Industrial Closures in Delhi

Aditya Nigam

November 2000 replayed on a larger scale, what November 1996 had initiated. (See report in Revolutionary Democracy, April 1997). If the first spate of industrial closures in 1996 had targeted 168 ‘hazardous’ industries in the capital for relocation, this time round the figure was completely vague and could have varied from anywhere between 30, 000 to 90, 000 units. If the closures of 1996 followed the Supreme Court orders of 8 July that year, this time too the immediate impetus came from this highest institution of the country that is meant to ensure justice at large. Neither then nor now did the Court consider the workers as interested parties whose opinions needed to be taken into account. The workers were treated as objects, alongside machinery, that were simply to be shunted from one place to another.

Pollution, of course, is the continuing thread of the two judgements. As the Court put it in an order widely reported in the press, ‘health is more important than livelihood’. Could it be that the honourable court might not have realized the utter absurdity of the statement it was making? If it were the same set of people both parts of this statement were referring to, then it clearly made no sense: the health of X cannot be more important than X’s livelihood; if anything, it might be a function of the latter. More likely, what the Supreme Court had in mind but wanted to hedge when it made this statement was that the health of some was more important than the livelihood of others. In other words, in a deeply class divided society, it was taking sides alongside the rich and the powerful.

In the first lot, that of 1996, the 168 industries that were closed down, the majority were those who were in any case looking for excuses to shut down, many of them being ‘sunset’ industries like textiles. At any rate the owners wanted to divert their capital to more lucrative and less risky avenues. Many of them had large premises in prime areas of Delhi and the sheer real estate value of these lands could make it worth their while to sell off their share of these lands or put it to other use. In this round of closures, however the picture is different. Nobody seemed to know what were the industries that were being shut down. According to the Court order of 12 September, 2000, twenty-seven industries, said to be ‘undisputedly polluting’ ones, including those producing acids, chemicals, those involved in dyeing and bleaching, electroplating and those making glass products, plastic dye, polythene and PVC compounds, among other things, were listed to be shut down. It followed up this order with yet another one on January 25, 2001, wherein ‘it decreed that all ‘potentially polluting industries’ will be targeted’ (For details see, How Many Errors Does Time Have Patience For? Report on Industrial Closures and Slum Demolitions In Delhi prepared by Delhi Janwadi Adhikar Manch, April 2001).

By the time the order reached the implementation stage, it was being said that all ‘non-conforming industries’ would be shut down. Units in ‘non-conforming’ areas, according to the Delhi Master Plan, are those units that are located outside the places earmarked for industries, that is, primarily in residential areas. Large-scale closures that began in January 2000, saw hundreds of polluting units shut down by teams of Subdivisional Magistrates. All they had was a ‘rough list prepared by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee’ to go by. In the second leg of the second round, the 27 industries referred to began to be shut and this included a much wider section of industry and workforce. Suddenly all hell broke loose. Desperate workers were out on the streets alongside their employers, resisting the closures. There were roadblocks and violent protests as desperate workers, egged on by their employers - who themselves chose to remain in the background except in some cases - came on to the streets. For three or four days the city was in turmoil. It also needs to be mentioned that this was the time when the government, especially the Union Urban Development Ministry started its operations against the hawkers, vendors, and rikshaw pullers. In late December and January, even the traditional weekly haats [markets] were not being allowed to sit in many places in East Delhi. How much of it was due to the over-enthusiasm of the implementers and how much directed from above is difficult to say. One thing however is certain: the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi had through an order specifically made the local police Station House Officer answerable for allowing hawkers and vendors on the streets. Terror and insecurity took over the life of subaltern Delhi. Rumours had it that free trains were being run for the migrants to go back to their villages. Within a week over a lakh workers are said to have left, facing hell on the way. Two well-known British sociologists, Roger and Patricia Jeffrey reported meeting people some months later in Bijnor, where they were doing their field work - people who had left Delhi in November-December. Some of them were just barbers who were told the hair they disposed of was polluting!

Life in Delhi’s working class areas and resettlement and unauthorized colonies was depressing this winter. The majority of those affected are the migrant workers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan. In the initial bursts of anger they had battled alongside the owners - often being merely used as pawns. Within a few days, however, they had realized that the owners would not stand by them as participants in common struggle. Three workers died in police firing in Vishwas Nagar in November, ‘but not a rupee’s compensation was forthcoming from a single factory owner’. About sixty workers were arrested and were lodged in Tihar jail with not a single owner coming forward to even bail them out (See DJAM Report mentioned above). Unlike the earlier round of closures when at least on paper the compensation for a job lost due to relocation was to have been the equivalent of six years’ wages, this time round, there was no such provision and the majority merely received a month’s wage. It was in these conditions, along with jhuggi (shanty) demolitions and no place to stay that large numbers of workers began their trek back to the village. Even shopkeepers selling cloth and such other items, reported their sales dropping to far below the critical level for them to continue selling in future unless things changed and workers came back to the city. There are reasons to believe therefore that there is some coordination in these different moves - some originating from the judiciary and some from the government and the union ministry. The drive against polluting industries and the drive against the poor of the city have become synonymous. It will not be out of place to mention that around this same time, the Union Urban Development Ministry, estimated that the possible fallout of the closures and mass displacement in this round, will release 700 MW of power, 50 million gallons of water and a reduction of some 40 million gallons daily of sewage. Could this be unrelated to the move to prepare Delhi to be inserted into the grid of global cities - such that it will from now on cater to highly mobile transnational elites and to new, more high profile modes of accumulation?

To say all this is not to suggest that the problem of pollution is unimportant but as the Delhi Janwadi Adhikar Manch has been arguing, the way the government and the courts are proceeding, it is clear that the intention is not to fight pollution. The intention is merely to get it ‘out of my way’; it is a classic ‘not in my backyard’ attitude. Simply relocating industries means relocating pollution from the backyard of Delhi’s elite to wherever human life can be found to be cheaper. Did it occur to the honourable court ever, to ask whether the pollution that is choking the city is also affecting the workers employed in the concerned units? If the answer be yes, then how, may one ask of the enlightened judges, will they ever be free of the effects of pollution? And what of the farmers of Bawana, where you want to shift the relocated units? Will you take their protests into account when they say that they do not want the pollution that you now want to thrust on them? Surely, if the intention is to fight pollution it must be tackled at source. That is something that there is no effort on the part of anybody concerned to take on. Fighting pollution at source requires social auditing of industrial enterprises; it requires the involvement of the citizenry in deciding crucial questions of choice of technologies, of environmental impact assessments of units before they come up. In existing units it requires the setting up of pollution control measures that are open to public scrutiny.

Secondly, the whole question of units in ‘non-conforming areas’ is a thoroughly misplaced one. Let it be noted, in the first place, that to be located in a non-conforming area is not to be polluting. The problem that the planners have with a growth that allows for these units to come up is that it does not obey their design. They have decreed that the residential areas and the industrial areas will be segregated. For the large mass of working people living in Delhi, either they live near/in the industrial areas or spend three-fourths of their wages travelling. There is not much of a choice here. For the remaining, those who do manage to put together some ‘capital’, affording a one or two-room tenement in Delhi is itself a difficult task. They cannot afford another establishment in another part of the city to run their little workshops. Most of these are in any case, some kind of small businesses, often slightly upgraded artisan workshops. Many of these units in fact, are exempted even by the Master Plan – especially those that are not covered by the Factories Act. Yet, when the police executes a decision of the judiciary – one that can therefore not be challenged, even barbers can be declared polluting or being non-conforming areas. This is the result of the shrinkage of democratic space in the past few years, aggravated by the so-called activist judiciary throwing its lot with the rich. It is also the consequence of the new arrogance that the discourse of the elite has acquired.

As if the closures of industrial units was not enough, this period has seen the simultaneous demolitions of jhuggi jhonpris all across the city. Jhuggi dwellers have been shunted out into far-away Narela or Bhalsawa sub-cities from where to commute to their places of work is itself an impossible task - both in terms of money and time. They have been provided 12.5 sq. ms of land each but the virtual impossibility of commuting to work daily where transport conditions are forbidding, makes it increasingly difficult for them to stay there. What kind of Delhi will emerge eventually is difficult to say, but if the planners and the courts were to have their way they would rather have a version of Johannesburg under apartheid: whites inhabiting the cities and the blacks shunted out to the townships far away from the main centres of the city.

Click here to return to the September 2001 index.