An Encounter with the Kshudra City: Are slums burden on city-dwellers?

by Pratyush Dwivedi

I recall it from one of our earlier conversations, “I do not want to live anywhere close to a jj cluster”, remarked a friend. JJ clusters stand for Jhuggi Jhopdi clusters; it is often used interchangeably with slums. At that point, I had never closely observed or visited the interiors of a slum.

During my first visit for a field assignment, I was self-conscious. I realized I was an outsider the very instant I entered the overcrowded space. People started approaching and asking me questions. More so, because I was a holding a notebook and a pen in one hand, and before I could state the purpose of my visit, I had already observed some of the troubles that the residents had to go through as a part of their daily life.

Since then, I have had multiple opportunities to closely observe the lives of the people residing in such locales. There appears to be an inherent mismatch between the status accorded to slum-dwellers by the rest of the city, and the importance of the work done by the people here. Some are branded as ‘untouchables’ based on the work they do, resulting in certain other people wanting to stay away.

Slums bear the status of ‘illegitimacy’ because they are not organized like a city is expected to be: they are not clean enough, and are thought of as a burden on the resources of the city. These spaces become the unintended result of certain development plans. Hence, their ‘illegitimate’ status.

Kshudra City: Illegitimate, yet integral to Delhi

I came across the kshudra city, tucked away in the jj clusters and middle-income colonies of Delhi, as part of a project with Outline India. I did what I do best: talk to several people. While the middle-income colonies did not come as much of a surprise, the jj clusters, had some shocks in store for me. Many chores, and tasks that seemingly go unnoticed and taken for granted in the city, are executed right here. It is in these slums, I found out, that waste-pickers reside. Their neighbours include the sewer workers, the junk collectors, sweepers, and cleaners. Together, they form the ‘collective’ critical to the functioning of, what is, the most populated capital city in the world.

What is the kshudra city?

The word kshudra comes from the Sanskrit term ‘shuddh’, meaning pure. The word shuddh may have morphed into ‘kshudra’ as per certain texts. Historically, Kshudra is a one of the four categories within the varna system which came from the ancient Hindu scripture Purush Sukta. The ‘Purush sukta’ hymn was interpreted rather literally, leaving no space for broader understanding. The hymn stated that the four varnas, viz, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Kshudra were born from the mouth, arms, thighs, and feet of the cosmic being respectively. Kshudra was the function of purification that each individual, each independent entity, had to undertake. Neither was it intended, nor restricted to be used for a specific group of individuals doing a certain kind of work. Kshudra is not a negative term per se. We as individuals perform these functions for ourselves.

Over the years, the word kshudra, diluted itself into its present-day form, implying someone belonging to a lower caste such as Dalits, Balmikis, and others. The present meaning of the term is a far departure from its original meaning and human values.

The slums, as a combined force, represent today what a kshudra is expected to do. They clean the city and purify it. However, there is an inherent expectation to not want the dwelling places of this sub group in our vicinity, lest our aesthetics be destroyed, our property prices plummet, and our safety compromised.

Slums are not an abnormality

Everyday survival within slums may be a challenge and yet, I found various things in these sites that confuse an onlooker. I found convenience goods like air conditioners, LED TVs, washing machines, and expensive smart phones. These jj clusters may therefore not be generalised as poor. There are numerous people who are second or third generation migrants, who, over a period of time, have done well for themselves. However, they continue to live here for other benefits. These benefits can be in the form of social connections, or in the hope of being allotted land elsewhere in the city at some later point. The mere ownership of those electronic appliances cannot be seen as an indication of the extent of the economic betterment of these people.

The kshudra city, faces this continuous struggle of performing vital functions while not being proffered the identity it deserves. Legitimacy, if any, is provided to the kshudra city when elections approach. The rest of the time, the kshudra city, much like its human counterpart, struggles for recognition and dignity.

The changing idea of Delhi, as a city

Although I have previously worked on the idea of Delhi as a city, every experience of closely observing her makes one more curious to figure her character, her urges and what she offers. It forces us to think about the evolution of the city. The city then starts to feel like a living creature: growing into a definitive shape. The idea of studying the city and observing it from a close quarters is an intriguing exercise; one that leaves me feeling enlightened every single time.

Pratyush works at Outline India as a researcher. This work draws from one of his initial field missions.

DisparityEconomic inequalitySlumsSocial discriminationUrbanisation