Kathputli colony or the puppeteers’ colony is a slum area in New Delhi that is home to thousands of traditional artists and street performers.
It is seen as the largest community of performers, anywhere in the word, and has been going for more than sixty decades.
For years residents have successfully resisted eviction attempt after the other. But now authorities are becoming more and more aggressive, with the demolition trucks rolling in.
Bismillah Geelani has this story, on last-ditch efforts to save the community.
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, this is our home and we are not going to leave it but they are hell bent on making us homeless,” Mukul explained.
“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 that is not acceptable to us,” she said.
The specter of eviction has haunted residents since 2010, when city authorities signed a deal with a private developer for a huge construction project, including high-rise apartments and a 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.
The riot control vehicles and the armed soldiers, says activist Himshi Singh, are an unnecessary show of force.
“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 here in hundreds what do they want to convey?” asked Singh.
“The people living here are artists who make you proud and you treat them as terrorists. Soldiers are roaming everywhere here, they enter in peoples’ homes in dozens and make them sign papers and demolish the structures. They are terrorizing everyone into submission,” Singh said.
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.
Civic authorities have been trying to convince them to move to a transit camp until the construction work is complete.
They say all the families will be provided housing in the proposed high-rise buildings at a nominal amount.
Some families, including that of Mohammad Islam, have agreed.
“I am moving out because the court says we should do so and it has assured us that nothing wrong will happen to us,” Islam stated.
“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,” he said.
But the majority of residents are still refusing to leave their homes.
Many of them have serious doubts the authorities will actually keep their promise of relocation once the project is complete.
A history of broken promises made to other evicted slum dwellers in the city, is fuelling these apprehensions.
Others worry about the future of their art in the limited space of small apartments, like Pooran Bhat an internationally acclaimed puppeteer.
“Here is a group of people who have kept these traditional art forms alive even in the midst of suffering, poverty and hardship. But there is nobody to think about their survival,” Bhat appealed.
“If our work doesn’t get enough breathing space it will simply die, and we will be forced to do something else for a living. After all we are not educated enough to be able to get jobs where we have to sit in an office and work with the pen,” said Bhat.
Apart from deploying armed soldiers and demolition staff, authorities have also stopped municipal sanitation services to the area.
The garbage is piling up and overflowing sewage is turning into a serious health risk. The residents see the move as yet another pressure tactic to make them vacate the area.
But for now, they appear to be in no mood to give in.