'Why are they doing this to us?'
'Why are they doing this to us?'

Josy Joseph in New Delhi

The mob's vengeance Roopesh, 13, is alone in his cramped shanty. In similar asbestos-plastic- cardboard structures slapped together to create a home, other children wait, like him, for their parents to return home.

The houses are barely a metre away from the road; the roar of the traffic and the ensuing pollution is a constant in the lives of these children.

Yet, these airless rooms, located in one of the many slums that dot the highly industrialised western Delhi area, are part of the reason their parents are out on a chakka jam (strike) -- the ongoing agitation by over a million industrial workers and small-scale industry owners in the capital.

Send this feature to a friend Chakka jam is, in fact, a common refrain in Roopesh's slum, whose 50-odd families earn their livelihood working in these small-scale industries. Today, even as they take to the roads, they know their future is now uncertain.

The life they had led till now was not pretty, but it was better than what the future holds for them -- a return to their ancestral villages where there is minuscule hope of eking out a living.

Unless a miracle happens. Soon.

Those who live in these shanties will tell you that they don't believe in miracles.

Chakka jam Instead, the dream with which they came to this city will shatter.

For Delhi, they believed, was a migrant's heaven. All around them, in almost every corner of the city, there was the story of The Migrant Who Made It.

Delhi's history is filled with stories of her conquerors who flourished in the city.

Even after the bloody Partition of 1947, refugees came to the city in millions and generated unimaginable wealth and power. Today, thousands continue to pour into the city daily -- they include everyone from IAS aspirants to political dreamers, fixers to small-time criminals…

Roopesh and his friends may never get this opportunity. They might be forced to return to their remote villages in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. They might never see their schools, their friends or their present "homes" again.

Their shanties are dirty, stinking. Yet Roopesh's 80-year-old grandmother Roopvati asks, "Will not the court understand our plight?"

She came to Delhi a few months ago to join her son who worked in a small electroplating unit adjoining the Naraina industrial area, one of the 30-odd industrial areas dotting the capital.

"I thought my grandchildren would at least get a good education in Delhi," she says helplessly. "But now, they say we may have to leave this place. I don't know what my son will do!"

The same question haunts lakhs of angry and desperate industrial workers and their family members. The Supreme Court has ordered the closure of almost one lakh industrial units that are polluting the environment or non-conforming to Delhi's masterplan, according to which industrial areas are to be kept separate from residential areas.

The masterplan, though, was conceived in 1961, when the city's population was a mere four million. At last count, Delhi was bursting at the seams with a little over 15 million people. And it is these very industries that are a key component of Delhi's booming economy.

The slum where Roopesh lives The Supreme Court order will result in the closure or relocation of around one lakh "non-conforming" industrial units. A million people are expected to lose their jobs. As a result, they and their families will be forced to shift out of the city.

If the court's deadlines are met and the industries shut down, the resultant chaos could bring back memories of Partition, when over half a million people landed up at the Old Delhi railway station in a few days.

"Why are they doing this to us?" asks a grim-faced Vijay Kumar, who working in a paint company headed for closure in the Shahdra area of the trans-Yamuna region. He was among the hundreds who blocked traffic, deflated tyres and set on fire to vehicles at Laxmi Nagar, a trans-Yamuna township.

"I have been working in this factory for almost five years now," he says. "I don't know any other work. Our owner says he will not shift the company outside Delhi. He is already planning to do something else. But I cannot find a job elsewhere; there will be no paint companies operating within Delhi."

His only option is to return home, where he owns a small piece of land that is being farmed by his younger brother.

"The court keeps talking about pollution, but we are only talking about today's meal," says Mukesh, who has also joined the protest in Laxmi Nagar.

All over the city, angry crowds greet you with the same complaints. They say the situation has been worsened by the Delhi government and municipal corporation's thoughtless reaction to the apex court. After the court served a contempt notice on Delhi's chief secretary and municipal commissioner for not complying with its orders, the former issued a notice ordering closure of all the violating industries.

In the panic and chaos that ensued, the city went up in flames. After two days of violence, in which three people were killed, several injured, numerous vehicles burnt and thousands stranded, the Delhi government withdrew its order. It returned to the court, requesting permission to slow down the closure process.

The Supreme Court bench headed by Justices B N Kirpal, N Santosh Hegde and Brijesh Kumar compared the city government's reaction to the protests to that of the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments during the Rajakumar kidnapping. The bench was not impressed when the government gave into "hooliganism" on the city streets.

Former Union law minister and senior Supreme Court advocate Shanti Bhushan begs to differ. "The judges have no idea of the impact of their decisions on the ground," he says. Bhushan particularly considers Justice Kuldip Singh's judgment -- the former Supreme Court judge first gave the order to shift/shut all these units in 1996 -- "ill-considered" and feels "it must be reviewed."

Bhushan argues that if the logic applied by the Supreme Court to non-conforming industries is to be applied to the whole of Delhi, then the prime minister should not be allowed to operate from 7 Race Course, which is located in a strictly residential area. Neither can locations such as Pragati Maidan, the Indian Trade Promotion Organisation's sprawling exhibition ground, be allowed to operate.

The prime minister reportedly has decided to amend Delhi's masterplan and accommodate non-polluting industries in residential areas.

But this decision will not stop the closure of a large number of small units, saddling its workers with a grim future.

Inside a regular industrial area Some units, though, are expected to relocate to the newly created industrial location in Bawana in northern Delhi. But the 1,880 acres acquired by the former Bharatiya Janata Party administration is eerily empty. Only a couple of earthmovers move around, levelling the ground.

"During my tenure," says former BJP chief minister Sahib Singh Verma, who now represents Outer Delhi constituency in the Lok Sabha, "we had received 52,000 applications from units for plot allotment at Bawana. But the Congress government has not gone beyond that point till date. Now, it is all a mess. In the last two years, not an inch of land in Bawana has been developed."

The current crisis could be attributed to a corrupt bureaucracy and an inefficient political class. The former, because it has been allowing industries to operate in non-conforming areas. Laws have been openly flouted using all possible means including bribery, political clout and even muscle power.

The political class contributed equally to the mess. During the BJP regime, it dragged its feet and kept postponing a decision on the issue. The Congress, which courted the industrialists then, finds itself in a trap of its own making today.

All hopes are now pinned on the Supreme Court's final decision and on the Centre's proposal to amend the masterplan. If that happens, then the non-polluting industries will not need to relocate.

S P Agarwal, president, Delhi Exporters Association, says the present impasse will result in losses of over Rs 100 crores (Rs 1 billion) worth of export orders. At present, the Western markets import readymade clothes, jewellery, leather goods, etc, for the Christmas season.

"The courts and governments should understand there is a continuity in our working pattern. A sudden stop is not the solution," says a garment exporter.

At the same time, there does not seem any solution to the impasse. Delhi's industrial sector has been a major contributor in turning the city into a gas chamber -- what with illegal chemical godowns going up in flames, plastic factories using environmentally disastrous melting techniques and electroplating units consuming innocent lives.

Three years ago, Delhi was engulfed in dark fumes when a fire gutted the illegal Jwalapuri plastic market.

One of the units that will close down In June 1999, over 40 people were killed and over a thousand people injured when a fire erupted in an illegal chemical godown in Old Delhi's Lal Kuan area. Five hundred people lived in the residential complex whose basement was being used as a godown.

In March 2000, a fire broke out in a residence-cum-factory in Shahdra. A woman and her two children died in the accident.

The fact is that Delhi enjoys the infamous status of being India's, and one of the world's, most polluted cities.

According to a study conducted by international agencies last year, about 8,000 people die of pollution in Delhi every year. Environmentalists claim that Delhi has more asthma and other lung disease patients than any other Indian city.

Whether Delhi will be a greener, cleaner, environmentally friendly city will depend on the Supreme Court's final judgment. Unfortunately, it will also demand the livelihood of lakhs of immigrants who once looked to the city for survival.

Page design: Dominic Xavier

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