One month after the Bengali Basti near South Delhi’s historical Tughlakabad Fort was bulldozed, its residents continue to salvage whatever is left in the debris of corrugated tin, cardboard, plastic sheets, bricks, and their demolished dreams. As the sun sets over this vast tract of land around the fort, Sonali, Subash, and their children return to the rubble where their house once stood. This has become their daily routine.
Sonali, who works as a domestic worker nearby, and Subash, a sanitation worker, leave their children with relatives in the vicinity during the day but return to the demolition site at night and sleep on the rubble under a tarpaulin sheet. “We bought this land and built a home four years ago with whatever little we had saved up in the past two decades. Now it’s all gone,” says Sonali, and adds: “Where was the government when we first settled here?” They had bought the land from local property dealers and had been paying electricity and water bills.
The fort was built by Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, the first ruler of the Tughlaq dynasty, in 1321. According to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the area of Tughlakabad Fort is estimated to be 2,661 bighas. Legend has it that the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya had cursed the fort to remain desolate or inhabited by nomads. Centuries later, the mythical curse seems to have befallen the slum dwellers. In the recent demolition drive, over 1,500 houses of over 10,000 residents were demolished, stated the advocate Kawalpreet Kaur in her writ petition filed in the Delhi High Court.
Stories of distress
Many others, too, shared similar stories of distress. Protima, a migrant worker from Bengal, said: “My husband has been bedridden due to paralysis for the last seven years. I run the household and take care of our four children. Now my world has collapsed.” Bijender Biswas was at a loss as to how to deal with the new uncertainties along with his kidney and liver ailments. Like Sonali, Subash, Protima, and Bijender, there are many others who have been struggling to provide for their families after being rendered homeless. The demolitions were conducted despite appeals by several organisations that reach out to workers in the informal sector and by suo motu cognisance taken by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
Seeking immediate rehabilitation, Kawalpreet Kaur filed the petition on behalf of Mazdoor Awas Samiti, an organisation of workers, after the ASI served eviction notices on the slum dwellers in order to remove all encroachments in and around the fort. The petition was filed on January 28, 2023, under Article 226 of the Constitution seeking a direction to the Government of India and the government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi for rehabilitation of the residents of Tughlakabad village
Supreme Court verdicts on evictions
According to the petition, the impending demolition of over 30,000 houses will affect 2.5 lakh residents in Tughlakabad, several of whom have been living there for the past 40 years. Kawalpreet Kaur told Frontline: “While the residents are forced to live on the ruins, the rehabilitation case is pending before the High Court of Delhi and government shows no urgency to rehabilitate them.”
In the shadow of high-rises
In the National Capital Territory of Delhi, slum dwellers who live in the shadow of high-rise buildings are seen as squatters and face a greater risk of getting evicted during the so-called anti-encroachment drives. The lack of secure and stable housing and livelihood opportunities invariably exposes them to the risk of violence, illness, and exploitation. Despite providing essential services to the city, they remain deprived of legislative protections such as the Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923; the Payment of Wages Act, 1942; the Weekly Holidays Act, 1942; the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961; the Personal Injury Compensation Act, 1963; the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1978; and to a large extent the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.
When bulldozers rolled into the Bengali Basti on April 30, the majority of the residents were at their workplaces. Many of them found it difficult to believe that the authorities would demolish their homes on a Sunday. Such demolition drives have seen an uptick in recent years. Ahead of the G20 summit in Delhi, thousands of homes and makeshift settlements were removed in the name of beautification of the city and conservation of the Yamuna floodplains. In 2022, hundreds of makeshift shops and houses were demolished in Banjara Market, Gurugram.
On some occasions, the courts have intervened and stayed such evictions. For instance, the Delhi High Court halted demolition in Mehrauli in February. In 2022, the Supreme Court stayed a drive in Jahangirpuri. Earlier, this year, the apex court stayed a demolition order by the Uttarakhand High Court, in a major relief to 4,000 families in Haldwani. But the residents in Tughlakabad slums were not as fortunate.
- Slum dwellings in the Bengali Basti near Tughlakabad Fort, Delhi, were demolished as part of an anti-encroachment drive on April 30 but the residents, several of whom have been living there for the past 40 years, have not been rehabilitated.
- These demolitions were conducted despite appeals by the Mazdoor Awas Samiti and suo motu cognisance taken by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
- This is the latest in a series of such demolitions in Delhi in recent years, including the “beautification drive” ahead of the G20 summit in January.
Codified laws needed
According to human rights advocates, and legal and constitutional experts, there is an urgent need for codified laws governing evictions and consequent rehabilitation. On several occasions, the Supreme Court and various High Courts have, in the wake of evictions, held that the state must respect the constitutional rights to life, livelihoods, and housing.
In fact, the Supreme Court ruled in Chameli Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh (1995) that the right to housing was a fundamental right. The Delhi High Court in Sudama Singh and Others vs Government of Delhi had dismissed the argument that those residing in jhuggis (slums) were not entitled to rehabilitation.
Some of the cases in which important judgments were delivered include Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985), Shantistar Builders vs Narayan Khimalal Totame (1990), Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation vs Nawab Khan Gulab Khan (1997), and Ajay Maken and Others vs Union of India and Others (2019). In fact, the Supreme Court ruled in Chameli Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh (1995) that the right to housing was a fundamental right. Significantly, the Delhi High Court in Sudama Singh and Others vs Government of Delhi had dismissed the argument that those residing in jhuggis (slums) were not entitled to rehabilitation.
“We bought this land and built a home four years ago with whatever little we had saved up in the past two decades. Now it’s all gone. Where was the government when we first settled here?”SonaliDomestic worker
In addition to this, as a participant in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), 1966, India is obligated to acknowledge “the right of all individuals to a suitable standard of living for themselves and their families, which includes provision for food, clothing, and stable housing, as well as the ongoing enhancement of living conditions,” as stated in Article 11(1) of the ICESCR.
A study conducted by Housing and Land Rights Network shows that at least 24 people were evicted every hour in India in 2021 and the trend is continuing, with about 15 million people across rural and urban areas facing the threat of eviction from their habitats for various reasons. In 2021, court orders and their implementation by state authorities resulted in the eviction of over 1,06,014 people in at least 11 incidents of demolition, it added.
During its campaign ahead of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) elections last year, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had pledged to leverage its influence in both the Legislative Assembly and the MCD to discontinue demolition of slums. However, shortly after, the Delhi Development Authority, a statutory body under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, served eviction notices in Mehrauli, Tughlakabad, and Badarpur amid selective court interventions and a power tussle between the Delhi government and the Centre.
In January 2023, Atishi, the Kalkaji MLA from AAP, accused the BJP of plotting to demolish slum settlements after promising concrete houses for every jhuggi during the MCD election. Speaking at a press conference, she said: “The BJP made false promises of ‘Jahan Jhuggi Wahaan Makaan’ ahead of the elections, but after electoral defeat, the party began issuing demolition notices to residents of slums in Navjeevan Camp, Nehru Camp, Tughlakabad village, and Subhash Camp.” Maintaining that Tughlakabad village was 800 years old, she added: “The Central government must reply if Tughlakabad village was inhabited first or the Archaeological Survey of India was formed earlier.”
In November 2022 (ahead of the MCD election), Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated 3,024 flats at Kalkaji for the economically weaker sections. Describing the dispensation at the Centre as a “poor person’s government” at a function held at Vigyan Bhawan, Modi said: “Today is a very big day for scores of families who have been living in Delhi’s slums for years. In a way, today is the beginning of a new life for them.”
In Delhi, the Congress accused the BJP and the AAP of having an “anti-poor mindset” in the wake of the ongoing demolition drives. In May last year, Choudhary Anil Kumar, president of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee, pointed out that over 50,000 people living in 16 villages from Rajokri to Badarpur in the ridge area since 1950 were the most recent targets. “They have been issued notices of demolition by the Forest Department, though they have been living in Gram Sabha lands donated to the Forest Department,” he said.
According to a study by the Housing & Land Rights Network, as many as 2,50,000 people had lost their homes in demolition drives ahead of the Commonwealth Games in 2010, under the Congress’ rule, for reasons such as constructing stadiums, building parking lots, widening roads, city beautification, and clearing of streets for “security” reasons. Likewise, the AAP-led State government in Punjab, too, had come under fire after demolishing slum dwellings in anti-encroachment drives in 2022.
Kawalpreet’s petition underscores that there is the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) that does not have any cut-off date for providing benefits to the urban poor and residents of informal settlements. Additionally, the rehabilitation of slum dwellers is done through the Delhi Slum & JJ Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy, 2017, which provides a cut-off date of 2015 for rehabilitation. But in the case of the Tughlakabad slum dwellers and tens of thousands of families who have been dispossessed by the demolition drives in Delhi in recent years, such schemes exist only in election promises.
On the ground, those who are forced to join the growing list of urban homeless blame all political parties for abandoning them. In Bengali Basti, the aggrieved residents had to call off their hunger strike a few days after their forcible eviction.
Sonali, who no longer has a place to call home, summed up the political antipathy towards migrant workers in Delhi: “Not a single official or political leader has approached us to offer even a glass of water after we lost the roof over our heads.”