Some hard questions for us

In the last few days, like so many others across India, I too have watched northeast Delhi descend into mad violence. A week before all this happened, I was right there, having the cockles of my heart warmed by the ladies of Sunder Nagri. The week prior, I was roused by the fiery protest poetry of the burkha-clad Sugra Khatun, the bard of Jaffrabad. Today, as I compulsively watch footage of the horrors that have unfolded there, I dread spotting familiar faces, familiar places. I still don’t know if the inspirational women, I’ve met who’ve been fighting to keep our Constitution alive, are safe, but one thing I’m sure of: Delhi’s violence hasn’t just wounded people’s hearts and sensibilities — its repercussions will be felt on their pockets for years to come. I dug out data on northeast Delhi from the 2011 Census (believe me, it took quite a bit of digging) to see if the numbers matched my impression of this district being one of the poorest, most densely populated and least developed in the city. Here’s what I found.

Northeast Delhi has the highest population density in Delhi-NCR — 36,155 people per square kilometre. Compare it to Central Delhi, ranked second with 27,730 people per square kilometre. Anyone who’s seen the narrow, claustrophobic and crowded lanes of Jaffrabad and Maujpur will know these areas are an urban planner’s nightmare, tinderboxes waiting to burn. And burn they did... 

I also found that a whopping 70.5 per cent of northeast Delhi’s population is non-working, the highest among Delhi’s districts (at 58.1 per cent, New Delhi is the best off). This means that at the very least, every working individual has several dependents. The violence of the last few days has destroyed shops, wrecked small businesses and forced people to flee for safety. Every job lost there, every day’s wage unearned and every day’s sales forfeited will affect many more lives in Maujpur than in it would in Chanakyapuri.

This data also reminded me of an argument I’ve often made in this column that we must relook at our definition of poverty. Delhi government defines it thus: Poverty is a situation where the individual or communities lack the resources, ability and environment to meet the basic needs of life. Sadly, it leaves out a sizeable section which might earn enough to not fall below the poverty line, but remains vulnerable to economic stresses.

The 2011 Census suggests many such people live in northeast Delhi. I’d wager in the months ahead we’re likely to see many households below the poverty line here slide into further destitution and many households just above the poverty line, sliding down that slippery slope to penury. I’m also thinking of the pre-teens and teenagers (the 2011 Census recorded 301,947 children under six years of age here, 13.47 per cent of the total). How many will drop out of school/college to support their families struggling to find a new normal? How will they and their families recover from the economic (and we’re not even getting into the emotional) aftermath of this violence? And even more crucially, how much love are they likely to have for the country that they feel has betrayed them?

Such questions have no easy answers, I know. But that’s no reason to stop asking them.  

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