Politics of Periphery: A case of informal settlements surrounding Chandigarh, India

(Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

(Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

Two informal settlements in the periphery of the planned city of Chandigarh, India, remain irregular to the eyes of the state. As the sanitation challenge is addressed by public policy with temporary measures, residents are met with brutal actions of eviction and demolitions. Between tolerated and de-legitimised, residents are targeted as electoral mass, but excluded from the ideal city.


Toilets constructed as part of Swachh Bharat Mission or Clean India Mission in Indira Colony, Chandigarh  (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

Toilets constructed as part of Swachh Bharat Mission or Clean India Mission in Indira Colony, Chandigarh (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

Women carting water collected to their homes from the public taps in Bhainsa Tibba, Panchkula  (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

Women carting water collected to their homes from the public taps in Bhainsa Tibba, Panchkula (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

The photographs above picture two informal settlements in the periphery of the union territory of Chandigarh, India - a city (in)famously known as one of the earliest planned cities of Independent India, planned and designed by Le Corbusier, and shared as a capital by not one but two states of India: Haryana and Punjab.

One of these informal settlements, known as Indira Colony, lies in Manimajra, a historical town located within the boundary of Chandigarh. The other, called Bhainsa Tibba, is located next to Mansa Devi temple, in Panchkula, a few kilometres away from Manimajra. The essential difference between the two is that the former lies within the administrative boundary of Chandigarh, and the latter beyond it. This difference - at once geographic, administrative and political - has determined the type and quality of amenities that have been provided to these settlements and how people in these areas experience the presence of the state on a daily basis.

The planned city of Chandigarh did not account for any space for low-income migrants. Chalana [2] highlights how these labourers were required to build the planned city but were not welcome to live within or included in the spatial plan of it. They thus gathered in villages near the periphery where they built their own settlements. These were not identified under the law as ‘formal’, and thus continue to exist as informal settlements. The state recognizes that the ideal “planned city” cannot be achieved without the availability of low wage construction workers and thus tolerates low-income migrants and inhabitants in these settlements.

The residents of Indira Colony have been given basic amenities by the state, such as piped water supply, sewerage lines and Swachh Bharat[1] toilets. They enjoy a better relationship with the municipal authorities and their elected representatives than do the people of Bhainsa Tibba, especially during election times. The local leader (also known as Pradhan), Mr. Anil Kumar Sahu, who hails from a small town called Samastipur, in the Indian state of Bihar, said that there has been no demolition drive since May 2014 - after the regime changed to the Centre. He and other residents of Indira Colony were very hopeful of positive developments in the new political regime. Conversing with Mr. Sahu (on March 9, 2019), he expressed:

yahin mil jaye izzat ka ghar, humne 20 saal kaat liye hain yahan pe”, which translates to English as: “we should get a house respectfully here, we have spent 20 years living here”

The character of the settlement, however, remains makeshift and informal since land rights have not been granted to the residents.

A shack in Indira colony  (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

A shack in Indira colony (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

However, the residents of the Bhainsa Tibba (or basti, as it is colloquially known) have a relationship fraught with tensions over land rights with the government of Haryana. They live in fear of a persistent threat of eviction and have been denied basic amenities, such as drinking water and sanitation, within their settlement. They get water via three public taps located on the main access road to the settlement, where water comes for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. Taking a bath here is a luxury.

The basti has an interesting land history as well. It is located on land that the state has earmarked for a government hospital. The residents, however, believe that the land was granted to them in kind by the daughter of Maharaja of Patiala, who originally owned this piece of land. The local Municipal Corporator, Mrs Kuldeep Kaur Waraich (interviewed on 22 May 2019), explained that the daughter of Maharaja had ceded this land to the state in a court case many years ago, in return for a compensation given to her. The residents of the basti are not aware of this and continue to believe that the land was granted to them by the royal family. This has led to a contestation over the land between the basti residents and the state, more specifically, the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA), which conducts regular demolition drives in the basti.

Mrs Waraich said that the last of such attempts to evict by HUDA was in the year 2018. It was resisted by the residents, who hurled stones at the bulldozer that had come to raze their homes. The HUDA workers had to turn back after being attacked by the residents.

While both settlements are what constitute “informal” and “illegal”, there is a difference in the sense of support and security that the residents perceive from the state. The income levels and living conditions of the residents at the two sites are similar. However, the people of Indira Colony are saved from the indignity of open defecation and water-wars, a common sight in Bhainsa Tibba.

Yiftachel [6] points out that, “in the urban policy sphere, including planning, grey spaces are usually tolerated quietly, often even encouraged, while being encaged within discourses of ‘contamination’, ‘criminality’ and ‘public danger’ to the desired ‘order of things’”. This essay demonstrates how two similar settlements are “tolerated” differently in the periphery of Chandigarh and how the politics of resistance shapes them. While the residents in both settlements are migrants and hence treated as “second class citizens”, the degree to which they are tolerated by the state and the local upper-class residents is varied.

A narrative (translated to English) of a resident in Bhainsa Tibba:

“We are always going to be second grade citizens for this government. Everything is for the locals, we aren’t even given the basics. Water is the main problem here. We have health and education facilities in the vicinity but how can we live without water. Everyday our women are scrambling and fighting for water”. (A migrant-resident in Bhainsa Tibba, interviewed on 22 May 2019).

Women queue up for filling their containers with water at 2PM in Bhainsa Tibba  (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

Women queue up for filling their containers with water at 2PM in Bhainsa Tibba (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

A child helping his mother to cart the water home in Bhainsa Tibba  (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

A child helping his mother to cart the water home in Bhainsa Tibba (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

A family putting up their shack in Bhainsa Tibba  (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

A family putting up their shack in Bhainsa Tibba (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

In the photograph above, a family is seen putting up their shack in Bhainsa Tibba. The low-income migrants have no support from the state to build their houses and use their own resources to do so. They use locally available materials, such as tarpaulin sheets, that are not resilient or suited to the weather conditions of Chandigarh. The state’s housing scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), which was supposedly designed to help the urban poor to build their own houses, has become conditional and inaccessible to them.

Bhan [1] argues that the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, launched in 2014, makes it very difficult for the residents of informal settlements to claim money for in-situ housing, since the poor have to prove land ownership in order to claim the benefits from this scheme. Poor migrants from other states are usually illegal occupants of public land and hence, by default excluded from the scheme. Kanwar [4] presents that PMAY has been sluggish in providing housing solutions to the urban poor across India and has not met people’s aspirations and right to adequate housing.

Failing to provide housing to its urban poor, the state has chosen to turn a blind eye to what constitutes an “encroachment” of public land in Indira Colony. To an extent, migrants are being “tolerated” in Bhainsa Tibba too - although with frequent reminders that they are “illegal” by demolishing their tenements. Adding to the grievances, the middle-class residents near the Bhainsa Tibba informal settlement frequently complain about open defecation in the area, leading to repeated persecution of this community by local development authorities.

Women searching a spot to urinate in the field in Bhainsa Tibba.  (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

Women searching a spot to urinate in the field in Bhainsa Tibba. (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

Yiftachel [6] highlights how the emergence of ‘stubborn’ informalities is ‘handled’ not through corrective or equalizing policy, but through a range of de-legitimization and criminalization discourses. This creates boundaries that divide urban groups according to their status – a process of ‘separating incorporation’. This double-edged move tends to preserve grey spaces, activities and populations in ‘permanent temporariness’ – concurrently tolerated and condemned, and perpetually waiting ‘to be corrected’.

Across India, it is not uncommon for the state to deliberately maintain this “temporariness” and use the urban poor as vote banks. Through temporary stops and handing out piped water connections, sewerage lines and Swachh Bharat toilets to the residents of Indira Colony, the government of Chandigarh has managed to please the community. A longer-term solution, however, would entail giving land-rights to the people so that they can build better houses for themselves. The discourse of in-situ land-rights is missing in both sites: Indira Colony and Bhainsa Tibba.

When it comes to the capital of India - the National Capital Territory of Delhi, Ghertner [3] argues that evictions are guided by the “rule of aesthetics” rather than the “rule of law”. This is relevant in the context of Chandigarh as well, where the government aims to maintain the “city beautiful” character of Chandigarh, whilst playing the politics of and with the periphery’s informal settlements. Naik [5] warns that the Chandigarh model of planning Indian cities will lead to a huge failure, for it fails to accommodate the diversity and variety that is characteristic of Indian cities. In essence, untll the urban poor are given their due space and rights on land, the ideal “inclusive-city” will not be achieved and, as Naik points out, this will create huge challenges in the future.

[1] Swachh Bharat toilets are the toilets constructed as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, which translates to English as Clean India Mission, launched in 2014 by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a vision to eradicate open defecation in India by October 2, 2019.  

Indira Colony, Manimajra  (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

Indira Colony, Manimajra (Source: Kanchan Gandhi, 2019)

Works Cited

[1]  Bhan, G (2017) From the basti to the ‘house’: Socio-spatial readings of housing policy in India, in Current Sociology, Vol 65, Number 4, Monograph 2.

[2] Chalana, M. (2015) Chandigarh: City and periphery, Journal of Planning History 14 (1):62–84. doi:10.1177/1538513214543904

[3] Ghertner DS (2015) Rule by aesthetics: World-class city making in Delhi. Oxford University Press.

[4] Kanwar, S (2019) How the PM's Affordable Housing Scheme Went From Promising to Dysfunctional, The Wire, https://thewire.in/urban/housing-urban-policy-scheme.

[5] Naik, M (June, 2019) India must shun Nehruvian metropolis bias & turn to small cities for urban economic growth, The Print, https://theprint.in/opinion/india-needs-to-shun-nehruvian-megacity-bias-turn-to-small-cities-for-urban-economic-growth/246459/?fbclid=IwAR241rmpTXCG51GfOLzKRdJnlq98KUgdHqyup1EW_QS7ZVmXvYjm_PGSaco

[6] Yiftachel, O (2009) Theoretical Notes on ‘Gray Cities’: The coming of Urban Aparthied? Planning Theory, Vol 8(1): 87–99, DOI: 10.1177/1473095208099300


Dr. Kanchan Gandhi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at IISER Mohali. She is an academic, a thinker and philosopher, a writer of fiction and non-fiction who likes to wear many hats. Dr. Gandhi has taught courses in urban and regional studies at Ansal University Gurgaon and Xavier University, Bhubaneswar. She has also been a visiting faculty member at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. Kanchan guides studio projects related to urban and regional planning and accompanies students in the field.