When I first came to UWCSEA in 8th grade, I was in a new country, a new school, and an entirely new place. It was a starkly different culture and ethos than what I was used to back in India (even if fundamentally, in many ways, it was very similar). Through my first few weeks, I spent my time making friends, getting to know the place and settling in. While I struggled in the first few days, I found a solid support system. I found friends, teachers, counsellors, all coming together to help me settle in at a foreign place. I felt displaced, but only for the shortest and most transient of moments.
For many people around the world, displacement does not bring with it these privileges. For most, displacement means being made to shift with pretty much a moment’s notice, with a few basic necessities, almost none of their heritage, nor their memory. They lose most of their money and it isn’t just material consequences - histories, traditions, habits, and routines are lost. Children must find new schools, adults must find new jobs, and they in most cases have no support systems, help or aid. These are people on the margins, silenced and invisible.
It was only as I began to immerse myself into UWCSEA that I became sensitive to such needs of those suffering on the periphery. In this respect, I am immensely thankful to the school for upholding a strong culture of social service – that has truly and profoundly shaped my concerns and aspirations. This, coupled with my own sense of restlessness and unease in settling into a new place pushed me towards researching displaced communities in my country. The mandatory Global Concerns (GC) activity in the school bolstered my interest in social work further.
The systematic disenfranchisement of marginalised communities has been ruthlessly and hastily carried out by governments, with little to no attempt to compensate for the major upheaval in people’s lives. According to recent reports, there are close to 42 million people who have been displaced in the name of development. What’s more, those affected by development-induced displacement receive significantly less attention as compared to those displaced due to armed violence or natural disasters. These are amongst the poorest and most marginalised sections in society, who are left with little to no compensation for their massive loss. The trauma and anxiety associated with such a phenomenon is deeply damaging and generational, and rehabilitation efforts are comparatively minimal. Many such families are often displaced more than a few times.
Taking a cue from this problem, I founded “This Place”, a social awareness campaign that confronts issues of displacement, resettlement, and rehabilitation, which are a consequence of the kind of rapid and unchecked urban development taking place, especially in North India. By travelling to places such as Shimla and Solan, where people have been forced to relocate their schools, business and homes due to construction of the Parwanoo to Shimla Expressway, I attempted to understand and uncover what gets lost in the process of building “better” infrastructure. The project’s objective is to engage with the ground realities of resettlement by listening to the experiences of the displaced. It also aims to document such experiences in the form of videos for a wider outreach, with the hope that the issue enters the mainstream discussion around development in India.
Resettlement does not simply imply economic hardships that only pertain to finding a new home and employment. It also brings with it the social difficulties of leaving a home and neighbourhood behind to relocate into a new one, where the neighbourly and social relations have to be built again. This is the reason I chose to conduct ethnographic interviews with the people who have lost the most: the opinions of the stakeholders in such development ventures are varied and nuanced, and it imperative that we take careful stock of them. The project chooses to actively resist a convenient and homogenous treatment of their social realities – such categorisation enables erasing them in our collective imagination. We want to puncture this picture, by reporting authentic accounts of their struggles, and reconstruct a more prominent and telling image -- through intimate and upfront conversation, without misrepresentation and glossing over of facts. The truth has multiple perspectives.
What I’ve learned from my work with displaced peoples is that there needs to be a major reassessment of the implications of ‘development’ for all demographics – to those rendered homeless, the promise of a new flyover or a new mall for the city does not mean anything. In fact, they lose all sense of belonging to a city, having to find ways to survive and carve out some space for their living. Then whose welfare are these projects for? Do we really need to cut off communities for our own luxury? Have we been caught up in such an incessant and aggressively consumerist culture that we have no regard for our fellow inhabitants?
These are serious questions that need urgent deliberation, and it is on us, as citizens of a developing nation, to truly investigate what this term means to us, and act accordingly. We cannot allow for vulnerable communities to continue to be sidelined and resign them to a peripheral existence. Each and every one of us has a stake in our country, and so, we have a stake in our collective existence. It is crucial that we address this kind of curbing of social, economic and political freedom – for that is what robbing people of their homes does, it curtails their right to live a life that is not premised on basic survival. To this end, “This Place” is an attempt to acknowledge, archive and analyse the nuances of identity, by understanding the bits and pieces of community lost by urban displacement, such that even if houses are lost, home is preserved.