Demolitions, Evictions and Toilets for Show: How Indore Won Swachh Bharat's Top Rank

In an attempt to make the city 'open defecation free', families who had paid for toilets and were midway through construction allege that their houses were destroyed before surveyors came around.

Nanjubai and 40 other families lost their houses to a demolition drive carried out by the Indore Municipal Corporation at Sukhniwas slums after the corporation failed to build toilets on time. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Nanjubai and 40 other families lost their houses to a demolition drive carried out by the Indore Municipal Corporation at Sukhniwas slums after the corporation failed to build toilets on time. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Indore: In November last year, Indore Municipal Corporation (IMC) officials moved around in the city in twos or threes to ensure that every household without a personal toilet was enumerated. Nanjubai’s house was one among 40 – all belonging to the Bhil community – built on one end of the Sukhniwas road. An official meeting was called with all the residents, details collected from each household and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan scheme explained.

At the end, Nanjubai and the others were informed that they would have to pay about Rs 1,360 within a week – the subsidised amount to be paid to get a toilet built under the scheme. For Nanjubai, a 22-year-old mother of four whose husband works as a daily-wage labourer, this was a hefty sum. But a separate toilet also seemed like a gateway to a dignified life in the future. “I was excited that I would soon be able to use a personal toilet and would not have to worry about using open spaces during the night time or even walk a kilometre to use a public toilet. My house would have its own.”

As soon as the families paid, the IMC followed up by digging pits, one for each house. But then there was nothing – no officials showed up. And suddenly, on January 12, when Nanjubai’s family had barely woken up, a team of 20 IMC officials and eight police personnel descended at her doorstep. In less than 15 minutes, the officials had taken position, directing the JCB driver to raze the houses to the ground.

“They began knocking at our doors at 6 am and asked us all to step out immediately. We were asked to either save our lives or our belongings; we chose our lives. In no time, all our belongings were crushed. Our houses were razed to the ground and we were made homeless,” said Nanjubai.

According to another resident, Neena Chouhan, who also lost her house to demolition, some families tried to prevent the officials from evicting them from the spot. “But we were told we could not live here if our houses do not have toilets. What was the point, then of collecting money from us to build toilets?”

Also read: Building (Only) Toilets Isn’t Always the Answer to Ending Open Defecation

These 40 houses on Sukhniwas road were some of the first casualties of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in Indore. Although there is no official figure, a housing rights groups working in the city claims over 700 houses were demolished between December 2016 and mid February 2017. The reason: they didn’t have toilets.

In the last week of February, a team of three persons appointed under the Swachh Survekhshan (assessment) process from the Ministry of Urban Development had visited Indore. Along with scoring high points for maintaining cleanliness and effective garbage collection facilities in the city, Indore was able to position itself as the cleanest city because it had achieved ‘open defecation free (ODF)’ status in the 2017 survey. Quite simply, the local authorities managed to show that most houses had toilets. The residents of Sukhniwas road were caught in the middle – they were due to get toilets, but they didn’t have them when the ministry team visited from Delhi – and couldn’t be allowed to affect the ranking.

“The team had assessed cleanliness on the city streets, effectiveness of garbage disposal facilities and had collected feedback from people. They also conducted inspections of slums and low-income-group houses to determine if every house in the city had personal toilets built in them. Even a single house without a toilet would have cost us our top position,” explained Asad Warsi, a consultant from Eco Pro Environmental Services. All enquiries made to the IMC were directed to Warsi, as the official spokesperson appointed under the scheme. Warsi’s consultancy firm is an implementing agency empaneled with Ministry of Urban Development under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. The Abhiyaan was started on October 2, 2014 on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti.

Sukhiniwas is a recent extension of the city and was included into the IMC limits only few years ago. Most families here have migrated from rural parts of Madhya Pradesh. While the men work as daily-wage labourers, the women work as domestic workers at nearby housing complexes and schools. After the demolition, these families were provided shelter at a nearby plot by one of their employers; the homes are ramshackle and much of their belongings scattered or lost, but at least it’s a place to stay. “The owner showed some mercy and allowed us to stay on his free plot,” Nanjubai said. That kindness means that they cannot seek employment anywhere else, because housing, however makeshift, won’t be guaranteed. And they have no toilets.

An identical story played out in the adjacent lane, where 72 more houses were demolished in mid February. While some families have made makeshift arrangements, using tarpaulin and tin sheds, several have left the area. Archana Bhabar, a 20 year old belonging to the Bhil tribe, narrated her family’s ordeal. “I was heavily pregnant at that time. They came with a team. Without any warning or notice, they just began breaking our houses. Forty years of hard work by my father-in-law to build some kind of shelter for us was gone in a few hours.” Bhabar’s family too had paid Rs 1,360 to the municipal corporation; a copy of the receipt is with The Wire. “Pits were dug for the toilets. But when they came to demolish our houses, they also filled up those pits and planted saplings there,” said 60-year-old Sunita, Archana’s mother-in-law. Sunita further added that although no eviction notice was served, the IMC officials claimed to be carrying out the demolition work on orders from their higher ups. “Uppar se aadesh aaya hai. Jinke ghar sauch nahi, unke gharon ko todha jaa raha hain (We have instructions from the higher ups. The houses which do not have toilets are being demolished),” the families were told.

Sunita Bhabhar showing the receipt of payment made to the Indore Municipal Corporation for building a toilet in her house in Sukhniwas road slum. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Sunita Bhabhar showing the receipt of payment made to the Indore Municipal Corporation for building a toilet in her house in Sukhniwas road slum. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Bhabar’s family as well as 20 others have now shifted just 50 metres away from their earlier place of residence. Like the earlier spot, this too is government-owned ‘cattle grazing land’. But so far, there has been no objection to them occupying this land. “We were asked to leave the city for some days. When we returned, we were allowed to build our houses here,” said Shilpa Bhabar, Archana’s neighbour, whose house was also demolished in the drive. Interestingly, the municipal corporation has built a few toilets in the new area. But these toilets were built in August, much after the ranking process were completed. “Since we had already paid the money, they built us the toilets. But at what cost?” asked Sunita.

Although there are no verified figures on how many families were affected in the massive eviction drive that followed the enumeration work, Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), a non-profit organisation, identified 727 families who were evicted from the area in a recently-released report. These evictions, said Anand Lakhan, a research consultant with YUVA and an activist, were directly linked with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and were all carried out between January and February. It is not surprising that the Swachh Survekhshan coincided with the eviction drive, he added. Between January 4 and February 28, a team of 421 assessors covered 500 cities across India, the Swachh Survekhshan Report 2017 states. “And if even a single house was found without a toilet, the city would have lost its 100% Open Defecation Free position,” Lakhan pointed out.

Also read: The Human Cost of the Obsession with a ‘Swachh Bharat’

Malini Gaur, Indore’s mayor, said most people whose houses were demolished have moved to the city only recently and the claims they have made are untrue. “Indore sees a huge influx of migrants from neighbouring states, especially Maharashtra. Even if we demolish their houses, they come and settle here. Most demolitions that were carried out between December and February were of illegal migrants. These demolitions had nothing to do with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.” The officials say these evictions should be looked at from an entirely “different perspective”. Warsi said these evictions were scheduled already and were carried out according to an existing plan.

Of the several criteria used for evaluating the sanitation and hygiene levels of 500 cities, significant priority is given to making the city ODF. As many as 118 cities have been declared ODF this year.

Indore, the ninth-largest city in India with over 20 lakh people, has shown phenomenal progress. It was ranked at 117 in 2014, but has secured the first position in the 2017 Swachh Survekhshan Report. Like most other two-tier growing cities, Indore too sees both interstate and intercity migration. The homeless live by the roadside or settle on open government land. Also, Indore is perhaps the only city which has over 1,400 hectares of land reserved to house the poor. But these structures do not guarantee a life of dignity or one free from arbitrary evictions.

The legal fight

Forty-year-old Ashok Nirgune, a daily-wage labourer, has taken the municipal corporation to the high court for “illegally” demolishing the house allotted to him and 87 other families under the Madhya Pradesh Nagariya Kshetro Ke Bhoomihin Vyakti (Pattadhruti Adhikaron Ka Pradhan Kiya Jana) Adhiniyam, 1984 (Madhya Pradesh City Limits Homeless Act). This Act, locally known as the Patta Act, extends to the urban regions of the state. It assures housing rights to the homeless on government land. While land rights are not transferred to the person living on the land, she cannot be moved out until the district collector or the court passes an order. According to Nirgune, all 87 families whose houses were demolished were evicted from the Solan Baug colony from the city centre in 2003 and allocated a 360-square-foot space each in Gram Ahirkhedi area – which is in the periphery of the city – under the Patta Act. “In 2003 too they had evicted us from our houses. All our belongings were smashed. Most of our kids had to drop out of school.” As a daily-wage labourer, Nirgune said he has to spend over Rs 100 to travel 20 km into the city to find work. “But we manage somehow.”

Many families have now been accommodated in the nearby housing complex built under the Basic Services to Urban Poor scheme (BSUP), a sub mission of theJawaharlal Nehru Urban Livelihood Mission. “But the legal rights have not been granted for these houses. We will have to pay Rs 1.8 lakh for ownership rights. Where do we have this kind of money?” asked Lakhan Verma, a fruit vendor. Most families have refused to occupy the allotted houses and have taken shelter in the open space around the housing colony.

Forced evictions recycle poverty

Shifting people far away can affect families. In 2015, over 100 Dalit families working as waste collectors in the city were evicted from CP Shekhar Nagar and shifted 16 km away to a BSUP project in the Bangar Bada area in the outskirts of the city. While they got a place to stay, it also took away their source of income. Savitabai, 35, has to travel 16 km to Rambagh, close to her previous residence, to pick up waste even though it costs Rs 40 for a one-way trip. To add to her woes, things have changed for her since the advent of the Swachh Bharat Mission. “Since last year, the police have been troubling us, saying that we are no longer allowed to pick waste. The baivan (ladies) are harassed by the municipal officials for money. Many pay bribes of Rs 50 out of a meagre average income of Rs 120 per day to make the police officials go away,” she said.

Also read: How ‘Swachh Bharat’ is Being Forced Upon Chhattisgarh Villagers

Under the Swachh Bharat Mission, Warsi explained, five garbage collection points have been identified in the city. “Only volunteers and workers of corporations can work in these areas.” This has taken away work and income from several hundred waste collectors like Savitabai in the city. “There are an estimated 20,000 waste pickers and 2000 jagirdars (sweepers) in the city. Earlier, waste pickers used to collect garbage from houses in addition to sifting through waste and charge Rs 40 per house. Now the corporation workers charge between Rs 60 and Rs 90, and independent waste pickers are left without a livelihood,” Lakhan said. Almost all waste collectors belong to the impoverished Matang community and in most cases entire families were engaged in the work. In 2016, some had approached the district collector seeking his intervention to halt the Swachh Bharat Mission work. Following this, in January 2017, 250 of them were provided identity cards and recognised as a corporation worker under the Swachh Bharat Mission rules, but many still remain unemployed.

First build, then demolish

While most houses were demolished due to the lack of toilets, residents of Bhuri Tekri experienced a unique situation. As many as 825 toilets were built here, one for each family, only to be later demolished. Krishna Kumar Vishwakarma’s family had paid Rs 1,400 for a toilet to be built in his 300-square-foot house. But in less than two months, the house and the toilet were both demolished.

“Our colony was anyway to be moved to an upcoming project under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yogna. Those toilets were built just to ensure that during the Swachh Survekhshan our colony was evaluated as ODF,” Vishwakarma explained. Over 700 families from Bhuri Tekri slums have now been shifted to makeshift structures near the construction site. And these houses are now dependent on 50-odd mobile toilets set up around the construction site. “These modular toilets are of world-class quality,” Indore’s mayor, Gaur, claimed. But the families here complained that the toilets were built without a proper drainage system and emit a foul smell. When this correspondent visited Bhuri Tekri slums on September 18, most doors were found to have fallen off the hooks and many toilets had been rendered useless. “These toilets were set up days after we moved here. Almost a dozen toilets cannot be used now,” Lakhan Patel complained. A common complaint is that men often use women’s toilets.

Over 800 residents of Bhuri Tekri slums use makeshift toilets after those made under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan were demolished in May this year. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Over 800 residents of Bhuri Tekri slums use makeshift toilets after those made under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan were demolished in May this year. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Warsi acknowledged these complaints and said the corporation believes in providing services, even if it is for a short while. “We were aware that these houses would soon be demolished. But we wanted to cover every household, irrespective of its legality,” Warsi said. When asked about approximately Rs 1.3 crore spent on building those toilets, Warsi said, “It was a risk we thought was worth taking.”

But Malve, one of those whose newly-built toilets was destroyed, called this a “pointless exercise”. “You take money from us, spend the exchequer’s money in setting up toilets and in no time demolish them all. These toilets were supposed to be for our betterment and not for some imaginary rankings.”

The ranking under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is an annual affair. “Next January, these officials will once again visit us. I wonder under which criteria we will be enumerated. Will they once again build toilets for two months and then demolish them or, like other slums, ask us to leave the city for some months?” asked Malve.

Sukanya Shantha is a freelance journalist.