Politics of Pollution in ‘Global’ Delhi

— Lalit Batra

When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another, such injury that death results, we call that deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But the society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one that is quite as much death by violence as that by sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live - forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence - knows that these thousands of victims much perish and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.
      –  Frederick Engels (The Conditions of the Working Class in England)


In the last fifteen years, since the policies of liberalization, privatisation and globalisation were institutionalised, the landscape of Delhi has morphed out of recognition. From mixed neighbourhoods to exclusive elite conclaves, from hundreds of informal markets to a score of glitzy shopping malls, from ‘brick and mortar’ industries to high tech information highways, the change has been rapid and palpable. While a few privileged ones welcome the changing face of the city, for the majority of the poor and working people, these changes affect their lives and livelihoods in ways as to make even bare survival a gruelling daily struggle for them.

The toiling majority of Delhi is being made to bear the burden of giving a minority of ‘citizens’ a taste of what it is like to live in a ‘global’ city. Thus, while massive amounts of investments are being poured in ‘state of the art’ projects like Metro, flyovers, expressways and commercial complexes, the poor are denied even the basic minimum necessities of life. Be it slum dwellers or rickshaw pullers, hawkers or rag pickers, daily wagers or residents of unauthorized colonies- all are being pushed away from the centre to the periphery of the city, both physically as well as notionally, by the iron hand of the state and the market.

An instance of this is the ruthlessness with which all arms of the state apparatus are hell bent upon closing down over a lakh manufacturing units operating in the city in the name of protecting the environment and upholding the rule of law, thus snatching livelihood opportunities of over a million working people. For long victims of a low wage economy which compelled them to live and work under conditions which can at best be termed ‘inhuman’, these workers are now facing a serious threat to their very survival in the city.

The origin of environmental discourse in Delhi, which set in motion the binaries of ‘environment versus livelihood’, ‘rule of law versus compulsions of electoral democracy’ and ‘citizens versus migrants’, can be traced back to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by an ‘environmentalist lawyer and activist’ MC Mehta in the Supreme Court in 1985. The said petition (Writ petition Civil No. 4677/1985) was essentially concerned with air pollution caused by the stone crushers in South Delhi and Haryana and was in no way related to industrial pollution. This was one of the first instances when the court was called upon to intervene in the matters pertaining to state policy in order to protect the environment and safeguard the health of the ‘citizens’ by upholding the rule of law. Subsequently, Mehta filed an application under the same case in 1994 requesting the court to issue directions for closure of hazardous and noxious industries in non-confirming areas. Acting on the petition the Supreme Court bench consisting of Justice Kuldeep Singh and Justice Sangheer Ahmad delivered a ‘historic’ judgement on July 8, 1996 wherein it ordered 168 ‘hazardous and noxious’ units to either close down their shops or move out of Delhi. Overnight more than 50,000 workers lost their jobs.

The compensation announced was a meagre one-year salary in case the unit decides to close down. After a serious of spectacular protests by workers and concerned organizations and individuals under the banner of Delhi Janwadi Adhikar Manch (DJAM), the government was forced to increase the compensation to the equivalent of six years’ wages. In any case, most of the workers ended up in penury because being contract labour, they were not on factory rolls and thus not eligible for any kind of compensation. On the other hand, big industrial units like Birla Textile Mill, DCM Silk, Swatantra Bharat Mill etc. were absolutely delighted because the court order provided them with the easiest possible route to realise what they had wanted to do for a long time but couldn’t due to the fear of labour laws, that is, to close down their units. The reason being that these industries were generating less profit than what they could realize by putting their share of the prime real estate on which they were situated to other uses or simply selling it off. For example, the market value of the land parcels the owners of the above-mentioned industries got as their share was Rs. 340 crores, Rs. 700 crores and Rs. 225 crores respectively!

The second leg of closures started in 2000. This time around not only polluting industries but also non-confirming industries came under fire. Non-confirming industries are those units which function outside the areas earmarked as industrial areas in the Master Plan land use zoning. Nobody knew for sure exactly how many industries were going to be targeted. The estimates ranged between 36000 to 95000. But the Sub Divisional Magistrates armed on the one hand with the court order and on the other a ‘tentative’ list of units to be targeted prepared by the CPCB began sealing operations on a massive scale. It was then that all hell broke loose. Egged on by the owners of these units, the workers came out on streets in thousands and paralysed many parts of the city for 3-4 days. But this ‘unity’ between the owners of small scale industries and workers began to develop cracks soon enough as the workers realised that while it was they who were being killed and put behind bars, the owners remained safely in the background. Till date there is no reliable data on exactly how many units were eventually sealed and how many workers lost their livelihood in 2000. But independent observers maintain that over a lakh workers lost their jobs. I myself went to the New Delhi and Old Delhi Railway Stations during those tumultuous days and saw thousands of workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh scrambling to catch the train going towards their native states. Significantly, this time around the court did not announce even an iota of compensation for the affected workers.

For the past few months the issue of polluting and non-confirming industries has again been hogging the headlines in the media. Once again there is pressure from the court to shut down all polluting and non-confirming industries. In the past 3 months, over 5000 such industries have had to face electricity and water disconnections. Further, over 1700 units in confirming areas also were closed down by Delhi government in August this year to show its compliance to the directions issued by the Supreme Court in another PIL filed by Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology on Hazardous Wastes and Chemicals (Writ Petition No. 657/1995).

But given the nature of the mandate the UPA received, the state machinery is treading a little cautiously on this issue. Thus the talk of amending the Master Plan to declare areas having more than 70% built units being used for manufacturing purposes as industrial areas. But one must not be fooled by these statements, as a few days after this ‘decision’ was taken, the Ministry of Urban Development filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court which said nothing about amending the Master Plan and instead requested the court to extend the deadline for relocation till 2007! The only significant gain for those resisting closure and relocation of industries has been the notification of the MoUD a few weeks back declaring 18 types of industries as Household Industries which are allowed, with conditions, under the Master Plan to operate from residential, commercial and service areas. Thus one could possibly hope that at least barbers won’t be called polluters!

The trajectory of measures to control environmental pollution in the city of Delhi over the past two decades raises several important questions. Coming to the issue of pollution first, workers’ organisations and joint fronts like the DJAM have pointed out, for example, that if pollution is the issue then how can relocation solve the problem? Does the court consider human life to be cheaper in other areas than it is in the elite areas of Delhi? Also, are not workers, who work in these units for anything between 10-14 hours and live under inhuman conditions in the slums nearby, the first and the biggest victims of pollution? Shouldn’t, then, any genuine pollution control measure concentrate on improving the working conditions at the source instead of snatching the work itself for that would surely mean an instant death instead of a slow one? And what about the farmers of Bawana who have protested against the pollution of the city being dumped in their vicinity? Clearly, this is not a case of ‘not tolerating pollution’ but ‘not tolerating pollution in my own backyard’! Out of sight, out of mind is it?

It is worth mentioning that the Master Plan has been violated far more systematically and ruthlessly by the rich and the powerful and the government itself than by anybody else. The entire Asiad 82 infrastructure, including stadia, hotels, flyovers etc. were built in violation of the Master Plan. Thousands of farmhouses encircling Delhi are again violations of the Plan. From Akshardham temple to the Metro Rail Depot to even the Secretariat of the Delhi Government- all these are violations. Why then such a hue and cry over non-confirming industries? In fact, according to the Master Plan the government should have built 66 industrial areas in Delhi by 2001. But till date there are only 31 confirming industrial areas in Delhi. Shouldn’t the government agencies responsible for this act of omission be held accountable?

Thirdly, is relocation a viable option even from the point of view of the owners of these industries? According to a survey conducted in 1998 by the Delhi Government, out of a total of 1,26,175 manufacturing and repair units in urban Delhi about 33,566 or 26.6% were own account enterprises which means that they are run with family labour only. Of the rest, about 36% employed less than 6 workers. The data suggests that about two-thirds of manufacturing units are essentially slightly upgraded version of artisan workshops. They need a market in their immediate vicinity, as transportation of raw material from and finished products to the urban areas is unviable for their survival. Even for those who are opting for relocation, that is, mostly middle sized firms, the proposed Bawana industrial area has not been developed in even a decade’s time. Is the issue then to throw these small players out of the market so that bigger sharks can come in and fill the gap?

The only way one can make some sense of this whole issue of closure and relocation of industries, despite the prime facie evidence suggesting an utter absurdity of such measures vis a vis their declared objectives, is to see it in connection with other kinds of attacks taking place on the working class in the wake of the ‘opening up’ of the Indian economy.

If we look at the Master Plan, the modernist vision of the city enshrined in it was completely out of sync with the economy, society and polity of a postcolonial Third World country. Thus while the Master Plan sought to fashion Delhi in the image of an orderly bourgeois city with strict spatial segregation of various functions, the exigencies of building a domestic capital base with an emphasis on import substitution ensured that violations of the Plan were not only tolerated but also actively encouraged by the political and administrative elite. Whether it is squatter settlements, unauthorised colonies, small scale industries or informal sector services - the existential necessities of the poor coupled with the requisites of electoral democracy produced an urban space which was, in some senses, a complete subversion of what the Plan stood for. While this process did not guarantee constitutional rights-based legal existence for the working class in the city it nevertheless created a gray zone between legality and illegality where they could, at least as a collective, negotiate their lives in the city.

But in the past two decades the situation has changed. This has a lot to do with the policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation initiated in the early 90s which effected a fundamental rupture in the way the elite viewed the requirement of the poor in the city. In this view, poor working people have typically been seen as ‘encroachers’ of public land, ‘stealing’ resources like land, water, electricity etc., meant for the legitimate ‘citizens’ of the city and polluting its water and air. The only way to protect the interests of the citizens and save the city therefore is to throw these hordes of migrants and their polluting activities out of sight, that is, on the outskirts of the city. The politics of globalisation depends, among other things, on refashioning cities in a way suitable enough to lure foreign investment. Major cities of the Third World are thus sought to be delinked from real domestic priorities and positioned as nodes in the circulation of global finance capital. This puts a heavy strain on urban land and other resources which are increasingly freed from less productive uses such as small scale manufacturing or housing for the poor and deployed for high tech modes of accumulation and consumption, whether material or symbolic, of the affluent. The entire urban space, in this process, becomes a market place where distribution and consumption of global brands takes place in the form of a series of spectacles.

It is not unusual nowadays to hear the chief minister or the LG or some Union Minister proposing to make Delhi like Singapore or Paris or London. To say that these changes have been brought only about by the changing governmental and administrative priorities would be to deny the complexity of the situation. The change in governmental and administrative priorities has been brought about by pressures on the one hand from global finance capital and on the other an increasingly vocal and assertive middle class. Both these forces have attacked the affirmative activities of the welfare state as the root cause of corruption, lawlessness and pollution of city life. This is borne out of the fact that in the past one decade as many as 42 Public Interest Litigations have been filed by the Residents’ Welfare Associations of middle class colonies in various courts pleading for the eviction of squatter settlements from their vicinity. The argument goes like this: ‘It is the politicians who have over the years actively encouraged the growth of illegal industries and encroachment on public lands by slum clusters in order to create a captive vote bank and a ready source of income. This has resulted in the law-abiding, tax paying citizens being denied their legitimate rights in the city.’ So the idea of the reclamation of the rights of citizenry has been directly linked to the further dispossession of the already dispossessed. This has serious implications for the rights of the working class for a better life as the consolidation of the middle classes around the vision of a ‘Clean and Green Delhi’ creates a social force necessary for further delegitimization of their existence in the city. q