By Jelena Salmi

Ahmedabad, the most populous city in the state of Gujarat, is often presented as a pioneer in urban development in India. Since the early 2000s, several beautification and infrastructure projects have been carried out in the city to the advantage of the middle and upper classes. In this process, the slums in the city center are depicted as nuisances that need to be removed in the name of sanitation and development. This is in line with the general trend in India – slum demolitions are increasingly pushing the poor to the fringes, because they do not conform to the aesthetic ideals of rapidly urbanizing world-class cities. In Ahmedabad, thousands of slum-dwellers have been displaced from city center slums and resettled in areas located mostly in the eastern periphery.

One of the resettlement colonies – a site that I will call Vikaspur – is situated next to a polluted industrial area, twelve kilometers from the city center. I have been living next to this area for the past three months and have interacted with its residents on a daily basis. The neighborhood consists of 77 identical four-story concrete blocks arranged in orderly, straight lines extending into the horizon. Informal mosques and temples have been built by the residents in open spaces between the blocks. If you enter the area just before lunch or dinner time, you will see vegetable and pani puri (a popular street snack) vendors pushing their carts in the streets and hear them yelling the day's offers in a high-pitched voice. In the evenings, children use the open spaces to play sports: boys play cricket and girls badminton. In the meantime, their parents sit on charpoys (a rope-strung bed), relaxing from the day's work and exchanging rumors with neighbors.

An open space in the resettlement colony. © Jelena Salmi.

Just a few years ago, most of Vikaspur's residents lived on the banks of the River Sabarmati that runs through the center of Ahmedabad. Due to a decision made by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) to develop the banks of the river into a "vibrant and vital focus of the city", approximately 14,000 riverbank slum-dwellers lost their homes during the years 2005–2012. The riverfront residents were resettled into 18 different relocation sites, and apartments in these sites were allocated by a computer-generated random drawing of lots, breaking apart existing social networks of slums. Hindus and Muslims were, however, mostly resettled into separate colonies due to Ahmedabad's tumultuous history of communal violence. Vikaspur is an exception to the rule since it accommodates members from both religious communities.

Although residents of Vikaspur that I have talked to seem happy with the government's initiative to build low-cost housing for the urban poor, they are invariably of the opinion that life was, nevertheless, better in slums, where they enjoyed the security of their established social networks and livelihood opportunities. "All the jobs were within five minutes' reach", recounted Farha, a Muslim woman in her 30s, who was previously working as a housemaid close to the riverfront. She has now been forced to quit working completely because her meager earnings would not suffice to cover for the travel expenses from the resettlement area to her former job. As employment opportunities are scarce in the urban periphery, people are compelled to travel to the city center for work. "Nowadays I have to spend 100 rupees [ca. 1.5 euros] a day for travel", stated Amir, a bangle salesman.

Man at work © Jelena Salmi.

Spending time with Vikaspur residents, I have learned that they do not share feelings of sociality and mutual responsibility. When I have enquired about the most serious problems in the area, most interviewees have answered that it is the way in which people from disparate locations have been lumped together. Indeed, for the urban poor, living among one's relatives is often the only way to build and maintain social and political capital. A new pakka ('permanent') house in the urban periphery hardly compensates for the loss of valuable relations. "We have been mixed like a packet of snacks", said a 45-year-old rickshaw driver named Rajendra. "I do not want to live with these people, but what other options have I got?" Mukesh, a 26-year-old Hindu man who works as a clothes salesman added: "The houses are good and it is a good move by the government to assign houses instead of slums. It's just that the population is mixed up badly here, so living is tough. Even if you walk on the road here, someone might pick a fight with you without any reason." Lack of mutual trust further limits the residents' ability to act collectively in order to access basic services. I have often been told that in Vikaspur "everyone just looks out for themselves".

In an attempt to secure living space in a vulnerable situation, the people of Vikaspur tend to turn against each other and use caste and religion as a basis for social discrimination. For example, 27-year-old housewife Shraddha felt that allotting separate blocks for Muslims, caste Hindus and dalits ('untouchables') would solve the security problem in the area. Shraddha, herself an upper-caste Hindu, considered Muslims and dalits to be the ones who "use bad language", pick fights, loot, drink and use drugs. About a year ago, Vikaspur got its very own police station in order to restrain the clashes taking place between residents. The people that I talked to are, however, of the opinion that the continuous presence of police has led to even more trouble, since the culture of bribery thrives in marginal spaces.

Empty houses waiting for residents © Jelena Salmi.

Ahmedabad is celebrated as the epitome of the new model in urban development in India, but the everyday reality of the urban poor tells a darker story. In Vikaspur, lumping disparate populations together has created an atmosphere of mistrust and fear, making people unable to act collectively to lobby for their rights. Policy makers' insensitivity to the importance of maintaining the social cohesion of demolished settlements has thus led to further socio-economic marginalization of the urban poor. Given that the residents share little more than their displacement, poverty, and the stigma attached to being jhuggi ('slum') dwellers, Vikaspur's future prospects as a flourishing locality seem bleak. On a brighter note, however, a 20-year-old Muslim youth named Abdul was able to see a light at the end of the tunnel: "It is possible to establish a sense of community, but it is bound to take a long time."