India’s bulldozer raj: Over 1,50,000 homes razed, 7,38,000 left homeless in two years

Muslims and marginalised groups bear the brunt as massive yellow machines force their way through brick walls.

Published : Jul 08, 2024 11:03 IST - 13 MINS READ

At an eviction drive in Lucknow’s Akbarnagar on June 10, 2024. More than a thousand residential properties and a hundred commercial properties were demolished in the drive.

At an eviction drive in Lucknow’s Akbarnagar on June 10, 2024. More than a thousand residential properties and a hundred commercial properties were demolished in the drive. | Photo Credit: NAEEM ANSARI/ANI

On June 19, in a massive eviction drive in Lucknow’s Akbarnagar, the State government demolished around 1,800 structures, including 1,169 houses and 101 commercial establishments. The BJP government plans to develop this area into the Kukrail Riverfront, transforming it into an ecotourism hub. Many residents have lived there for decades, with some claiming that they had been living there even before the development authority was formed.

Vishnu Kashyap, a resident, speaking to a news website, said: “Our houses will be demolished, and now the government will make a riverfront here. You tell me what is more important, a poor person’s house or a riverfront?”

The government claims that the structures are encroachments. A spokesperson said the area was encroached on, covering the river, “which has led to the river being ridden with illegal constructions by land mafias as well as Rohingya and Bangladeshi infiltrators”.

This is not the only instance of demolition that has occurred in recent times, even as recently as after the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance under Narendra Modi won a third term. Both Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have witnessed similar “bulldozer justice” in recent times. In Madhya Pradesh’s Mandla district, 11 homes belonging to Muslims were demolished on June 15 after police claimed they found beef in their refrigerators.

Hundreds of people were left homeless after the PWD demolished shanties at Dhaula Kuan in New Delhi on May 14, 2023.

Hundreds of people were left homeless after the PWD demolished shanties at Dhaula Kuan in New Delhi on May 14, 2023. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

On May 6, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation demolished around 600 makeshift settlements in Jai Bhim Nagar, a Dalit basti (settlement) in Mumbai’s Powai, leaving 3,500 people homeless. The demolished site, now a rubble of roofing sheets, remains inaccessible to residents, who are forced to live on footpaths.

Heartbreaking stories

Manoj (44) has lived in Delhi his entire life, born and raised in Shahdara. His family first settled in Mansarovar Park, where they lived until the government constructed a flyover, forcing them to relocate near Shyam Lal College. Subsequently, their lives were upended again in 2011 when their homes were demolished to make way for an underpass. Recent years have brought even more challenges. Their settlement has been demolished twice in two years, affecting over 32 families. The reasons cited were “removal of encroachments” and “plans to develop a park”.

Also Read | How government neglect left thousands homeless in Delhi’s Tughlakabad

“When they first demolished our settlement in September 2022, we had nowhere else to go. This place has always been our home,” said Manoj, reflecting the sentiment of many facing similar hardships.

Manoj and his community are constantly uprooted, forced to relocate across different parts of an area when their dwellings are demolished in the name of development. This repeated relocation has left them restless, struggling to even find a place to set up a simple makeshift arrangement.

Rising evictions

According to a 2024 estimate by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), authorities at the local, State, and Central levels have demolished 1,53,820 homes in 2022 and 2023, resulting in the forced eviction of more than 7,38,438 individuals across rural and urban areas in the country. The statistics collated by the HLRN from 2017 to 2023 showed a rising trend of evictions, with over 1.68 million people being affected. Looking at the year-wise breakdown of evictions across the country, the numbers have steadily risen, from 1,07,625 in 2019 to 2,22,686 in 2022 to a staggering 5,15,752 in 2023.

  • HLRN data from 2017 to 2023 showed the number of evicted people rose from 1,07,625 in 2019 to 2,22,686 in 2022 to a staggering 5,15,752 in 2023.
  • In the past two years, 59 per cent of evictions occurred under the guise of slum or land clearance, encroachment removal, or city beautification.
  • Punitive demolition has become increasingly common in States governed by the BJP.

The reasons for eviction have changed significantly with the increase in the number of instances. “The rhetoric surrounding displacement has evolved notably, transitioning from subtle pretexts like urban redevelopment to more direct terms such as encroachment removal drives,” said Aakanksha Badkur, a human rights lawyer. “In the last six-seven years, we have observed a significant increase in the regime’s strictness towards the poor.”

Over the past two years, 59 per cent of evictions occurred under the guise of slum or land clearance, encroachment removal, or city beautification initiatives, resulting in the forced displacement of at least 2,90,330 people in 2023 and over 1,43,034 people in 2022.

Forced evictions have also been carried out for infrastructure and purported development projects such as smart city initiatives, environmental and forest protection endeavours, wildlife conservation efforts, and disaster management.

In cases where justifications are vague, such as “clearing encroachments” or “city beautification”, the state often resorts to the pretext of sanitisation.

Punitive demolition

Indeed, another reason that has emerged in the discourse surrounding demolitions is punitive demolition. In 2023, several cases of eviction appeared to be linked to such demolition in places such as Jirapur village in Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone; Prayagraj, Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh; Nuh in Haryana; and Jahangirpuri in Delhi, among others. Although government agencies claimed to be clearing encroachments and removing illegal structures from public land, a closer study would show that specific groups were the targets of such action.

For example, in the aftermath of clashes during a Hanuman Jayanti procession on April 20, 2022, officials from the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) accompanied by 12 companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) demolished around 25 shops, vending carts, and houses primarily belonging to Muslims in Jahangirpuri, all under the guise of removing encroachments.

Similarly, in Khargone, following communal violence during Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti celebrations in April 2022, 16 houses and 29 shops belonging to Muslims, including a house constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, were demolished.

Although the law does not contain provisions for demolishing property as a punitive measure, this practice has become increasingly common in States governed by the BJP.

During an eviction drive at the Jai Bhim Nagar basti in Mumbai’s Powai area, on June 6, 2024.

During an eviction drive at the Jai Bhim Nagar basti in Mumbai’s Powai area, on June 6, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

Badkur said: “These are inferences we can draw, suggesting that these evictions were communal, based on observable patterns to an outsider. However, the legal process operates differently, focussing on the facts and circumstances of legality and illegality. It’s undeniable that most of these houses have some degree of unauthorised construction, common in non-compliance with laws and construction norms across India.”

She added: “Because the courts and the law operate solely within the legal framework, which may not necessarily consider surrounding social realities, this creates an opportunity for political parties to exploit such frameworks and perpetuate violence and discrimination.”

Targeting Muslims

An Amnesty International report in February said that Muslims were targeted in 128 demolitions that affected 617 people. It discovered that demolitions were predominantly carried out in areas with a high concentration of Muslims, specifically targeting Muslim-owned properties in diverse neighbourhoods. In contrast, nearby Hindu-owned properties, especially in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, were not affected. In the report, Agnes Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, said: “The unlawful demolition of Muslim properties by the Indian authorities, peddled as ‘bulldozer justice’, is cruel and appalling. Such displacement and dispossession are deeply unjust, unlawful, and discriminatory.”

The demolitions were frequently initiated at the highest levels of government, with numerous officials directly or indirectly advocating for the use of bulldozers against Muslims. These punitive demolitions have been aggressively used as a form of extrajudicial punishment across several States. In particular, Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, has been dubbed “Bulldozer Baba” by the media.

At a rally in Uttar Pradesh’s Barabanki district as part of his campaign for the recently concluded Lok Sabha election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “If the SP and the Congress come to power, Ram Lalla will be in a tent again and they will run a bulldozer on the Ram temple. They should take tuition from Yogiji, where to run a bulldozer and where you shouldn’t.” This statement perhaps best highlights the political rhetoric surrounding such action.

As per the HLRN’s data, Muslims emerged as the most affected group in 44 per cent of instances. This underscores their particular vulnerability in the context of forced evictions and displacement.

Broadening the focus beyond the Muslim community, people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and to Adivasi and tribal communities were affected in at least 23 per cent of instances, followed by those belonging to the Other Backward Classes (17 per cent) and the Scheduled Castes (5 per cent).

Severe and brutal

The demolition drives conducted lately have displayed a heightened level of severity and brutality, surpassing those witnessed in previous years. One notable trend is the large presence of force at the sites, making it difficult for individuals to resist these actions.

Suman (36), a woman evicted under an encroachment removal drive in Nanakpura in Delhi in 2023, said: “During the demolition, a large contingent of around 200 CRPF personnel and an equal number of Delhi Police officers were stationed. Their presence barred us from accessing our possessions inside. To make matters worse, they confiscated our tin roofs, loading them onto a truck while the demolition was still in progress.”

Further, in several sites, including Priyanka Gandhi Camp, Tughlakabad, and Nanakpura, the rubble after the demolition was removed immediately, and families were prevented from salvaging the remnants of their home.

Ashok, who lives near Shyam Lal College in Delhi, said: “They are not just trying to remove us from this site but ensuring that the place is no longer habitable. Where will we go from here? The last time they came to demolish our jhuggis, they dug a pit 5-6 feet deep so that we could not rebuild our houses at the site. However, we will not leave until the government resettles us.” Rekha, a farmer residing in Bela Estate near the Yamuna floodplains, echoed these sentiments. Bela Estate has faced repeated demolitions in recent years as the government seeks to reclaim land following an order from the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Rekha said: “They have attempted to displace us multiple times. They dig pits and throw our essential belongings, including basic necessities like rations, into them before filling them with sand.”

Sheikh Akbar Ali, a housing rights activist who has been working in Delhi’s informal settlements for nearly two decades, said: “The authorities know that after demolitions, people will try to rebuild at the same spot, so they confiscate materials. Earlier, we never saw bulldozers coming after 5 pm or early in the morning, but now that is also common.”

Jayshree Satpute, a human rights lawyer, said: “As housing rights activists and lawyers have managed to secure court orders to halt illegal actions, the administration has been adopting adversarial strategies.”

After a demolition drive in Dehi’s Tughlakabad area on May 15, 2023. This was one of the largest eviction episodes in the past seven years.

After a demolition drive in Dehi’s Tughlakabad area on May 15, 2023. This was one of the largest eviction episodes in the past seven years. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

She added: “Previously, when we presented a stay order, the police would halt the demolition. Now, they require a copy of the stay order, and often a certified one, before complying. The authorities are finding ways to bypass the legal processes activists rely on.”

The Delhi High Court in a landmark judgment in Ajay Maken v. Union of India (2019) emphasised that eviction of settlement dwellers without adequate notice or adherence to the due process established in Sudama Singh v. Government of Delhi (2010), and without adequate rehabilitation, would be deemed illegal.

No due process

However, over the past two years, many of the evictions conducted have failed to adhere to due process. These incidents include evictions carried out without sufficient notice and demolitions occurring in adverse weather conditions and even during school examinations, often involving the use of disproportionate force.

On April 30 and May 1, 2023, Tughlakabad’s Bengali basti in Chhuriya Mohalla was the site of one of the largest eviction episodes in the past seven years. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) issued notices to over a thousand families there three months earlier, on January 11, asking them to vacate their homes within 15 days.

The residents, contrary to the claims of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the police, said that they did not know about the impending demolition until the ASI issued its notice. The notice was affixed on their doors and did not specify a date for the demolition nor did it provide any information regarding rehabilitation or temporary shelter. A woman who had been displaced said: “We weren’t even given time to retrieve our valuables and belongings. My children’s books and uniforms were all gone. It was raining heavily on the day of the demolition. We pleaded with them to at least grant us one day to salvage our belongings. However, with our houses, our dreams also crumbled.”

In the past, the courts, in the absence of specific legislation, have creatively interpreted legal principles to address housing rights violations. Both the Supreme Court and various High Courts have consistently recognised the right to housing/shelter as an integral aspect of the fundamental right to life. Key judgments such as those in Sudama Singh and Ajay Maken imposed a duty on state authorities to conduct surveys and provide rehabilitation before resorting to evictions.

Satpute, also a key lawyer in Sudama Singh, said: “Progressive judgments and cases have established due procedures, but these processes are not being followed.... The courts upheld people’s rights more robustly 10 years ago. Recently, we have struggled to secure favourable decisions or timely redress.”

This departure has had tangible effects, evident from the fact that in 2023 alone, court orders and tribunal rulings led to at least 13 instances of eviction, displacing over 2,59,845 individuals across the country. Notably, about half of those evicted in 2023 lost their homes due to court-ordered enforcement. The demolition of houses in Akbarnagar, Lucknow, is another example of a court-led eviction. In December, residents resisted through litigation in both the Allahabad High Court and the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court ultimately allowed the government to proceed with clearing the area.

Anand Lakhan, a housing rights activist from Madhya Pradesh and leader of Madhya Pradesh Nav Nirman Manch, expressed his concerns about the current state of judicial processes and government actions. He said: “From court’s justice we have moved into times of bulldozer justice. Initially, we believed that we could rely on presenting solid evidence in court rather than appealing for mercy. However, the government often disregards this evidence entirely.”

Also Read | Two years after Assam evictions, hundreds of families wait for their promised land

He added: “Even when we obtain a stay order, government authorities often ignore it and proceed with demolitions. When we file for contempt of court, these applications are rarely entertained.”

Referring to an eviction in June at Pipliyahana in Indore, for road development, Lakhan said: “A similar case of contempt occurred. When we filed for a stay order, it was not upheld, and the contempt case eventually fizzled out. Meanwhile, an entire settlement was erased.” Evicted people encounter many obstacles in accessing justice, exacerbated by the courts’ reluctance to offer protection and relief. For instance, in 2022 the Delhi High Court declined to halt the demolition of 100 homes belonging to low-income families in Gyaspur despite reports indicating their long-standing residency in the area. The court justified its decision by stating that the settlement was not included in the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board’s list of recognised bastis.

There are more than 17 million people in the country who live under the threat of having their homes bulldozed. “If the police and various departments continue to take action by demolishing homes without proper legal proceedings”, said Lakhan, that would amount to “a blatant violation of people’s constitutional rights, as they are not given adequate time for a proper hearing”.

Anuj Behal is an independent journalist and urban researcher primarily focussing on issues of housing rights, urban justice, gender, and sexuality.

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