SC orders eviction of lakhs of Delhi’s slum dwellers during the pandemic
With the stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court has ordered the eviction of lakhs of slum dwellers living along the 140 kilometre railway route in Delhi. This will trigger possibly the most large scale urban eviction drive of recent times. A Delhi based lawyer has dubbed the order as the “shame of the judiciary”.
Log toot jaate hain ek ghar banane mein
Tum taras nahi khate bastiyan jalane mein
These were the opening lines of an iconic poem written by Urdu poet Bashir Badr. Kamoda Devi is 45-years-old and might not be as poetic as Badr, but her words have a similar impact.
“It took me years to build this house. After my husband’s death, I worked as a daily wage worker, as a housemaid. I saved every penny possible. And then this house was built. They will come and demolish my years of hard work in a moment,” she said.
Devi lives in Kamala Nehru Camp – a slum cluster – located right next to the railway tracks in Central Delhi’s Kirti Nagar. She recalls how back in 2003, her house – a shanty – was demolished by the authorities. Back then it was Delhi Development Authority (DDA) that left young Devi homeless. In the years to come, as a single mother, she single handedly raised her four sons, managed to save roughly Rs 18,000 – 20,000 and bought a jhuggi in the adjacent slum cluster.
A diminutive and frail Devi couldn’t recall when it was exactly, but she told this correspondent that during the first phase she constructed one room on the ground floor. In the following year, she, along with her sons, managed to build two rooms on the first floor. The house is now home to her sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
It took Kamoda Devi years to organise, buy a jhuggi and construct a home for her children. But now the Supreme Court’s judgement has decided her fate and the fate of her family with the stroke of a pen. Once again, her house will be demolished.
Devi is no exception. The apex court, on September 3, ordered the demolition of 48,000 shanties that have been built along 140 kilometres of railway track in Delhi. The order, if not changed or altered, will effectively demolish 48,000 homes within three months. It is expected to impact roughly three to five lakh people living in the safety zone along the railway tracks in the national capital.
“I have all the documents: Aadhar, electricity bill, voter ID on this address. I had invested my hard-earned savings to buy this jhuggi from someone for Rs 18,000-20,000. If the court wants to give us an eviction notice, they should also provide us with a place to resettle,” Devi said, when asked about the SC judgement on the jhuggis.
Over a short span of time, an emotional Devi expressed her helplessness, frustration and anger. Towards the end of our conversation, she also fervently put forward her plea.
Importantly, in the week when the Supreme Court ordered probably the biggest eviction drive in urban India in recent memory, the media was busy delivering minute to minute coverage of the demolition drive being carried out at an office owned by actress Kangana Ranaut in Mumbai. Ranaut got the media coverage as well as interim relief from the courts, while the likes of Kamoda Devi remain clueless about their fate.
These 48,000 households are spread across Delhi. Slum clusters located in areas such as Kirti Nagar, Mayapuri, Sakur Basti, and Nizamuddin have large settlements. Their livelihoods are directly connected with the businesses, markets or the manufacturing units located nearby. Many of these residents began their lives in these slums, starting from scratch, and have become old with the passage of time.
Rani Vanskar, a resident of Kamala Nehru Camp, described how she had cleared piles of garbage before settling along the railway tracks in Kirti Nagar.
“Twenty years back, when we had come to settle here, the entire place was full garbage and piles of faeces. We literally carried it on our heads to clear the area and make it habitable,” Vanskar said.
She used to work as a maid in the residential colonies nearby and earned Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 per month.
“Most of us and our men have lost our earnings due to Corona. I used to work as a maid in several flats, they asked me to stop coming to their house due to the COVID outbreak. For the past five months we are surviving on our savings,” Vanskar said. “If they evict us from here in the situation, where will we go? How will we survive?”
She further pleaded that the government should provide them alternate flats: "We are ready to pay whatever EMI (instalments) is decided by the government. At least give us an option."
Slums such as Kamala Nehru Camp, Sonia Camp, Chunna Bhatti, and Harijan Camp are located along the railway tracks in Kirti Nagar. A furniture manufacturing hub is thriving in these slum clusters. While many work at the slightly larger workshops, other carpenters have opened up their own workshops in two-three room shanties.
Dinesh Kumar, 28, has been living in the Harijan Camp slum for the past ten years. The one-room jhuggi is divided into two parts: one serves as the workshop and the other part is where the family cooks, lives and sleeps.
Kumar enquired whether there was any possibility of the apex court changing its judgment.
“For the past three years, the business has been dull. First, it was notebandi (demonetisation) and it took six months for the business to return on the track. During the Delhi riots, the work was disrupted for nearly a month and afterwards the pandemic stopped everything. If we are evicted from here, we don’t even have resources left to rebuild over lives,” the 28-year-old carpenter said.
Not far from his house lives 40-year-old Rabiya Begum and her husband Mohammad Rafique.
“During the election, (Prime Minister Narendra) Modiji and BJP promised ‘Jahan Jhuggi, Wahin Makaan’ scheme. And now the court has ordered the demolition of our homes. Where are the politicians?” Begum said, showing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s commitment letter signed by then state president, Manoj Tiwari.
“We have all the documents on this address: PAN card, ration card, electricity bills, Aadhar card. How could they evict us from here? What happened to the electoral promises of providing flats at this very location?” Begum and Rafique asked.
Importantly, most of the slum dwellers are unaware of the threat looming over them. Those who have heard about the SC’s order have learned about it from the newspapers. Others are confused about whether the order will affect them or not.
“Someone will have to create a forum to begin the legal battle. And then only the slum dwellers will be able to put up a fight. Right now there is a lot of confusion as to whether we will be evicted or not,” Ram Surat Rajbhar, who had settled in these slum clusters in 1991, told Asiaville.
The supreme verdict of eviction
The SC, while hearing a case pertaining to population management, passed this order.
The apex court’s decision came after the Northern Railways, in an affidavit, said that despite the formation of the Special Task Force (STF) for the removal of encroachments, it was facing “some political intervention” against the drive to remove the jhuggis in Delhi.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT), in 2018, had ordered the formation of the STF for the removal of encroachments from the railway property.
According to the affidavit filed by Ashwani Kumar Yadav, Additional Divisional Railway Manager, Northern Railway, the jhuggis are present along the 140-kilometre route in Delhi.
“Out of this, about 70 km route length of the track is affected by large jhuggie-jhopri clusters existing in close vicinity of the tracks. These clusters sum up to a total of about 48000 nos of Jhuggies in the region adjacent to Railway tracks,“ Yadav said in the affidavit.
The apex court ordered the removal of the encroachments, which are there in the safety zones, within a period of three months.
It has further ordered: “No interference, political or otherwise, should be there and no Court shall grant any stay with respect to removal of the encroachments in the area in question.”
It has asked the stakeholders, that is, Railways, Delhi Government, concerned Municipal Corporations and the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) to come up with a comprehensive plan for the removal of the jhuggis.
It is important that lakhs of small dwellers have become the collateral damage in an environmental case being heard by the apex court. Moreover, those receiving the biggest blows as a result of this judgement are not even acknowledged or heard.
Supreme Court Advocate Kamlesh Kumar Mishra represented the aggrieved slum dwellers of Shakur Basti – whose settlements were razed down by the Railway authorities in 2015 – in the Delhi High Court. The HC had termed the action by the Railway authorities as “inhuman”. Later, while delivering the judgement in 2018, it had laid down proper guidelines for the eviction of slum dwellers.
Mishra said that the Supreme Court’s order is a “shame on the judiciary”.
“There hasn’t been any order of this nature wherein the Supreme Court of this country says that the order passed by the courts couldn’t be effective,” he said.
He further claimed that the SC judgement fails on the most basic legal principle which says that you cannot take action against someone without hearing them.
Mishra further cited case judgements such as the Ajay Maken case and the Sudama Singh Vs Delhi Government (2010) case where the court clearly ordered that the eviction of slum dwellers could happen only when the land is required for the purpose of public use.
“Even in that case, you will have to go ahead and conduct a survey of the slum clusters. And after the survey, you will have to rehabilitate them as per the eligibility criteria,” the advocate of the Shakur Basti slum dwellers’ said. He emphasised that in this case, the SC has not even heard the aggrieved party.
Mishra said that he has been approached by the residents of Shakur Basti and a few other slum clusters and that he has been planning to file a review petition with the SC and a contempt petition with the Delhi High Court.
According to sources, the Delhi Government is mulling over the idea of filing a review petition against the judgement.
“The court is yet to give directions as to who will bear the cost of housing units at such a large scale. Until the Railway is ready to bear the cost of the housing units for the resettlement, how can we carry out this activity,” a DUSIB official anonymously told Asiaville. He further said that the DUSIB will seek clear directions from the apex court and also push for an extension.
Sources in DUSIB, commenting on the judgement, said, “Just try to understand the implications of the Supreme Court order. It is effectively (telling) the authorities to evict 48,000 families and relocate them. It means resettlement of three to four lakh people.” They further added that at the new sites they will have to install essential services such as electricity and water connections, provide drainage facilities and also make sure that the area has schools for children and opportunities for earnings.
The slum dwellers in Delhi largely depend on odd jobs such as daily wage workers. Many drive e-rickshaws and auto-rickshaws and women work as maids in residential colonies.
If the slum dwellers are resettled at some remote location, it would pose a threat to their livelihoods. For instance, a large number of residents of the slum clusters in Kirti Nagar are dependent on the nearby furniture market and the iron market.
Those living in the slum clusters of Delhi’s Mayapuri are dependent on the industrial units in the area and the Mayapuri scrap market.
Resettlement of slums
Delhi is yet to compile one concrete document on its slum clusters. One has to wade through several documents and surveys to get a rough estimate of the population living in Delhi’s slums.
As per the 2011 Census, 11.3 per cent of Delhi’s households were residing in slums.
According to the 2010 survey of the DUSIB, Delhi’s slums had 4 lakh households that had a population of 20 lakh.
Further data that is acknowledged by the Delhi Government is the one derived from the 69th National Sample Survey (NSS) which states that there were 6343 slums in Delhi and that approximately 10.20 lakh households were estimated to exist in urban Delhi in 2012.
Importantly, nearly 28 per cent of these slums were built on the lands owned by the Railways. This means the apex court’s eviction could affect roughly three to five lakh people. It could trigger possibly the biggest eviction drive ordered by the court in the past few decades.
Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), said that “the court order is distressing”.
“It was a case related to environmental pollution that brought in the issue of garbage along railway tracks. But the affected people, who have been ordered to be evicted, were not a party to the matter. It is extremely disconcerting that garbage and low-income communities have been treated in the same way,” Chaudhry said.
She further argued, “There is a pandemic raging in the country. India has horrifying (COVID-19) numbers with cases surging in Delhi as well…The Government of India has also been appealing to people to stay at home. And here is a directive to demolish almost 50,000 houses. This would directly impact the health and lives of people who are already suffering from the pandemic and lockdown. Most of them have lost their jobs and have no money to find alternative housing.”
Chaudhry said the demolition could trigger a grave human rights crisis.
She said, "No one should be evicted without the provision of alternative adequate housing close to their original places of work. All rehabilitation plans should be developed in consultation with affected communities and with their consent. The history of resettlement in India is not very positive, as it also excludes many on the grounds of lack of documentation or funds. A human rights-based approach is thus needed to ensure that no one is rendered homeless, especially not during the pandemic when housing is an issue of life and death."
We are living in a time when battling the pandemic has become the biggest battle of our lives; during this crucial time, lakhs of Delh's slum dwellers such as 45-year-old Devi will be rendered homeless if the mass eviction is carried out as ordered by the SC.