Documents as Datelines

In this paper, we attempt to reflect on the relationship between documents, lives of people who live in the city, and how documents mediate between the city and its inhabitants.

Paper by , Priya Sen, Suraj Rai, Jaanu Naagar, Shveta Sarda, presented at Sensor-Census-Censor: An International Colloquium on Information, Society, History and Politics, Sarai-CSDS + Waag Society (Amsterdam) + t0 (Vienna)


Over the years, millions have arrived into the city. According to the current Union Minister of Urban Development, over 5 lakh people come to live in Delhi each year. All these people have traveled with a hope of finding a corner in the city.

Our colleague Shamsher Ali from LNJP colony writes, and I quote:

"There is a reason to travel to the city, but there is no destination in the city to reach. In the thousands of corners in the city, there will surely be one that has a space which is destined for me. “City”, the word holds this meaning. It is often an unuttered understanding shared by those who travel to the city. People arrive in the city with this stubborn thought in their hearts, searching their corner."

He writes that people come to the city with unvalidated licenses. What are these unvalidated licenses, we ask ourselves. Dreams and desires, of course, that can never carry stamps of approval from an authority. But what more?

Many travel ticketless into the city. And for others, the first document that they carry, and which many preserve for a long time after they have come to the city, is the railway ticket with which they purchased their railway journey to the city. The ticket, bearing your name, age and gender, is issued by Indian railways. The State issued the ticket with which you entered the city – but it can never stand as a proof of your arrival!

Some also enter the city with their janam kundali. A janam kundali contains a snapshot of the planets at the time and place of birth, and an attendant narrative of ones destiny.

Jaanu's father got Jaanu's janam kundali made just before Jaanu left his home in Fatehpur to join him in Delhi, in Nangla Maanchi where he lived as a tenant. The priest asked Jaanu's date of birth. “Whatever you think is an auspicious day”, Jaanu's father replied. And so it was done.

When people travel to the city, it is not with stabilised names and dates of birth. It is when they enter the city that the mutability of these particulars of life begin to be fixed, consolidated, stabilised. The complicated process of accessing the welfare administration of the State helps in stabilising the name and date of birth. Local political networks help in this. On these, then, decisions of life begin to get based.

Suraj Rai from LNJP colony explains:

"Last night, as I looked inside the trunk, I saw a square metal piece, layered with chalk dust. I had no memory to associate with it. I picked it up and removed the chalk from it. It was an aluminum plate. It bore a number. 4-1-5. I recognised the number. It is the same one as our ration card bears. It was embossed with a sign. The issuing authority's, I thought to myself. Within this sign, or logo, was a stamp of time, 1987. On seeing the year, an image flashed in my mind. A day from my childhood when I saw two men standing on the other side of the threshold of my house, one of them painting this number with a brush onto the wall. The number stayed on the wall through my childhood.

"I asked my mother what the square piece of aluminum was. She said it was a token. It bore the token number of our house. It is what our ration card and election I-card have been issued on the basis of. VP Singh [a politician] had got it made. All the poor people who lived here got one. The purpose was to assist in getting kerosene for stoves and sugar at lower costs. Our colony got its name when these tokens were issued. Today it is called LNJP colony, but then it was named T-Wood Market. My mother told me to put it back in the same place in the trunk from where I had pulled it out. She said it would help us later in life.

"As I put it back in its place I thought to myself, that which has no relation with my memories of my family is a strong token of my family's identity in the city."

As Suraj writes, being poor in the city gets you a token or a ration card. These become proofs – datelines – of your entry into the city. They are days, that following from Jane Caplan's very precise term, can be called the beginning of the "legal seizure" of the settlement and its inhabitants. The ephemeral railway ticket from the railway journey with your name, age, gender and date of arrival into the city, and the malleable janam kundli can now be set aside.


People settle in a place in the city. A place with no valid license. A corner in the city, that corner destined for them, made by and along with others like them. Under the shade of a critical event – a fire – or a political date (that is, elections) you are given a BPL Ration Card.

A Ration Card is a quintessential social document for the millions of urban inhabitants. The Food and Supplies Department of the Delhi Government issues Ration cards for buying basic food necessities – grain, oil, sugar – at a “fair” price from public distribution shops. Depending on the financial status of the families, there are classifications into different categories. One of them is BPL. BPL means “Below Poverty Line”. In local parlance, it is also called “Below Power Line”.

A Ration Card is issued to a group of people. This is critical. To get it made on your own, it would need (here we quote from an official website):

“You must go to the Food and Supply Officer (FSO) of your area, and get application form number ONE (50 paise). Application for new ration cards are accepted from the 1st to 15th of every month. The head of the family must fill out and sign the form, and return it to the FSO along with 3 passport-sized photographs and one of the following documents – rent receipt, electricity/water/telephone bill, house tax receipt, registered deed, power of attorney, gas connection receipt, allotment letter from the Competent Authority, NOC from the landlord. In case you have but cannot bring any of the documents, the FSO will satisfy himself through spot inquiry.”

Ration cards are important as proof of name, family members and a recognisable date of entry into the city – a basic requirement to get any subsequent entry into the world of formal work, and claims to citizenship. The ration card is incipient to the chain of production of a series of documents to gain entry into different networks of social welfare and work, through identification requirements. But getting a ration card itself requires one of a number of identity documents that are not easy to procure as an individual. For instance, in Nangla Maanchi, when a house is sold to someone, it is the malba – or the rubble that will be obtained if the house were to be broken – that is sold. In LNJP, you can't get a gas connection because it is impossible to prove your house and neighbourhood are safe from fire.

For this reason, getting ration cards en mass, through the lobbying by local political neworks, invariably preceding an election, is critical. The State has schemes from time to time in which people who are new settlers in an informal settlement can apply for a ration card. Local politicians are able to leverage into these schemes. When ration cards get made in a settlement, there is a big chanda (money) collection. For example, in one such drive, Rs. 800 for the form that costs Re. 1, and Rs. 100 for the submission was collected in LNJP. The Food and Supply Officer (FSO) then makes spot visits to check the houses. This provision of spot inquiry allows for this maneuvering.

What does a ration card issued to a group in a settlement do? It stabilises for each family the number of family members, their ages at the time of the issuing of the cards, their gender, and the name of the head of family. It fixes the date which will henceforth be recognised by the State as the date on which you entered the city. It is the first "new day" by which you will be recalled as having come into the city, as a city dweller, and the dateline from which you began to dwell in that settlement, that corner of the city.


A settlement is formed with tides and trickles of immigration to it. Jaanu's father had come to Delhi to work in the late 80s. One day, caught in a downpour at the bus stop opposite Pragati Maidan, he struck up a conversation with another man standing in its shelter. The rain didn't relent for an hour, and when it thinned into a drizzle, the man invited Jaanu's father to stay the night at his house. The host lived in Nangla Maanchi, and touched by the hospitality of the people who lived in it, and in search for a better accommodation than the one he had at the moment, Jaanu's father took up a one room house on rent in Nangla.

Gyani Devi's husband, Shrawan Kumar, had been in Delhi since 1986. For six years, he had no permanent address. One day, as he walked along the Ring Road, he saw Nangla Maanchi. The next morning, he went back to his village near Purunia in West Bengal, packed his home and returned to Delhi with his entire family, and settled in Nangla. For years after that, he and his wife sold roasted gram outside Pragati Maidan.

In Nangla Maanchi, as in any settlement, surveys – or statistical enumeration of its inhabitants – happened in gaps of a few years.

Suraj writes:

"When we move out of our “selves” into the world, we are asked for our identity. The State marks our identity, gives us documents that arrest our identity. Documents are scars that we carry on being branded with our ascribed identity. This identity is underlined year after year through verification of old and the issuing of new documents through surveys. Everyone comes to a city with their different personalities through which they can be recognised. But after a survey, when you are inscribed in a register in columns of name and age, these are the only two variables that remain of your distinction from another."

Surveys are conducted in a settlement in its entirety. Participating in these surveys is seen as a way in which people could make claims to some social welfare schemes. For instance, for a settlement that is slowly being formed, the first survey is very important as a marker of being recognised as a settlement, which is a first step to making a claim to provision of electricity or laying of sewer lines, paving of lanes in the settlement.

The periodicity and the scale of the surveys vary. A census every ten years. Nangla Maanchi had two in the twenty five years of its existence. Creating a dateline of division between those who were present in the first and those who appear only in the second. Counting every five years, before elections, to ascertain new voters who would have come to the settlement or come of age in the settlement in the interim. Creating a dateline of division between those who hold election I-cards of one date and those of a date before that. Occasional surveys to determine new members in the household. When Shrawan Kumar's two sons came of age and married, both created a separate household. Their ration cards bear dates different from the ones of their father. A dateline of division before and after which someone set up home in the settlement. And the not so random, lightening surveys by the police to discover and question new tenants – the paperless new migrants to the city.

Enumerators roam the settlement with their own ways of apportioning, dividing, fracturing. What use is the house put to (is it commercial)? When was the ration card made, that is, how long have you been here? You couldn't show anything, any document.

In surveys you produce documents – tokens and/or ration cards. A ration card issued in 1994 speaks to the electoral survey in 2000, after which an election I-card is issued in 2001. A survey in 1994 results in a ration card for the settler who was absent in the survey of 1992. But by a new policy, the ration cards issued post-94 would support buying kerosene and sugar from a fair price shop, and would not be proofs of residence for the card holder. Political lobbying however gets the holder of this ration card an election I-card in 2004.

Surveys are days in which people have to narrate their lives through their documents. The days of these surveys becomes the day of the "pehchan" or identification of the settlement through its internal fissures of duration of stay and the practice of usage – commercial or residence – that a house is put to.

A survey is that which marks a date through which your life has a "before" and "after" in a city. This date inserts itself into how one narrates ones time, and life events, in future surveys. To belong to the city is to inhabit a matrix of such datelines. The fissures of datelines lie dormant in the quotidian conversations and routines of a settlement. They lie mute, holding within them the internal transformations of the city, its slow accretions, its growth over time. They don't appear in the years one gives to a place, in which someone forms ones neighbourhood, and in which one makes ones life in the city. When do these internal fissures become active as forces? In the next part of the paper, we attempt to explore how documents and the fissures they produce take on a life of their own.




Deputy Commissioner of Police (New Delhi District)
Parliament Street Police Station
New Delhi – 110001

SUB: WPC-3419/1999 Hemraj Vs Commissioner of Police and Others – Removal of remaining unauthorised structures at Nangla Maanchi.


This has reference to the discussions held during the meeting in the Chamber of Additional Commissioner on 26th July 2006 at 4:00 PM to finalise the action plan for removal of remaining structures from T-clusters, Nangla Maanchi near T-point, Rind Road, Bhairon Marg Crossing.

In the meeting, it was decided that voluntary shifting should take place on 3rd and 4th August 2006, followed by compulsory removal action on 5th and 6th August, 2006.

You are hereby requested to provide Police force (males/females) for maintaining the Law & Order on site during [the] demolition programme.

The Officers/Officials of Slum & JJ will report at 7:00 PM on 3rd August 2006 at the Tilak Marg Police Station.

Yours faithfully,

PR Sethi

Deputy Commissioner (Slum)

Here we would like you to consider the cc list of this circular. It illuminates a host of networks of institutions and practices that are behind this decision and are mobilised to execute this decision. It also provides an interesting entry point to look at the combination of techniques of knowledge generation by the State, social welfare demands on the State and the requirements for an action that is supposed to be fast and clean, to be effective.

Copy to:

1. (OSD) Officer on Special Duty to Chief Secretary, Governor of National Capital Territory of Delhi for kind information of the latter.
2. OSD to Vice Chairman, DDA (Delhi Development Authority) for kind information of the latter.
3. PS, Personal Secretary (Power, Govt. of NCT of Delhi), for kind information of the latter.
4. PS to Additional Commissioner of Police, Police Headquarters, for kind information of the latter.
5. PS to Additional Commissioner (Slum) for kind information of the latter.
6. Deputy Comm(Slum & JJ) for kind information.
7. Shri NP Singh, General Manager, Rajghat Power Station with the request to provide 6 JCB and 50 manual labour.

(A small detour here to the JCB website, seems appropriate. Joseph Cyril Bamford launched the construction and agricultural equipment manufacturing company that bears his initials, in 1945. He began his business in a garage that measured 12 feet by 15 feet. Today, JCB’s world headquarters is one of the finest engineering factories in Europe. The company that began as a ‘one man band’ now employs over 6,000 people and produces over 250 products – with bases in the UK, the USA, India, Germany and South America. It also sells a full range of equipment in over 150 countries.)

Now, to return to the cc's.

8. Commissioner, DDA to direct concerned officers/officials to reach at site on the day of demolition with JCB/bulldozers and 50 manual labours.
9. Shri OP Ahlawat, Dy. Director, Special Economic Zone, DDA.
10. Slum & JJ Department to direct the concerned officials to be available at site to give possession of plots to dwellers who reach at site with identification slip containing plot numbers.
11. Slum & JJ to depute 5 cashiers at site to accept share money from dwellers.
12. Executive Engineer to provide sufficient number of trucks to shift 919 dwellers to Sawda-Ghevra.
13. Director (Demolition) for providing adequate manual labour with demolition tools/equipment.
14. DCP (Traffic), Police Station RK Puram, Sector 12, New Delhi with the request to allow passing of trucks from Nangla Maanchi, JJ cluster to Sawda-Ghevra.
15. DCP (Traffic), Police Station Nothern Range, Delhi with the request to allow passing of trucks from Nangla Maanchi, JJ cluster to Sawda-Ghevra.
16. Sociologist (Slum), Shri Taneja to direct concerned Field Investigators to reach at site.
17. Care Taker (Slum) to make sitting arrangement in tents and to provide snacks/lunch/ tea to the officials on duty.
18. Assistant Director (PR) to make videography of the area before and after shifting.
19. SHO, Police Station Tilak Marg, New Delhi with the request to provide Outer Police Force (Males and Females) on the day of the demolition/shifting.

The import of this cc list is yet to be fully explored by us. This circular ultimately determined the fate of Nangla, but there was no way anyone in Nangla could have access to it.

On 30th August 2006, Nangla Maanchi was demolished. 919 families were given a plot of land – 12.5 sq. ft. and 18 sq. ft – as compensation in Savda-Ghevra, an expanse of land without any infrastructure, 50 kilometers from Nangla Maanchi. Lives measured in years, along datelines, your positions on the dateline determining the measure of the plot you will now be assigned for the remainder of your life. People from 20 settlements in the city are still in the process of being slowly shifted to Ghevra. People from 4 settlements, including Nangla have been relocated here till now.

The above circular, in multiple copies, orchestrated the demolition. What preceded it?


Beginning of January 2006. Another survey. Teams of two men in plainclothes, carrying registers, accompanied by two policemen in uniform, began to be seen doing the rounds of Nangla Maanchi. The surveyors would knock at a door, ask six questions to the person who responded to the knock – your name, name of the head of the family, how many years have you lived here, do you have any documents, do you have a ration card, do you have an election I-card? A knock, a demand for papers, a glance at the documents, the noting of details. A survey spends little over 30 seconds per household, repeating and underlining the ones before it.

The surveyors noted in their registers details of documents shown and left. What are these surveys about? The surveyors said, “We are determining who lives here and whether those who live here do in fact live here.” The survey passed quickly, quietly.

Suraj writes, “Your identity is the first step in determining who you are, and the second step is an activation of the fissures that lie under your identity, dividing you from that of others.”

A month later, the survey team returned to Nangla Maanchi with new registers. The team stood before each house and called out the name of the head of the family. “Rameshwar!” He appears at the door. The surveyor with the register glances in his papers, points to a detail. The other surveyor inscribes on the door, NDS. “Shrawan Kumar!” He appears at the door. The surveyor looks into his register, points a detail to his partner, who writes with a piece of white chalk on the door, P-98. It took a few teams of surveyors a few days to inscribe marks on the door of each house – NDS, P-98, Comm, Lock, while some doors were left unmarked.

In a settlement, asurvey announces official activity, but a surveyor doesn't announce the nature of this official act. “What does this sign on my door in response to my ration card and election I-card stand for?”

The surveyors' response: “They are code words that our senior officials have given us, to inscribe on each house.” Residents of Nangla Maanchi stood before their houses, as the survey teams departed, leaving them to decipher and live with mysterious “code words”. NDS, Comm, P-98, Lock. The subterranean divisions of the settlement were now overt, marked on the doors of every house in Nangla Maanchi. A chalk mark can be easily erased with a duster or the palm of ones hand. But the official secrecy of a “code word” repels any such overtures. It demands a reverence, and a silent waiting.


An activation of the fissures that run from beneath your identity arrested in documents produces a pull, like a marksman drawing an arrow on a bow string, preparing to launch those it arrests, into the city, like projectiles. The document produces the pull; a survey, the force. The weaker your hold on a place, as recorded in your document, the faster the speed of the departure.

A week after surveyors left codewords on doors of houses, policemen arrived in Nangla Maanchi. They announced. “People whose houses are marked NDS, Comm and Lock should pack their things and leave from here tomorrow morning by 7:00 am.”For the first time since the survey, the latent fissures produced by documents came alive for the residents of Nangla Maanchi, and activated a difference between how different residents would from now on live in the city, determining their future movement, their mobility in the city.

NDS, P-98, Comm, Lock.The policemen explained: Comm – You run shops, workshops, your premises are used for commercial activities. NDS – You didn't show any documents, you are marked as 'No Documents Shown'. Lock – You were absent when the survey was being done, you are marked 'Lock'.

Documents hovered over the settlement. People immediately began to bring their documents and show them to each other and to the policemen. But the policemen were mere messengers. Documents have finished their narration a few months before, in the last survey. Now there remains no one to whom one can narrate.


In any two surveys, your documents should co-relate, recall and narrate the previous survey. In Nangla, sadly, people showed new cards, laminated and shining, rather than the old ones, burnt or soiled with repeated use or chewed at the edges. The new, shining, laminated documents couldn't narrate the old survey. Divisions cast over the settlement by the survey underlined lives. This division, produced by documents, was always there, but with the survey, it took on the frightening form of eviction and demolition. The settlement was divided – NDS, Comm, P-98, Lock. The speed of the survey allows no narration other than that locked in the document. A possibility of a different narrative is sealed.

Surya Bhan, the name under which a ration card is issued in 1992. Suraj Bhan, the name under which his ration card is renewed in 2002. The given name did not correlate. House marked P-98. Hariprasad, whose son, in fits of rage and madness, burnt his father's documents. At the time of the survey, no document shown. NDS. Failed documents, documents that couldn't narrate any previous survey.

One is compelled to forget the layers of time through which one has lived ones life and try to re-enter the present through datelines created by someone else, arrested in documents. The ways of recognition have to be re-negotiated through fractured constructions of identity. NDS, P-98, Comm, Lock. Once you have one identity, you can't be another. The basis by which you live your life is altered. You must live through the portion assigned to you. The settlement is the collective through which life is lived. A survey based on portioning of identities divides this. NDS, P-98, Comm, Lock – the speed at which one would be propelled into the city depended on what inscription has been left on the door. NDS – the “No documents shown” – the tenants and the relative newcomers to Nangla Maanchi, were the first to be evicted, the first to leave Nangla in search of other places, their names and age still not stable.

P-98, before 98, but after 1990. Status after the survey: pending. A narration is still possible. For them, the argument has not ended. It continues.

People whose status is pending, who will still get a hearing, go to the courts, to MCD office, to the Food Supply Officer with their documents that spoke that time, in that old survey.

Courts make documents take a spectral form. You don't know what the court will hear, pay heed to. Photographs, receipts – all kinds of records of your life become alive. Here, this photo, in front of this tree. Look how big the tree has now become. We have been here that long. Look, this receipt. The bricks of this house were bought in that year, when my son had just begun to earn a living. Everything becomes a document. You narrate your life as a document.

But it doesn't speak to the one who it narrates to, it doesn't fit their frame.


For some, the documents they had preserved for years, were transacted for a new document, a parchi. A parchi is a receipt against the “share money” paid by those residents who have been declared eligible for rehabilitation on the basis of their documents. The parchi, a pink slip that you see on the screen behind me, now becomes the primary document on the basis of which they will later get a lease title for the plot of land assigned to them. A parchi is the big certificate that will now mediate between them and security of habitation in the city.

Parchiswere issued to residents of Nangla Maanchi by MCD [Municipal Corporation of Delhi] officials over two days. People whose houses had been left unmarked by the surveyors were the ones eligible for the parchi. To get one, each person had to show their ration card and election I-card again to the officials on duty.

The parchi, now becomes the primary document on the basis of which 919 households got a lease of ten years for the plot of land assigned to them.

The new big certificate of relocation was a flimsy pink sheet. Realising the importance of their parchees for their future in the city, fearful of losing, tearing or marking it in the process of packing and shifting from their houses, mindful of what others in the settlement had lost on not being able to procure neat documents to transact with newer ones, people got their parchees laminated overnight. Fresh, pink, laminated documents, safe from the elements of nature and the mischief of the young, the careless and the envious. Residents of Nangla Maanchi, soon to be relocated to Ghevra, in tempos – two families to one – organised by the MCD, showed each other their stiff, new documents. The P-98s, their case pending, their arguments not as yet over, looked on with older documents.

Next morning there was pandemonium under the tent where MCD officials carried out their official activity. The parchees had to be verified one last time, against photographs of the heads of family, cross checked and inscribed with the temporary plot number assigned to each household in Ghevra, the list of which had been freshly issued. How would that be possible on slippery, stretched plastic? Hands that carefully held the stiff, pink certificate fidgeted. Behind them, Nangla Maanchi continued to be felled with six JCBs and 50 manual labour.

Meanwhile, the pending case of the P-98 lingered. Parvez calls Jaanu. Even today, three months since Nangla Maanchi has been razed to the ground, and residents bearing the right documents relocated to Ghevra, others scattered in the city. Hello, I am Parvez, P-98, from Nangla Maanchi. What has happened regarding the P-98s?

Parvez calls at least once every week. As Jaanu prepares to go to bed, as he cooks his dinner, as he writes a text. The narration has been broken. But a hope, a stubbornness remains. Maybe someone will listen. Even now. Months after all the houses in Nangla Maanchi have been felled, the settlement razed to the ground.

Those who have got a plot on the barren fields of Ghevra, 50 kms away from Nangla, hesitate in their narration about Nangla. "Lets talk ahead. There is a house to be built. There is a plot to be measured. There is the pucca parchi – a final attested document – to be obtained." The parchi has become the primary document on the basis of which further documents will be accessed. The ration card, the election I-card, others. This parchi has become a sharp pink line, the new dateline, that redraws memory about being in the city into a new “before” and “after”. For some, the pink line has hardened. The life “before” needs to be forgotten and all energies devoted to the new conditions and conditionalities of life.

For P-98, however, that big document is yet to arrive. The narration of being older inhabitants of this city remains critical. They need to prove a significant date of entry into the city. The violence of arbitrary lines of dates has made their narration feeble, but still repeated each time there is a glimmer of hope in any encounter with administration and the courts. They continue to assert the older documents as still significant. Their life in the city hangs in balance on the power of their narration through these old documents. They remember the limerick of Nangla:

“It quenches the thirst of the thirsty, such is Nangla;
It welcomes those who come to the city of Delhi such is Nangla”

... and wait in fragile tenements in Ghevra for a secure corner in the city.



No new comments allowed (anymore) on this post.