Politics in a demolition

Print edition : March 02, 2002

The Delhi Municipal Corporation's court-driven demolitions of unauthorised constructions in South Delhi leave some questions unanswered.

IN early February, Lajpat Nagar Colony in South Delhi witnessed two deaths caused by heart attacks as a result of panic created by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which deployed bulldozers, tractors, trucks and around 400 of its employees and many police personnel in a demolition drive. The MCD had earlier served 3,500 demolition notices on the residents.

As bulldozers scraped portions of houses and business establishments, heated arguments broke out between MCD officials and some residents. Soon two residents suffered cardiac arrests and died. But the MCD continued its operation and knocked down 800 structures that it said encroached on public land. It demolished property worth Rs.4 crores.

The MCD was acting under Supreme Court directions. In the past two years, it has taken such drastic action against unauthorised constructions when pulled up by courts. Other areas where the MCD has tried to clear unauthorised structures following court strictures include Sarita Vihar, Greater Kailash and South Extension, all in South Delhi.

In all these areas, as also in Lajpat Nagar, demolitions were carried out partially. As a result, structures have come up again. In almost all the cases the operation was not completed because of political interference.

The demolition drive has become a major issue in the run-up to the MCD elections. The Congress(I) would not let go any opportunity to attack the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has the disadvantage of having its members as the elected representatives of the area in the Municipal Council (Shakuntala Arya), the Legislative Assembly (Sushil Chaudhury) and Parliament (Vijay Kumar Malhotra). The demolitions have come as a setback to the party, which has been trying in the past few months to recover the political ground it lost during the tenure of Jagmohan as Union Urban Development Minister. Jagmohan had carried on a sustained campaign against illegal constructions. His successor, Ananth Kumar, reversed several of his policies after consulting Delhi BJP leaders. "We had been able to get some positive public opinion by reversing some controversial decisions but the Lajpat Nagar demolitions have ruined all our efforts," a senior BJP leader said.

Although the demolition was carried out under the orders of the Supreme Court, the Congress would like the people to believe that the BJP could have averted it. In order to save face, the BJP-led government at the Centre responded with some contradictory statements. Ananth Kumar convened a press conference after the demolition and announced that all encroachments obstructing the right of way would be removed but unauthorised constructions in residential areas would be demolished only after the law took its course.

"Because the MCD polls are approaching, the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government is trying to save face by issuing contradictory statements. The Lajpat Nagar demolitions have shown that the BJP government does not care for the people of Delhi," Delhi Urban Affairs Minister A.K. Walia told Frontline.

Congress(I) leaders have described the BJP statements such as "the law will take its course" as ploys to buy time for the defaulters. The BJP has, however, said that it is trying to ensure that the MCD follows the rules before it starts demolition. Ananth Kumar explained the course of action that the local authorities would have to follow before carrying out demolitions. That would include issuing notices to defaulting property owners asking them to explain unauthorised constructions. The latter would have to respond within a 14-day period.

The MCD has promised to scrutinise the information and give an opportunity to the property owner for a personal hearing. Only after these two steps can the Deputy Commissioner of the area come out with a speaking order. "Only after this would the demolition order be passed," Ananth Kumar promised. Thereafter the property owner would be given an opportunity to approach the Appellate Tribunal headed by a judicial officer against the order. "It is only after the proceedings of the tribunal are over that the final demolition order would be issued. Three days' time would be given to the tenement," he said.

The local Congress(I) leadership termed these desperate measures with an eye on the coming elections. The Congress(I) held a demonstration outside the office of Ananth Kumar on February 11. This was followed by a protest rally against the MCD's drive by residents of Lajpat Nagar. The protesters demanded a written assurance from the Union government or from the MCD that no demolition would be carried out.

The BJP and the Congress(I) have tried to assuage the feelings of the residents of Lajpat Nagar, particularly because the demolitions have affected their middle-class voters.

Demolition drives are not new to Delhi; the civic authorities have regularly shunted the residents of unauthorised colonies around the city. What has made Lajpat Nagar unique is that most of the houses that contravene MCD building bylaws are owned by traders who earn a minimum of Rs.25,000 a month. The other buildings are owned by white-collar workers whose minimum monthly income is in Rs.10,000-Rs.15,000 range. According to K.T. Ravindran, Head of the Department of Urban Design at School of Planning and Architecture, it is a case of a semi-legitimate demand of the middle class getting caught in pre-election campaigns. "The demand has led to a wave of sympathy from the entire middle class of Delhi for the residents of Lajpat Nagar. Such a response is unprecedented in the sense that it has never followed the relocation of unauthorised colonies inhabited by the poor," he said.

In the Lajpat Nagar drama, some larger issues have been ignored. The residents, as also the Congress(I) and the BJP, seem to ignore the fact that the MCD has been conducting court-driven demolitions. The Supreme Court is expected to come up with its final order soon.

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