electoral Change in Urban and Rural India’, with Mukulika Banerjee of the London School of Economics and Political Science as lead researcher.

6. Arjun Appadurai, ‘The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition’, in Michael Walton and Vijayendra Rao (eds.), Culture and Public Action. Stanford University Press, 2004.

7. Anirudh Krishna, ‘Between the Government and the Citizen’, The Indian Express, 18 June 2013.

8. A university for the practice and teaching of the Unani system of medicine set up on waqf land.