Kavita Ramakrishnan is researching the widespread and long-term impact of the urban resettlement process in Delhi, which preceded the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
As the world’s leading cities compete to host international events, what often gets lost in all the celebrations is the impact on local residents, particularly the poorest of those residents. In several host countries, whole communities of people have been relocated to present a “modern” image to tourists and TV viewers.
Kavita Ramakrishnan  is researching the widespread and long-term impact of the urban resettlement process in Delhi, which preceded the city’s hosting of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
The situation in Delhi needs more research, she says, despite initial studies on the start of the resettlement process in 2004. Little attention has been paid to how people’s lives are 10 years on, how they feel about their community and how they interact with central and local government. In fact, Kavita says that there is a common sentiment among the middle class that clearing away slum dwellers had “put Delhi on the path to modernity”.
The government has set itself the task of clearing over 100,000 people from the slum areas of the city. Primarily migrants from neighbouring states, residents had lived in Delhi for 15-30 years and had given birth to children in Delhi who considered themselves Delhi-ites.
Kavita’s research catalogues how resettlement has made their lives much more insecure in various ways.
People living in the slum areas were given a 10-year lease on a plot of land 35 kilometres outside Delhi by the government, in a colony in Bawana. They had to build their own homes on the land and only the basic infrastructure was put in place by government, who believe that this form of land ownership is a step up from life in the slums. However, says Kavita, “in the process a generation of lives have been ruined”. Many people feel let down by the government. “They felt like Delhi was their home and that they have been betrayed by the government,” says Kavita.
Most people’s living conditions are worse than they were in the slums of Delhi where at least they had been able to build communities and access employment. When they were moved they were often placed in different communities from the ones they had built up over previous decades. “They often did not form close relationships with other people in the resettlement colony. Their sense of community disintegrated,” says Kavita.
Many had lost all their belongings as part of a brutal eviction process. After being resettled, large numbers of people had taken out high interest loans to build their houses, which they were still paying off.
In terms of basic infrastructure, people in the colony do not have access to water and there is no proper sewage or sanitation. One toilet serves 80 people. Children are falling behind in their school work or have dropped out as a result of the instability caused by the resettlement process. Adults have been removed from sources of employment. Most residents had previously worked in vital jobs in the city’s economy: for instance, women had worked as maids and men as rickshaw drivers. However, public transport takes two hours to reach Delhi and those resettled cannot afford the transportation costs and time. “That is the most glaring insecurity. Before, although they might have lived in slums, they felt they at least had the opportunity to walk to the market and engage in daily wage labour,” says Kavita.
There are factories near the resettlement colony, but they are regarded as exploitative by those living in the colony. “People see factory work as equivalent to indentured labour. They want to be entrepreneurs or have the flexibility to contract out their labour,” says Kavita. Some men spend the week in Delhi sleeping rough in order to work in the central markets and then return to the resettlement over the weekend. “It is very disruptive for their families,” says Kavita. There are also high rates of crime and drug abuse due to the lack of employment opportunities in the resettlement area.
Kavita has written several journal articles about the situation and is in the final year of her PhD in Geography, writing up her dissertation. Previously she did an MPhil in Development Studies at Cambridge, for which she also received a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
Kavita, who grew up in Chicago, did her undergraduate degree in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Studies at the University of Southern California and received a Masters of Public Health at UCLA. “I was interested in how we can make communities healthier,” she says, “what the barriers were to access healthy food and why people with lower incomes were prone to certain diseases.”
Part of her interest came from a four-month stay in South Africa in 2006 during her undergraduate degree where she worked on projects related to HIV. She focused on issues such as gender disparities which impacted the power of women to negotiate condom use and generated myths that prevented condom usage. The experience inspired her masters coursework. Increasingly, however, she found public health to be only part of the solution since it often focused on behavioural change whereas her interest was in understanding the role of politics and the environment. This was why she opted for an MPhil in Development Studies when she came to Cambridge. The course opened up a whole range of literature, which she had not been previously exposed to and introduced her to her current supervisor, Emma Mawdsley in the Geography Department.
Between her MPhil and PhD she had the opportunity to return to South Africa to a role funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working on HIV/AIDS programme evaluation. However, she decided instead to stay on for her PhD and study informal settlements in India. Her mother’s family lives near Delhi and she decided to explore urban poverty in the city for her PhD. She says: “Much of the discourse and related research on urban development was from a top down perspective and I was interested in how it was experienced at the bottom.” She had spoken to the former UN human rights rapporteur who suggested she look at resettlement colonies.
Once she has finished her PhD, Kavita is keen to continue her research, comparing the Indian situation with what has happened in other countries. She is also interested in working in the development sector at an organisation with a clear social justice mission that seeks out community-driven solutions to upgrading and tenure security.
*Watch Kavita speaking about her research at a recent Gates Cambridge Scholars Internal Symposium.