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Erasing the 'Ugly' from 'City Beautiful'

Demolition of slums in Chandigarh

The displacement of the poor from the informal tenements in Chandigarh indicates that the administration prioritises the “beautiful” city over an “inclusive” city. Repeated demolitions have rendered the original architects of this city homeless, raising questions on citizenship and struggle for space in a sanitised city. 

Before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, like everywhere else in India, slums of the union territory of Chandigarh were abuzz with intense political activity. Leaders of various political parties left no stone unturned to impress around three lakh “game-changer” voters living in the city’s slums. After the elections were over and prior to the announcement of the verdict, residents of five of the city’s slums, with a population of around 20,000, became homeless as the administration demolished their homes for the proposed “Vikas Marg”.

In Chandigarh, city roads dividing various areas are known as “Margs” such as Uttar Marg, Dakshin Marg, Paschim Marg and the famous Madhya Marg (Madhya Marg not only divides the city into north and south but is also considered as a boundary line dividing its elites from  the rest of the city).  The proposed Vikas Marg sheds light on the developmental plans of the city administration where big shopping malls and commercial plazas get priority over affordable housing. Apart from the already demolished slums, nine other slums are on the radar of the city administration. The residents of those nine slums were served a demolition notice, which was deferred at the last moment due to protests staged by the people.

Kuldeep Colony in Chandigarh on 10 May 2014. Courtesy: Daljit Ami

Nehruvian Modernity and the City of Chandigarh

The recent demolition drive in Chandigarh, one of the epitomes of Nehruvian modernity in India, is part of the city administration’s larger plan to demolish the “illegal” slums in order to make the city slum free. However, the story of “illegality” of the slums and its dwellers also points towards a long history of vulnerability of the poor and the marginalised. This history could be traced from the era of Nehruvian modernity during the early years of independence to India’s neo-liberal economy of the 21st century.

Chandigarh was the brain child of Jawaharlal Nehru who sought to build a planned city based on the ideas of modern architecture. Nehru invited the famous French architect of his time, Le Corbusier, to execute his vision. Nehru’s favourite projects like big dams, heavy industries and planned cities involved considerable restructuring of the physical space. In Nehru’s views these reorganised spaces would not only unleash an era of development and scientific temper but would also bring about equality and justice in the society. The rise of various social movements against displacement and ecological destruction caused by some of these big projects of Nehru indicates how these “temples of modern India” violently erased not only lives and livelihoods but also led to loss of local traditions and cultures in many parts of the country.

The slums or the non-planned settlements started mushrooming at the time of construction of this planned city. Most of the labourers that came here for the construction work of the city gradually started settling on the vacant land near their place of work. As the city came into being and its middle-class residents started settling in, the migrant labourers in the slums played an important role in sustaining the daily life of the city’s middle classes. Thus the slums became an inevitable part of the “planned” city. The birth of large slums in this planned city, and recent demolition drives undertaken by the government provide yet another opportunity for a critique of the exclusionary ideas on which Nehruvian modernity was based.

Politics of Development

The union territory of Chandigarh has been the administrative centre for the two adjoining states of Punjab and Haryana. From being a middle class city of sarkari babus (government bureaucrats) in its early decades, Chandigarh is now one of the most expensive cities of the country to live in. The city’s outskirts bordering Punjab and Haryana have seen a huge spurt of real-estate activity, as real estate prices have become unaffordable in the city. This has led the middle class people to move to far flung suburbs of the city. The Chandigarh Housing Board also seems to have thrown its original mandate of providing affordable housing to the wind. The auctioning process of this government body has been completely taken over by the maneuvers of the real estate mafia of the city, leading to a farcical rise in price of the government houses as well.

City administration personnel carrying out demolition in Kuldeep Colony. Courtesy: Daljit Ami.

In such a scenario, the city administration is very keen now to “retrieve” the land on which slum colonies are located. At the heart of the administration’s decision to demolish  slums of the city, lies the whole discourse of contesting claims, which in governmental and bureaucratic practices gets played out in the binaries of legality and illegality, citizen and encroacher. One of the ways in which the state marks its disadvantaged citizens as outsiders, is through laying down a volley of norms, which are located in the state’s documentation practices. Possessing only oral narratives and memories about her/his habitation in the city for many decades, the slum-dweller almost always finds herself/himself short of fulfilling these norms.

However, a minuscule population of slum-dwellers has been “included” in developmental discourses of the city, as the administration claims to rehabilitate them through its much publicised small flat scheme (Public Relations Department: 2013). Under this scheme, the administration demolished one of the largest and oldest slums in the city, Colony No 5, spread over 100 acres of land with a population of around 50,000 in November 2013.[i] Thousands of families were rendered homeless and were left to fend for themselves in the chilly winter. Hundreds of children from this slum were forced to leave their schools, as their families migrated to far-off places. Many of these families for whom Chandigarh had been their home for decades had to leave the city forever, as they were forced to go back to their native villages in wake of the steep rise in rent. Under the highly publicised rehabilitation policy of the administration, only one-fourth of those displaced due to demolition drive got one room houses from the administration under the small flat scheme.

Unrelenting Harassment

The city media was also completely hostile to the plight of these homeless, who for decades had contributed in keeping the city “beautiful” with their sweat and blood. Rather than giving voice to these invisiblised citizens of the city, some of the city newspapers carried front page stories about the existence of “wealthy slumdwellers” in city slums with pictures of televisions (Express News Service: 2013a), refrigerators and “even ACs”, with the bulldozers demolishing the slum in the background. It is another matter that these city slums housed the poorest of the poor.

Kuldeep Colony, Chandigarh. Courtesy: Daljit Ami.

Moreover, when it comes to basic facilities like drinking water, roads, electricity and cleanliness, most of the slums present a perfect picture of complete neglect by the administration and politicians. After the insensitive acts of the administration and an equally insensitive portrayal of the demolition by the media, some students from left organisations in Panjab University along with lawyers, journalists, academicians and film-makers of the city formed the Ghar Adhikaar Sangharsh Morcha (GASM) to fight  against demolition and for rehabilitation of these slum-dwellers. 

Meanwhile, the administration issued a notice for the next round of demolition of city slums. If the administration had chosen winter to render scores of families homeless in November 2013, this demolition drive was conducted in the scorching heat of May. Five more slums namely Pandit Colony, Kuldeep Colony, Mazdoor Colony, Nehru Colony and Kajheri Colony were marked for demolition in May 2014. The GASM tried to build pressure on the administration to halt the demolition drive by conducting dharnas and rallies in the city. It tried to question the  strict bureaucratic norms laid down by the administration to determine claims of residence. It argued that the basic criteria laid down for determining period of stay in the slum was faulty.

According to the rules laid down by the administration, only those included in electoral rolls of 2006[ii] were considered eligible for the allotment of one room flat. Many of the residents who were staying in these slums for decades and possessed other valid proofs of residence but did not have their names in voters list were left out.

Many of the activists from GASM argued that the rehabilitation of slum-dwellers was a welfare measure, and the strict norms laid down by the administration was yet another bureaucratic ploy to keep most of the displaced people out of the purview of  the rehabilitation scheme. In their meetings with the administrative officers of the city, they argued that the administration must avoid putting the displaced poor through unnecessary and cumbersome bureaucratic processes. However, the city bureaucracy refused to pay any heed to the forum’s arguments about the loopholes in its rehabilitation policy.

The peoples’ movement also questioned the way in which the bio-metric survey was conducted for rehabilitation purposes. Many of the people with valid proof of residence in the city were left out of the bio-metric survey, as they were not at home on the day the survey was conducted. The survey of these slums was conducted in a hurry in a  span of two days. It was only after protests from those left out that the administration decided to put up a special counter where the harassed slum-dwellers were again made to go through cumbersome bureaucratic processes to stake their claims for the allotment of a house.  

The corruption plaguing the rehabiliatation process has added to the woes of the already harassed slum-dwellers. From paying “fees” to the local slum leaders for filling their application forms for allotment to greasing the palms of petty bureaucracy in the administration, it becomes  difficult  for the slum-dwellers to negotiate the arduous process of rehabilitation.

Ugly realities of City Beautiful

If one were to look at this celebrated city designed by modernist architect Le Corbusier, one would understand that Chandigarh is not just a city of concrete and mortar, but it also represents the idea of Nehruvian modernity in post-colonial India. However, if one looks at the journey of its homeless slum-dwellers over the last fifty years, Chandigarh also represents the story of a farcical and tyrannical dream of nation-building, where the existence of its most disadvantaged citizens has been negated from the very birth of modern  India. Chandigarh was planned as a sanitised city for a newly emergent nation and was also designed as an attempt to attain modernity by making a clean break from its traditional past.  However in this attempt, it failed to understand that in order to move forward, India had to engage deeply with the traditional, which also included an engagement with its caste system.

The histories of resistance of displaced farmers on whose land this city was built in the1950s remained unheard and invisiblised from the narratives of the city. Similarly, the recent narratives of demolition and displacement of thousands of the slum-dwellers  also remain equally invisiblised from the public gaze. For Nehru, restructuring of space, in the form of city planning, also intended to bring about the much desired social change at the time of Independence. However, in recent decades, the realisation of this dream has been undermined by the onslaught of neo-capitalism, where space has become a site of contestation between the state and its citizens. With the state unleashing unprecedented violence on its citizens to protect private interests everywhere in the country, Chandigarh is also witnessing the rollback of the state’s welfare agenda.

The state has started openly conniving with the capitalist forces to displace the poor and to encourage private players in the name of development. One of the many ways through which capitalism works is by overlooking the poor. The same has happened in case of Chandigarh, where the administration has reduced the displaced slum-dwellers to mere numbers. A few of them are legally eligible for rehabilitation, but most of them are simply rendered “illegal”. In the process, the world of the slum-dweller is completely erased. The loss of neighbourhood ties formed  over many decades,  of professional networks built over  generations  and  political solidarities built over a long period of time do not find a mention anywhere. Next time an advertisement about owning a home in “City Beautiful” appears in a newspaper, it could also be read as an obituary of throbbing life  in the slums that have got erased from the lifescape of the city for ever.


[i] There are different versions as far as the exact area and population of the slum is concerned. According to a memorandum of Ghar Adhikar Sangharsh Samiti(GASM) submitted to the Administrator of Chandigarh on 5 May 2012, the colony was spread in an area of 108 acres of land and had a population of around 70,000 people. However, according to a news report published in Indian Express, the population of the colony was estimated to be 30,000 and spread over an area of 60 acres. See Express News Service (2013b).

[ii] According to a notification issued by Chandigarh Administration’s finance department issued on 6 November 2006 vide its letter no. 11/6/106-UTFI, only those persons will be considered for rehabilitation whose name is both included in the electoral rolls of 2006 and whose name is also included in the Bio Metric Survey conducted by the Chandigarh Administration in the month of March 2006 and are continuously residing in the colony.


Express News Service (2013a): “Demolition drive: TV, fridge, microwave form part of belongings of EWS colony residents”, The Indian Express, 21 November, available at, accessed on 30 July 2014.

---- (2013b): “Demolition of Oldest Colony Begins”, The Indian Express, 21 November, available at, accessed on 30 July 2014.

Public Relations Department (2013): Press Release, Chandigarh Administration, 20 December, available at, accessed on 30 July 2014. 


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