In the journey of life, steering along the crosses and U-turns, we spearhead ourselves unaffected in many ways. Then at a certain turn we encounter a place which influences our preoccupied notions and prejudices, and changes our outlook drastically. This was the turn that i landed upon fortunately on the day of my visit to Chharanagar in Ahmedabad. From the broad roads, enormous huge beautiful buildings; after driving for about 20 km, when gradually the roads turned to shabby narrow streets, buildings took the size of small shops, frequent traffic to crowded streets and hustle bustle; I knew I have reached a different place. It was the Chharanagar, within the city but not a part of the city. As if lying untouched, unknown, and segregated from the whole.
Chharanagar is an urban settlement in Ahmedabad, dating back to the 19th century. The Chhoras are just one of the many tribes that were labeled as “criminals” or “Notified tribes” by the British under India’s Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, to solve their law and order problems. In 1952, five years after independence, the Criminal Tribes Act was finally repealed. But instead of accepting these tortured tribes, whole heartedly in the main stream system, Independent India declared these tribes ‘denotified‘ giving a way to the “respected ” society; to alienote this section of people as “born criminals”. Released from the forced labor comp (nau kholi- nine rooms were allotted to the entire tribe in the outskirts of Ahmedabad as a reformatory cell) which had been their prison for the past forty years, the Chhara were resettled on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, in Chharanagar. Roughly 3 square miles, with a population of over 20,000, this place today is used as a ‘beggar’s home’.
The name of notified criminals, although was removed after the independence; they have been facing the prejudice of being criminals, offensive in eyes of people or the police and segregated socially by others. No jobs, no respect, constant surveillance by the police, imprisonment without any explanation, and out casted by the society. These people are infamous and held responsible for stealing petty things and production of liquor. This is the life of the people of Chhara tribe.
My earlier ordeal with introspection was never at any substantial discovery about myself and about my latent feelings. Pangs were as remote as stars until the hair-raising act by the young girl of Budhan that day. Budhan is a brilliant endeavor, a theatre formed by a group of people in Chharanagar in their attempts to create a space for themselves to establish an identity and to prove that they are not born criminals but born performers. And as I realized when I saw the ‘Bulldozer’; that who is the actual criminal, them or us? “Bulldozer”, an act which was performed, was an eye opener, throwing light on how the life of Charras is affected (apart from being treated as criminals). The act showed an incident of the pathetic, inhumane behavior of the municipality, throwing away people, removing them from their dwellings or the places of work, in the name of beautifying the city. The agonized shrieks of the girl, in the act, that reflected a woman who had lost her unborn baby, when she tried to run away and save herself from the bulldozer, taking their life away; is still afresh pinning me since then. Is planning development limited to just drawing lines, unaware of those who would actually bear it, especially those who are already struggling for their mere existence?
“Vo kati bhi karte hain to charcha nahi hoto, hum aahh bhi bharte hain to ho jate hain badnam”
As per the discussion with one of the residents, Budhan depicts the vows of people who suffered when, without prior notice or without consent, the authorities came & shattered their life. During the events in city such as festivals or celebrations, they have to move them out or “Sweep away the garbage elsewhere“. It is ironic that in places, on their way to be recognized globally; there still exist groups of people who are struggling for their survival. It is not a new phenomenon and usually years of suffering slouch under the consequences of the development of cities. It has become more or less a phenomenon now. Are people not a part of the process of being ahead. At the apex, it would be just a false hood, over the cries of unnumbered people. Are we not creating another ditch or a social drift? This beautification is like merely, covering broken furniture with a cloth!
The wind needs to veer, to venerate the soul of the city, which is not the parks, the buses, the gardens or the beautiful places, but the ones who are breathing, who are living in it. The need of the hour is to have a comprehensive inclusive development which is not achieved over the tragedies of humanity. The role of the government in it is obvious and undeniable but the people and organizations in positions of bringing about a change hold no less importance in dealing with the situation. How is it that a plan cannot be made in such a manner that all sectors of the settlements are benefitted at the same time?
On my way to be a planner; what is important to me the most is the way to deal with such situation and to admit this negative side of the society, which has been anchored deep and is hard to eradicate, but not impossible. Why cannot, a place like Chharanagar be involved in the uplift processes. Make this huge space into a community upbringing or raise an economic driver that gives them a dignified role in the process of progress. Many household level industries, education centers that make them aware of their abilities, can be incorporated that give them their identities. Provide them with such opportunity, spaces to function that the other sectors of the society have to contact them. For example, the field of defense can actually contribute by making it a place to work for the Chharas. Dignity is directly related to usefulness. Provide them spaces to be useful and to revive a status of their own. A slow, but a sure way out.
It is not possible to come to solutions so easily while writing on a piece of paper, but in verbiage it’s to just start believing that things can be changed.
“Ghar sajane ka tassavur to bahut baad ka hai, pahle ye toh ho ki is ghar ko bachayein kaise”
Developing or beautifying a place cannot mean to put a cover on a torn book but first you have to mend it. It’s the priority that matters; it’s a comprehension of planning, uplifting and raising a voice. The priority should not be the look of the city but the inner beauty of the city that lies within the factor of happiness and satisfaction of the people. Benefitting all sectors by creating some dependability might lead to some respect for those denied. It’s the voice that has to reach to numerous people like you and me. It’s not that people are reluctant but may be they are unaware of the conditions People need to be aware of the agonies of their neighbors in the society, those who are living in the same city, but as unknown, indifferent and humiliated life. Generating a truculent feeling amongst people is the need of the hour and to let know of the iniquitous systems prevailing.
It is not utopia and I can visualize the girl in the play of Budhan, acting and narrating her story, from the agony to the pleasures and from depths of unidentified dark, to the development process that they are an important part of.
- Verma, Priyanka, “True Survivors – People of Chharanagar”
II Year Urban & Regional Planning
Annual NOSplan magazine 2012