The DDA has never used force. Only the land racketeer and those who exploited human misery were at bay. Allegations of bulldozing of “houses” are totally wrong. Only debris and remnants of vacated structures were cleared with the help of the bulldozers […] What has been bulldozed is not the slums but their politics, not the jhuggi-jhompries, but the physical and mental diseases that they reared. Bulldozers were instruments of development, and not of demolitions.
– Jagmohan, Vice Chairman of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in Island of Truth, 1978
I first began going to Dakshinpuri with the intent of interviewing residents about their memories of the Emergency – the defining event that catapulted this now bustling working-class neighborhood into being. But as I spoke to more and more people, it struck me that their stories were not so much about the political events that had marked their lives. Sure, they all mentioned Indira Gandhi (with high praise, I might add)—but she only appeared tangentially in their epic accounts of how Dakshinpuri was carved out of the wilderness. I realized that the stories I was hearing were, above all, narratives of demolition—an experience, both painfully tangible and coldly abstract, that defined the urban experience of an entire generation of poor, low-caste migrants who came to Delhi in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The figure of the bulldozer—a beast-like machine that mercilessly razed homes, entire slums to ground—dominated people’s narratives of their resettlement from inner-city slums to the jungle-like outskirts of Delhi. It was the central hinge of many people’s stories, a symbol of sudden and complete destruction, of the erasure of their old lives and the beginning of something new. But when I asked people to describe exactly how their homes—shacks, jhuggis—were destroyed, many told me matter-of-factly that there were no bulldozers in those days. What was there to destroy in a jhuggi, anyway? Bulldozers, they said, were for “real houses”—pakka makhan—but all it takes to destroy a jhuggi is the nudge of a shovel.
Jhuggiyon todne ke liye bulldozer nahin aaya. Logon ne kacchi kacchi, aise masale ke banayi, mitti thi, inth lagake, aise jhuggiyon bana li. Aise tod rahe the, unhone chaddrein hatai, jaldi jaldi truck mein samaan tute chaho kuch bhi ho bacche unke bithayi. Jhuggiyon mein zyada samaan kaun rakhta tha? – Pushpa
Bulldozers did not come to destroy our jhuggis. People had made their jhuggis out of the dirt, mixing dust and cement to make bricks—it was kaccha. They tore them down again just like that, using shovels, told everyone to put all their stuff in the truck quickly quickly, no matter if it broke, and put their children in the truck. Who keeps much stuff in their jhuggi? – Pushpa
Construction workers in the noon-day heat outside of Nizamuddin Basti, May 2010.
Bulldozer? Nahin, bulldozer nahin the is samay. Policewalon aate the, unhone chaddar lagaye, aisa toda. Jhuggi mein hota kya, kya hota jhuggi mein? Kaccha kaccha, uske upar kuch plastic ka dal rakha, bas. Usmein kya todna, usmein bulldozers kya karna bulldozers to pakka makhanon ke liye chahiye. Us taim mein bulldozer ka zamana nahin tha. Ek jhuggi todne kitna taim lagta? Panch minute! – Jagdesh
Bulldozers? No, there were no bulldozers that time. The police came with shovels, that’s how they destroyed our jhuggis. What’s in a jhuggi? It’s a kaccha, kaccha structure with some plastic thrown on top of it, that’s it. What’s there to destroy? What would bulldozers do? Bulldozers are for real, pakka houses. There were no bulldozers in those days. How much time does it take to destroy a jhuggi? Five minutes! – Jagdesh
Is taim mein bulldozer nahin aaya, hum to aisi khali karte the, hum nahin toda, apne inthe nikalke le aaye yahan pe. Is zamane mein bulldozers the, zameen ko plan karna—humare gaon mein tha. Us taim mein iksarkarnevala nahin the. – Malkhan
There were no bulldozers back then. We vacated just like that, didn’t destroy anything, just extracted some bricks and brought them here. The only bulldozers in those days were the ones that cleared land—we had some in our village. There were no razing-ones yet. – Malkhan
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And so, these phantom bulldozers—that figured so prominently in people’s narratives and yet didn’t exist—seemed to be the key to the stories I was hearing. The demolition (as well as the later threat of sterilization) in question epitomized the immense, yet invisible power and force of the state. In order to express that power, residents of Dakshinpuri had, perhaps inadvertently, inserted these massive bulldozers into their memories—when in reality their jhuggis were not even worthy of bulldozers.
Dakshinpuri, April 2010.