Visual storytelling as evidence: How the Missing Basti Project is helping us talk about housing evictions in Delhi

The poor in India’s cities have endured evictions and demolitions of their homes and settlements for decades now. While long legal and political battles have sometimes resulted in a modicum of justice through rehabilitation of affected households, demolitions themselves are irreversible acts that forever destroy a settlement and transform the area. initiatives like the Missing Basti Project (MBP) seek to document these erasures by utilising the power of the Internet to create an archive of material memory.

The recent demolition of a large informal settlement at Khori, on the Delhi-Haryana border, draws into close focus the inequities felt by the poor and the constant threat of eviction they live under. Long-drawn legal battles and political mobilisations have in some cases resulted in policies and court pronouncements bringing a modicum of justice through rehabilitation of affected households. However, demolitions themselves are irreversible acts that forever destroy a settlement and transform the neighbourhood. Initiatives like the Missing Basti Project (MBP) in Delhi seek to document these erasures by utilising the power of the Internet to create an archive of material memory.

MBP is an initiative to archive past and ongoing evictions in Delhi to question as well as mobilize action for the prevention of further evictions. It is an attempt to leverage the power of maps and data in supporting marginalized communities to assert their right to the city. Through personal accounts, expert narratives and videos, it aims to initiate action on urban and social justice, and generate discourse on lack of adequate, affordable housing and inclusive development. While hoping to use the collected data for policy advocacy and holding civic authorities accountable, the initiative also attempts to reach out to the general public and media whose active engagement is critical in ensuring social equity within our cities. The website has compiled data contributed by various researchers, social activists and rights-based organizations since the 1990s, while attempting to aggregate past efforts at similar mapping exercises. It is envisioned as an open and live archive to which anyone can contribute. The website is meant for the general public and specifically for access to students, researchers and policy makers.

IHR spoke to some of the individuals involved in the Missing Basti Project to get a sense of how it all came together.

Conception, inspiration and methodology

A number of people (and organisations) including Gautam Bhan/IIHS, Veronique Dupont/IRD, Shivani Chaudhry/HLRN and others had made efforts to document evictions in Delhi over time. In a sense, the  MBP group provided the opportunity for everyone to come together.

The group originated out of a discussion in the Delhi Housing Rights Task Force (DHRTF) initiated by one of its members Swati Janu, an architect and planner. Swati, along with Friederike Thonke and Mayank Chandak, had organised a workshop at CEPT in 2017 where along with her students she tried to begin mapping evictions from 2017-18. As she puts it, “the idea behind the workshop came from the realisation that when an eviction takes place, the rest of the city does not even know what was there in the first place to understand what has been lost” – and hence the need felt for documenting these sites, creating a kind of archive of material memory. Some of the inspirations for this were the Anti-eviction Mapping Project in San Francisco and the Livingmaps Network in London, which have sought to use the power of maps for social justice/human rights. The CEPT group, with the help of Basti Suraksha Manch, managed to document about 10–12 eviction sites on a map.

All this information was shared with the DHRTF group in one of its monthly meetings, where evictions and rehabilitation issues are regularly tracked by members. Swati’s ideas were received enthusiastically and  more people joined the initiative in a snowballing effect. Through the 4 years since then, various people have been a part of the project, joining and leaving at various points. The core work of the MBP though has consistently been progressing in two ways: (i) getting all the data together (documentation); and (ii) design and visualisation.

Diverse team and skill sets

Swati says the main strength of MBP is that it is interdisciplinary – “like the story of the blind men and an elephant, people from different backgrounds see different aspects of the growing archive – and it might take time for everyone to understand it completely”. Everyone has their own takeaways based on their background which may be different from those who have been working in urban studies.

Mayank, the designer of the website, is a classic example – he is from a technical background not related to urban studies – but he has even gone to a couple of eviction sites to understand the process and impact. Each member of the group carries their own understandings to the project, which has benefited greatly from this interdisciplinary nature. Lawyers (DHRTF is primarily a group for legal support) have also been very central people to this process with lots of inputs on the technical aspects. Similarly there were filmmakers and media studies people who have pushed for greater use of multimedia (photos and video) as a means of telling the stories of the evicted communities. This was then picked up by lawyers who combined it with their knowledge of eviction sites and communities that they were working with or representing in court, to bring out richness to the stories.

Screengrab of video featuring Majnu’s family

This collaboration is evident on the website, where one of the featured video stories is the result of a collaboration between Tripti Poddar, advocate with Nazdeek, and Rajan Zaveri, independent filmmaker. In the video, they highlight the legal struggles of the Gadia Lohar community through one of its leaders, Majnu, who was one of the original petitioners in the Sudama Singh case, a landmark 2010 judgment where the right to housing was recognised by the Delhi HC. The sad reality that the video highlights, though, is that while the case has been used throughout the country as precedent, the original petitioners are still awaiting rehabilitation – and living in abysmal conditions. Manju himself died awaiting resettlement, and his family members, who feature in the video, bring out powerfully their endless wait for justice even after securing a court order in their favour. An added advantage was that Rajan had captured videos of demolitions in 2014-15 so it was interesting to revisit those sites and communities and hear their stories half a decade later.

The role of multimedia resources in legal struggle

With the advent of technology, multimedia resources are increasingly useful in court too. Tripti says, “It helps to have any kind of documentation when you’re trying to narrate a story in court. [Multimedia] excites the court’s imagination and makes it more real for judges who may be far removed [from the petitioners in these cases] and don’t have an idea of their realities. It brings the reality alive – transforms it from one that judges have to imagine, to one that they can see before them, through pictures and other things.”

Another important function of multimedia is in record-keeping and documentation of injustice. For instance, the MBP website features videos of slum dwellers who have been waiting for years for rehabilitation housing despite being found eligible. As Tripti says, “if 15 years from now unfortunate reality is that people haven’t got justice, then we’re able to use this multimedia as a record. Because the government doesn’t document these stories – in fact, nobody does – hence [our effort is] to record them [for posterity].” 

Reception and future plans

At the outset, there was a lot of discussion in the group regarding who the target audience of the website would be, and what form it would take accordingly. At present its utility as a resource is mostly for researchers and academics, although a few parts, like the section called Know Your Rights, contains government orders, judgments and other material that communities can use as a ready resource when threatened by an eviction.

Screengrab from the website showing resources for communities.

Though basic at present, the website is being expanded – first on the list are resources such as a phone helpline, making the site more mobile-friendly etc. Eventually it is hoped to have a Hindi version as well. Also in the pipeline are more videos and multimedia material. The current discussion in the group is on how to make the website more accessible. As Tripti puts it, “My personal aim is that it should be an archive for basti dwellers [who] get very isolated by all the evictions and displacements –so having an archive like this is a moment of solidarity for them, to say you’re not alone, there are other people who’ve had similar sad realities and together we can work to a better realisation of our rights.”

The website has received good feedback – a lot of people have reported being shocked/horrified at the extent of evictions, which are very graphically represented on the homepage. This is the kind of impact envisaged on the general public, and even the choice of red was deliberate. When one looks at the website it is clear that there has been an eviction in pretty much every neighbourhood of Delhi.

Swati says, “We want this to be a resource open to everyone which can become the starting point of a lot of urban studies work/research – for Delhi, India and even the Global South. For instance, if anyone wants to talk about peripheralisation [of resettlement colonies] – they have the data visible in front of them showing how far out resettlement colonies are from the city core. Similarly anyone working on JJCs evictions also has the info readily available spatially.”

The group also did have a lot of discussion around a moving exhibition – although it couldn’t happen due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ironically, evictions continued to take place despite the pandemic, and the website documents them prominently. The group hopes that in a post-Covid world, the exhibition will take place in many bastis – thus making it accessible as a useful resource for basti dwellers. Further plans also involve more engagement with the general public– while recognising that this is long term work which will involve busting entrenched biases against the urban poor. As Swati concludes, “the website can be a starting point: the moment you create a personal connection for people to relate to – this is my neighbourhood, there were 3 settlements that were evicted here – you can get people interested.”

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