The capital is once again on a “beautification” drive. This time, to show the world that “the earth is one family”. Delhi is filled with hoardings and electronic displays preparing itself for the G20 summit. Beneath the hyper-visibility of the message of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam‘ or ‘the world is one family,’ in the entire city are hidden the everyday anxieties of the city’s most vulnerable – whose houses are getting demolished on a fast-track basis.
Amidst the noise of G20, the voice of the most disadvantaged and marginalised, who seem to have no place in its credo of “one earth, one family, and one future” has been rendered silent. Ever since India assumed the G20 presidency and began planning to host the summit, there has been a constant war on the poor.
Thousands of houses have been demolished in areas that include Kasturba Nagar, Tughlaqabad, Pragati Maidan, the Yamuna Flood Plains, and Dhaula Kuan as a part of the drive by the Delhi Public Works Department (PWD) and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) to beautify the city.
Media houses and news portals have already blunted our senses so much that nothing moves us. We wait for some extraordinary news to happen to feed our short attention spans. Demolitions seem to have become a routine, everyday activity that no one finds worth reporting and catches no one’s attention. In such reports, people turn to numbers, and their homes become data turning the singular lives into number games.
One such story is of 90-year-old Gurudyal Singh, who was seen sobbing over the remains of his demolished house, holding a brick from the heap. The bricks from his broken house were his hope, which he held firmly, yet it kept slipping out of his hands. Singh hopes to find a new house again, the second time since independence.
After getting uprooted from Pakistan’s Punjab during Partition, Singh became a part of Delhi’s underbelly of the urban poor. Three generations of his family have lived in Delhi’s Kasturba Nagar. Without any family riches, he made an effort in the 1950s to build a house in the neighborhood as a means of overcoming structural disparities and breaking through a systemic barrier.
Between those two events, he survived a flood in which he misplaced his old papers, and an anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984. He continued to reside with his family in the three-story house, and no one ever voiced a complaint about it up until a few days ago. The DDA, the city’s largest landowner, gave the residents a three-day notice to leave so that the building could be razed.
Singh and his family have been left on their own with no provision for rehabilitation or alternative settlement. The media reports hardly mention the likes of Singh and their stories. The objectivity of such news conceals all the subjectivities that lie beneath. The structural violence against them is hardly talked about.
Even in courts, demolition matters are a mundane exercise that no one seems to care about. Arguments in court and its judgments are replete with terms like ‘premium slum dwellers’, ‘encroachers’, and ‘illegal’ to identify the residents’ presuming guilt before the hearing begins.
The courtrooms become a sight where violence through words is enacted. While the authorities repeatedly dehumanize the slum dwellers and perpetuate violence through bulldozers, the courtroom arguments seem to do the same through their words. The issue is viewed as one of encroachment on public land rather than from a constitutional and right-based lens.
Urgent demolitions, slow rehabilitation
Looking at the media reports, it may appear that most of the Delhi lands are occupied by these ‘encroachers’. But the Census figures from 2011 tell us a different story. It suggests that only about 0.5% of Delhi’s total land area is occupied by slums that are home to about 11% of the city’s residents.
It is the DDA’s failure which was given the task to build at least four lakh housing units for the urban poor by utilising slums and JJ colony approaches. The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY) project’s execution follows a similar trajectory. So far, only about 30,000 residential units have been approved and built in Delhi, making it one of the slowest states in terms of the scheme’s execution.
The Master Plan for the year 2021 estimated a 24 lakh shortfall in dwellings. The failure of authorities like the DDA to provide housing for the underprivileged is an important reason behind the proliferation of slums in Delhi. The residents are left on their own to build their shanties owing to the inconsiderate stance of the state.
A recent demolition in Delhi’s Tughlaqabad resulted in 10,000 people being left without a roof of their own in this city. All of them have been left on their own with no provision for rehabilitation or alternative settlement. In one of the cases which I represented in the Delhi high court, over 1,000 houses were impacted by demolition that began unannounced early in the morning.
This was the biggest drive in Delhi, where the Archaeological Survey of India had staked claims for its land in the Tughlaqabad fort. The residents have been left to live on the rubble while they wait for government’s assistance. Their case for rehabilitation is still pending in court. While the courts and agencies act with the utmost urgency to tear down and evict inhabitants, they show no urgency when it comes to the resident’s most basic right to shelter and respectable rehabilitation.
When it comes to rehabilitation, the court uses a hyper-technical definition to rule out the residents’ eligibility to get any rehabilitation. In a recent case pertaining to the rehabilitation of hundreds of slum dwellers inhabiting Delhi’s Yamuna floodplains, the Delhi high court relied on a narrow interpretation of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), Act 2010, which stated that since slum clusters of residents had not received government notification, they were not eligible for rehabilitation–forgetting that these policies are designed for the most vulnerable people to help them exercise their right to shelter, which is protected under Article 21 of the Constitution.
The ongoing spate of demolitions has increased due to the inclusion of unreasonable and impractical criteria in rehabilitation schemes. This makes it impossible for any person to claim the right to resettlement. It is time that the courts stop allowing restrictive definitions in rehabilitation schemes that hinder them in giving orders for surveys and rehabilitation for slum dwellers.
Contrary to common opinion, there are substantial stretches of land in Delhi that are under the control of land-owning organisations like the DUSIB and the DDA.
The area of land available with DDA and DUSIB is 36,91,594 sq m and 18,71,659 sq m respectively, totalling over 13,755 acres. These are areas of land that are not required for any kind of public use. This area is so large that more than 1.25 lakh slum dwellings may fit there under current density requirements.
Further, 52,584 flats for resettlement of slum dwellers are lying vacant while both agencies are fighting over whether these flats should be converted into affordable rental housing complexes or employed for rehabilitation. Only around 4,800 flats have been occupied until now. Despite the fact that there is unoccupied land accessible for housing, the government has shown no interest in rehabilitation of affected individuals.
Destruction of a home is a sign of a broken society as Walter Benjamin puts it. It is a window that enables us to see into a system of evil that threatens the fundamental foundations of the state. It is not just a horrible routine done by a state that just cares about its own interests but also an illegality justified by legal mechanisms. To understand the essence of our society, one must consider what is left behind when a house is demolished. More importantly, we must consider what happens to the families of people like Singh who once lived in that house. It depicts an intolerable image.
Kawalpreet Kaur is a lawyer working with Human Rights Law Network, Delhi. She is representing the slum dwellers in their cases before the court.