Life in the Basti: Understanding Multiple Marginalisations in Sapera Narratives

in Article
Published on: 15 November 2018

Anusha Sundar

Anusha is currently pursuing an MPhil in History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She is interested in histories of labour, environment, and gender and is currently studying the mica mining industry of early 20th century Bihar. She can be reached at

Sapera basti, Gharoli village, Mayur Vihar Phase III


On a November afternoon, Bahadur Nath entertained his guest wearily but patiently. Listening intently to my many queries, he expertly shifted between presenting the problems of being a sapera and strongly criticizing the lack of political initiative in the community: 'Suar ki zindagi jeene ki aadat padh gayi hai. (We have become habituated to living the life of a pig).' Both the analogy and the tone sounded harsh to me but Bahadur Nath retained a composure as the community’s representative. He was, for all practical purposes, the peoples’ mukhiya (head) at the basti (slum settlements). 


Describing both the basti and its people, the analogy of the pig was not meant to shock—it was the mundane reality of being a sapera, for Bahadur Nath. The connotations of the slaughter animal conveyed the opinion starkly. Like the pig, the sapera was expendable. These sapera narratives of neglect featured the state consistently—it was insufficiently present as a protector of rights and privileges, or it was overtly present to threaten their everyday existences. An experience of double marginalisation—of negligence on the one hand and hyper vigilance on the other—involved a sense of marked victimization and resentment at the unjust functioning of the modern Indian state.


The sapera is in a relationship of bargaining with the state, demanding rights from a position of disadvantage but ironically having to negotiate using state-legitimized power/institutions. However, characterizing the marginalisation of the saperas as merely a product of state initiatives is to flatten the picture and claim an intentionality that might be extremely difficult to prove tenable. Yet, that the modern Indian state features consistently and dominantly in sapera narratives is a fact that cannot be brushed aside. How then, do we study the state in the life of the saperas?


It would be helpful here, to understand what one means by the state. The concept of the modern state as a descriptive and an analytic category has been theorized upon heavily, dominantly within the disciplinary ambits of political philosophy, sociology and history. Early theories focussed on two possible characterizations of the state: state-effect and state- system that would describe the ideological and material aspects of state presence and power respectively (Mitchell 1991).


In the case of India, the implication of the modern nation-state in the matters of social factors would mean that the demarcation between state and society would come undone. Calling for a further dismantling of this distinction, Fuller and Benei suggest an ethnographic approach to the study of the ‘everydayness’ of the state. The state occurs ‘on many levels and in many centres’, and there is a need to move away from monolithic understandings of the state apparatus, intention, and action. A closer, empirical analysis would reveal that not only is the boundary between the state and society unclear, ‘it is also fluid and negotiable according to social context and position (Fuller and Benei 2001).' The contemporary Indian state has been differentiated from its colonial predecessor and the Nehruvian nation by the ‘familiarity’ of its presence (Kaviraj 1991). It is no longer ‘spectacular’ or a ‘distant myth’ but an inhabitable reality. The arbitrary distinctions this argument employs does not qualify which Indian it is referring to for surely ‘the presence of familiarity’ is differently felt according to temporal, spatial and social contexts.


Emma Tarlo’s study of ‘Welcome’, a resettlement colony in Delhi in the Emergency period is sensitive to the state’s many different kinds of relationships with its citizen-subjects. Pointing out that the ‘location and more importantly, the visibility of the location’ affected the practices of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), Tarlo’s study draws attention towards the differentiated treatment meted out by government agencies in accordance with the socially hierarchized status quo. Here, Tarlo’s analysis does not spell out but certainly hints at the socio-political contingencies of the locations and their visibilities.


This takes me back to the location of the sapera basti in Mayur Vihar. The three gallis (lanes) in the basti are lined by pukka houses with mostly open terraces and open drains. Economic differentiation is marked by the presence of dish TV networks and boards announcing the availability of band services for weddings and social gatherings in some houses. Taking me round the central galli, Bahadur Nath drew my attention to the odour in the air-- 'Badboo aa rahi hai aapko? Voh yahin pahaad se aa rahi hain (Can you smell the stench? It is coming from the mountain nearby).' The ‘pahaad’ was not an exaggeration—sitting just under one kilometre from the sapera and nat bastis that line the outer extreme of Mayur Vihar Phase III, was a gigantic mountain of garbage, hard to miss both by sight and smell. 'Issi kudhe ki badhboo mein khana khate hain hum (We eat our meals in this stench).'


One of the four major garbage dumping grounds in the national capital region, a landslide of waste from the Ghazipur landfill had recently claimed the lives of two people (Sunny 2017, Goswami 2017). The vulnerability of the basti’s location was made extremely stark—not only were the existing living conditions worsened by the unhygienic conditions, but the mountain of garbage also posed a real threat to the lives nearby (Sharma 2017). The negligence of local MCD authorities was underlined in Bahadur Nath’s criticism— 'Logon ko khayal nahi hai ki hum issi badhboo mein saans lete hain, ki humare bachein issi gandi hawa mein kheltein hain. Aap bhi chale jaoge sham ko (It does not matter if we breathe in this toxic air or if our children play in it. Even you will go back to your home this evening).' The jab at my temporary, fleeting presence as an outsider merely interested in documenting their lives with no intentions of effecting tangible change in their livelihood or lifestyle was expected and rightly placed. Having faced many different kinds of ‘scholar- journalists’, Bahadur Nath was tired of playing host to the production of ‘knowledge’ that will have no impact on his community’s life. 


As of 2012, the Delhi government reported that there are 6343 slums with 10.20 lakh households in the national capital territory (Ali  2015). These were slums with varying degrees of sanitation, household and drinking water facilities ranging from kutchha houses with service latrines (requiring manual scavengers to clean the latrines) to electrified pukka houses with septic or underground drainage facilities. The Delhi government’s definition of an urban slum is ‘a compact settlement of at least 20 households with a collection of poorly built tenements, mostly of temporary nature, crowded together usually with inadequate sanitary and drinking water facilities in unhygienic conditions’ (Ali 2015). This is a marked shift from the 2011 Census which required a settlement to have a minimum of 60-70 household cut-off to be qualified as a slum. Not only would such a high cut-off exclude a number of smaller squatter/ slum settlements but it is also not mindful of particular regional patterns of urban housing. Delhi, for instance, with a high rate of eviction witnesses smaller settlements of which some are temporary measures (Bhan and Jana 2013). These differences in state enumerative policies clearly demonstrate the multiple intentions of central and state governments and reveals the urgency to draw an increasing correlation between the decreasing number of slums and urban poverty (Ibid).


When I met Keshu Devi, a 50 something woman, she was bent over a bright yellow sari, concentrating on pasting sequin along its borders. Her daughter, aged 14 was preparing the wood and coal, to start cooking food for the day. Keshu Devi pointed at a small, pucca house across the street from us— 'Wahan pe hum rahte hain, idhar kaam karte hain. (We live over there and work here).' Her work place was the street itself, inside a three-sided temporary thatched shelter where both cooking and piece work was done everyday. The lack of an enclosed kitchen space or open cooking and the absence of garbage disposal systems are two important factors that contradict the idea that the mere presence of pucca houses or electrification automatically speak of an upgraded slum. Sapera women and children cleaned the spaces outside their homes and other common areas in the locality as MCD workers barely entered the basti to sweep or collect trash.


The caste based segregation of urban order is not limited to the marginalities of these geographies but the impermeability of spaces between lower and upper castes as well. This does not mean that saperas did not live alongside other castes—upper or lower. Jat Thakurs, from the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana own shops and land in areas adjacent to the basti and often employ sapera men in their shops. 'Sarkar ne jameen utha liya magar paisa abhi bacha hai. (The government has taken away our (farm) lands but we have got our money still).' Having rented out their lands in the city to big telecom companies such as Airtel and Reliance, the Thakurs maintain a comfortable if not, high income. In times of financial distress, the sapera men loan money from the Thakurs. The money lender-recipient relationship is often fraught as the Thakurs charge a high interest rate while simultaneously maintaining an atmosphere of surveillance made possible by the privilege of access. An inability to pay back the loan with interest would often pressure the sapera families into entering a debt-bond or worse, result in the seizure of their homes effectively driving them out of the bastis. In Dharampura (Najafgarh), many sapera families have been forced into eviction not by any state authority but by local upper caste money lenders.


Keshu Devi’s two storey brick house lodged her and the families of her two elder sons with their wives. It was electrified recently and had water supply from the DDA. 'Ye humara jameen hai. Bahut saal se yahin rah rahein hain. (This is our land. We have been living here a long time.)' Referring to an earlier conversation about having left their semi-nomadic past for settled life, the sapera woman was quick to brush away her community’s history-- 'Woh saanp ka samay chala gaya. Ab yahi hai. (The days of the snake have left us. Now this is all we have).'


A very distinctive difference between conversations with sapera men and women at the basti was the absence of reference to the snake-charming pasts in the narratives of the latter. There was no nostalgia for the snake-charming practices but a loss in the sense of economic security prevailed amongst older women like Keshu Devi. For the women in the sapera basti, work occupied day and night. Earlier, sapera women were entirely absent from the public profile of snake-charming and were largely involved with domestic chores. Post the ban, the patterns of labour has changed where the burden of earning a steady livelihood, often to even ensure daily meals, falls unevenly on the shoulders of these women.


Almost all women from the age of 12 are involved in intensive domestic labour and the task of picking up pieces of work on a daily basis. Most men on the other hand, work seasonally, as and when been (flute) bookings for parties are made during weddings or wage labour works at construction sites are required. As Keshu Devi narrated her daily routine involving a lonely three kilometre walk in the morning and evening to submit completed work and collect new work, a DDA officer interrupted to inform her about the time of demolition for the next day. The wall against which her thatched shelter for cooking and work was put up had to be broken down to build a park. As the shelter was on the road, it was an ‘encroachment’ and Keshu Devi had no claims on demanding for its stay or a compensation. 


While her two daughters helped with cooking and household work, only two of Keshu Devi’s five sons managed to go to the government school nearby. Although it is mandatory that all private schools accept a quota of underprivileged children, most were denied on the basis of their age or were forced to drop out. The eldest two sons, she said, were 'too late'-- 'Bahut time ho gaya.' Dropout rates are extremely high amongst the saperas in Delhi and the few who manage to finish their schooling in government schools are unable to find work according to their educational backgrounds. Some relatively well-off families in the basti have managed to enroll their children in private schools, under the Right to Education Act’s quota for the underprivileged. However, this applies largely to boys, and very few girl children manage to go to school or drop out very early to help with household chores and become wage earners to supplement the family income.


A combination of factors deter children from continuing with their schooling. If the pressure to start earning is a major factor, the inability of sapera children to cope in private schools, insensitive remarks from school authorities, prior cases of sibling drop outs etc., play a significant role as well (Davindera 1997). Sharma Nath Sapera, owner of a been company in the basti concluded one conversation on a note of bitter resignation— 'Agar humare bachhe padhi bhi liye tho aapke jaise kabhi bhi naukri nahi kar sakte. Yahan vahan kuch kaam karenge bas (Even if our children manage to get educated, they will never be able to secure a job like you do. They will keep working here and there).'


This essay has focussed on the saperas in the Gharoli basti in Delhi who form a micro segment of the larger community, most of whom do not reside in urban areas. The scope of this essay severely limits the application of these narratives of marginalisation onto the entire community indiscriminately. Saperas in urban areas have been severely impacted by the ban while many who live in semi-urban or rural areas continue to practice the art. Moreover, the lack of a uniform application of the denotified tribe status (DNT and NT) has led to many regionally varied social situations (Roy Burman 2010).


While some of the Nath Saperas are denotified in the state of Haryana, members of the community hold a scheduled caste certificate in parts of Delhi. This uneven recognition of inequity has led to the creation of diverse social conditions and compounded the problems of policy implementations. The Commission for Denotified Tribes, Nomadic and Semi-nomadic Tribes reported that multiple classifications have resulted in an ambiguous situation preventing the members of DNT and NT from availing any benefits from the state’s affirmative action program (Ibid). A proposal to initiate reservation under the new category of ‘Scheduled Community’ however has not been received favourably by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.


The lived reality of the slum or to use the word preferred by its inhabitants, the basti is an important element in understanding the distinctive nature of saperas in the city of Delhi. Class conscious talks of producing a ‘slum-free’ city are often articulated in the language of environmental protection or concerns for security (Ghertner 2011). This nexus between private housing associations and the state (Sheila Dixit’s bhagidari program in 1998, for instance) has led to the denial of citizenship to basti-dwellers by legitimizing claims to the city space by virtue class and property ownership (Bhan 2014).


To mark the state as the sole oppressor is to present an incomplete picture. Evictions were conducted by both the state authorities (the DDA) and upper caste landlords and moneylenders. The burden of continuous labour within the community falls largely upon the women in the households who balance between completing domestic chores and finding daily wage supplements. Their precarious position has also made the women, especially new brides vulnerable to the threat of being prostituted by their own families. The endogamous nature of caste also meant that the saperas married within the same caste but across gotras—in the Gharoli basti for instance, most brides came from sapera families spread across the state of Uttar Pradesh. Often as brides become unavailable in neighbouring bastis, women from distant bastis are brought in to be married into the families.


Children, specifically girls become extra hands for work at an early age with their responsibilities ranging from looking after younger siblings, cooking food for the family, doing piece work etc. Studying in the nearby government school, 16-year-old Sushil (name changed) said he was glad there was a ban on snake-charming: 'Iss tarah hum school ja sakte hain. Ye budhon ka kaam nahi karna hai. (This way we get to go to school. I don’t want to go along with the elder’s work).' Listening to the younger generation challenges the notion of the sapera as a hapless subject of his unfair destinies.


While socio-economic marginalisations are extremely real, taking multiple experiences into consideration is important to avoid packing deeply contextual and negotiating lives into hermetically sealed boxes marked ‘oppressed’ and the ‘oppressor’. Writing stories of victimization runs the risk of producing a patronising saviour complex among social workers, activists and research scholars while comfortably absolving multiple complicities in perpetuating the social conditions we deplore.




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Bhan, Gautam, and Arindam Jana. 2013 ‘Of slums or poverty.’ Economic and Political Weekly 48(18): 13-16.


Bhan, Gautam. 2014. ‘The impoverishment of poverty: reflections on urban citizenship and inequality in contemporary Delhi.’ Environment and Urbanization 26 (2): 547-560.


Burman, J. J. Roy. 2010. Ethnography of a Denotified Tribe: The Laman Banjara. New Delhi: Mittal Publications.


Davindera. 1997. Socialization and Education of Nomad Children in Delhi State. New Delhi: Regency Publications.


Fuller, C.J. and Veronique Benei. 2001. The Everyday State and Society in Modern India. London: Hurst and Company.


Ghertner, D. Asher. 2012. ‘Nuisance Talk and the Propriety of Property: Middle Class Discourses of a Slum‐Free Delhi.’ Antipode 44 (4): 1161-1187.


Goswami, Shweta. 2017. ‘As Ghazipur landfill shuts, Rani Khera new dumping site.’ Hindustan Times, Delhi, September 2.Online at


Kaviraj, Sudipta. 1991. ‘The modern state in India.’  In Dynamics of state formation: Europe and India compared, edited by M. Doornboss and Sudipta Kaviraj. New Delhi: Sage Publications.


Mitchell, Timothy. 1991. ‘The limits of the state: Beyond statist approaches and their critics.’ American Political Science Review 85: 76- 96.


Sharma, Manoj. 2017. ‘Mountain of trash, stench in the air: Welcome to Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill.’ Hindustan Times, Delhi, September 1.Online at


Sunny, Shiv. 2017. ‘Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill collapse: 2 dead as mountain of trash sweeps many into nearby canal.’ Hindustan Times, September 2. Online at