Dear PM Modi, Puppeteers of Delhi’s Kathputli Colony Need Help

How long do you reckon one kilo of dal lasts? It’s a crucial question at a time when the government’s economic relief package to the poorest of the poor has in it a component of one kilo of free dal per poor family per month, in addition to the subsidised rations they will have to buy. Don’t answer that.

Look straight into the lines in this gully instead. This is the Kathputli Colony in Northeast Delhi, a twenty-minute walk from the Shadipur metro station.

It’s a makeshift colony or temporary shelter for a settlement of 20,000 artists. Puppeteers or kathputliwalas, that give the colony its name, magicians, dancers, performing artists flocked here because they were invited to weddings and the odd international cultural fair to showcase India.

A kathputliwala.

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What Happened to the New Kathputli Colony?

Santosh Bhatt is just 43, but the lines on his face tell their own story. He may live in squalor, but his belly-dancing puppets have taken him to shows in Paris many times, the most recent being in 2018. The fetching looking Hira Gujri is a mover, if there ever was one in the puppet world.

Along with kathputliwalas, many others moved to this settlement over time. Among them were carpenters and mechanics, daily wage workers, and all those people from contiguous zones that came to Delhi in search of work. There are now officially 2800 families living here.

But, and there is a but.

In Kathputli Colony.

The government had drawn up a new master plan for Delhi and decided that these banjara or nomadic communities needed better space than the ghettos and slums they were occupying for over fifty years – since the 1970s or earlier.

Many governments came and went, and finally, in 2016, after round seventy of negotiations, it was decided the old habitat would be demolished, temporary shelters would be provided with drinking water and drainage and electricity, until the new Kathputli Colony is built. The deadline for relocation was set at two years.

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Kathputliwalas Don’t Have Financial Security

Now, in 2020, four years after the last negotiation, only 10 percent of the new habitat is constructed. The temporary shelters have no proper water supply, and in times of the coronavirus pandemic, at least 700 of these people are without their daily wages and entirely unable to find food to eat. They form part of the informal sector of the Indian economy that the International Labour Organization, quoted here, estimates is as much as 80 percent of our economy.

The Kathputliwalas are not farmers with Jan Dhan accounts into which the government has just announced it will give Rs 2,000. They may or may not have ration cards.

In Kathputli Colony

But with zero coming in, they don’t have money for even subsidised dal. Vijay Maitri, an activist and theatre performer, has been campaigning for the rights of the Kathputli Colony since he was 18 – for the last ten years. He described the family of Raju who comes from the Jatav community – a Dalit. He sells lemons and chillies outside the Kali temple in the vicinity that people string together on their door frames to ‘ward off evil’. His daughters are ragpickers. Right now, none of them can step out to work because these are not part of ‘essential services’. Of all that the government has announced, they will probably be able to avail of one kilo of dal per month that’s free and five kilos of rice. If you boil a kilo of dal and add a lot of water so it becomes a larger pot, for a family of four, it may last three or four days.

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A Stampede for Basics

Then, there is the question of infection. Of staying indoors and washing your hands and not stepping out in groups of more than five and keeping a safe distance of a few feet from each other.

Step inside one of these one room tenements. There is a minimum of six people to a room. Plus belongings, plus a gas stove and cylinder. 

Community bathrooms at the end of the lane with taps that are not connected to a water supply. Tankers come once a day but for the entire lot of 2800 families, Vijay says, there are only 15 tankers of water when they require fifty. This turns the performers into ugly scavengers that have to shove each other out of the way when the water tanker arrives. The stampede for basics like water also leaves permanent scars between communities here that are already beleaguered. And then, with that five litre plastic barrel of water per family, it’s anyone’s guess how they fight for whose turn it is this week to bathe.

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Campaigning to Raise Money for the Vulnerable

There are communal taps – one at the end of each lane. But the water is unusable, Vijay explains. It’s high in arsenic and a yellowish colour. Staying indoors means sticking together with no elbow room and no place for everyone to stretch out and sleep. Normally, the room is used just for storage and everyone sleeps outdoors – or at least, the men do. If you aren’t allowed out, how do you survive in a single room? And what if someone is COVID-infected?

It is in these times that the existing fissures tear us to shreds. And we need to claw back some desperately missing humanity.

One part is holding our government to account. The other is reaching out where we can. Especially when we are aware of how dire things are. Where the State has utterly failed, the people are trying to cobble together their own plan. Vijay and other leaders – both young and old held a meeting soon after Prime Minister Modi’s announcement of a complete lockdown. They made a list of those in the colony that are the most vulnerable and that’s between 5 and 700. They also made a realistic assessment of what it will cost to get them rations – cooking oil, grain, dal and veggies. It adds up to Rs 3000 per family for a month. For 700 people, that’s 21 lakhs. They are now campaigning to raise that money so that the most vulnerable amongst them can get through the month of April. You can WhatsApp or call Vijay directly to find out how to contribute – on +918527757718.

(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context. She tweets @revatilaul. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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