Khori Gaon (Haryana): On the morning of June 16, the residents of Khori Gaon woke up to find that a man in his 70s, one Ganeshi Lal, had hung himself from the branch of a tree outside his home. A crowd had gathered, and shortly after, a large police force followed. A video shows the moments after the man’s body had been brought down, with the crowd yelling at the police. After some lathi charge, locals say, the police took the body away, along with the man’s family members.
Ganeshi Lal allegedly took this step because of his anxiety about the impending demolition of Khori Gaon, an urban village with at least 10,000 households and home to at least 100,000 people. On June 7, the Supreme Court issued an order to “remove all encroachments on the subject forest land without exception”, within six weeks time. The court made it clear that this was to be executed by any means necessary, stating, “The State in general and the police in particular shall give necessary and adequate logistical support to enable the Corporation to implement the directions given by us to evict the occupants / encroachers including by forcible eviction… and to clear all the encroachments therefrom.”
Following this order, the inhabitants of Khori Gaon began to protest, with men, women and children staging a sit-in on the main Faridabad-Delhi road, demanding some form of rehabilitation before being made homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic. By June 14, the police resorted to a lathi charge to disperse the growing crowds, arresting at least eight people and detaining several others.
But this is not the first time the residents of Khori Gaon have been victims of police violence. Demolitions took place in the Punjabi Colony area of the village in April this year, as well as in October last year.
Sumedha* says she was beaten by the police with sticks when she tried to salvage belongings from her house as it was being demolished by bulldozers on October 14. She claims there was no notice before this took place – the police came the night before to tell them to clear out their homes. “How could I take out everything in my home in one night?” she says. Sumedha’s family decided to rebuild the house. On April 2, the house was demolished once more. Yet again, the residents received no notice ahead of the demolition except for the police’s announcement the night before.
“I spent Rs 2.5 lakh rebuilding the house,” she said. “We had not even paid off the loan we took to build it before they tore it down again.”
Sumedha had paid several people when she first bought her home 15 years ago for Rs 3 lakh. First, the ‘dealers’ who sold her the plot of land. Effectively a local land mafia, these dealers would sell plots to the residents without any titles or deeds. The dealers would then proceed to demand payment if the resident built a boundary wall, a room, more than one room, and finally even if the residents decided to sell. After the dealers – and sometimes with them – came the police.
“They were the ones who settled us here, and they are the ones who are doing this now?” Sumedha says angrily. “The policemen took money, and the van-vibhag wala (a representative of the Delhi Forest Department) also took money. The police would take Rs 20,000-70,000 from us, depending on how much money we had. The forest department officials take Rs 1,000-5,000 from us.” The enforcement seems to happen on a sliding scale. “They take as much as they can from all of us,” Sumedha said.
If they were not paid, they would kick down the walls as they were being built and destroy the house, residents said. Many residents would build their homes well after they purchased the plot, as they needed to save up to be able to do so. This provided a pretext for what the police allegedly called a ‘penalty’ – saying that the residents had not paid the amount required to build a house, as against simply buying a plot, and so they would have to pay the ‘fine’ in order to do so.
To sum up – Sumedha says she paid Rs 3 lakh for the land. She then spent an additional Rs 50,000 on the police, Rs 1,000 on a forest department official, Rs 1.5 lakh to build the house the first time, and an additional Rs 2.5 lakh to rebuild the second time. “I have spent at least Rs 6-7 lakh on this house,” she says. Sumedha’s husband, a driver, is the only earner in the family, and according to her, their income does not exceed Rs 12,000 per month. At this rate, it would take nearly five years, without spending a single penny, for them to earn back this amount. “In this area, we might earn less than others, but not one family earns more than Rs 15,000,” she says.
Surmukhi* (40) has spent half her life here. After her house was destroyed, she and her family attempted to find a place to rent nearby. But the demolition took place just before the second wave of COVID-19 that brought Delhi to its knees – and many refused to let new people into their homes, citing fear of illness. “But our hearts can’t leave here, can they,” she says. “So we come back here during the day. The man who killed himself by hanging from a tree… [he would have thought that] he would die if his home was destroyed, so he might as well die before.”“They didn’t even leave the mandirs,” Ashok* says, leading me to what used to be a Radha Krishna Mandir. A few images of the icons lining a single wall, but to reach them, one has to climb through hazardous piles of bricks and stones. “The ceiling is on the floor now,” he says, pointing to the rubble.
Poonam* has lived here for 30 years. She spent around Rs 3 lakh to buy the land, with an additional Rs 25,000 to the police at the time, she says. She then later had to pay an additional Rs 17,000 in ‘penalties’ to the police because she didn’t build the house in time, and Rs 5,000 to a forest department official.
No receipts or paper trails accompanied these transactions, and so they cannot be proved, but every single person who bought a home of the dozens that this reporter spoke to outlined the same process and similar quantities of cash.
Poonam is now living in one of the jhuggis made of bamboo and tarp. “They took four hours to tear down my home,” she says through tears. “We could not live in the cold after they tore it down the first time, so I spent all my savings building it again. Now they have torn it down again. I don’t have any money left. I have nowhere to go.”
Poonam raised chickens and had two pet dogs. Both her dogs died in the April demolition after being injured by falling debris. The women say they too were injured when the police beat them as they tried to salvage some of their own belongings during the demolition.
Today, the signs of the latest lathi charge are still fresh.
Vikas* (65) is old and frail. He has a black eye, and broken skin along his elbow. He had been protesting on the highway with the rest of the community when the police came in with sticks. Vikas tried to run away, and in the crowd, he slipped and fell. As he was on the ground, he says, a policeman picked him up by the collar and started to hit him across his arms. Vikas has invested nearly Rs 10 lakh over 15 years into his house, paying a cut to the police, the forestry official, and then the ‘penalty’. He has no papers.
Kranti* (43) says she was beaten by a policeman and dragged by her hair to the police van when protestors were detained, only to be released some distance away. “They said that if our belongings were out in the streets, they would drive a car over them,” she says.
Shaila* is 50, and has a black eye, still puffy and swollen. She says that the police gave them no warning, did not tell them to clear out, but went in with their sticks straight away, threatening to destroy belongings they found even if they were outside houses.
“They are all working together – the police, the forestry officials, the dealers…I had to pay them even when I put a roof on my house,” she says.
For many residents, their anger is also rooted in the fact that Khori Gaon has remained a bustling urban village for 40 years without the question of Forest Land arising. In ‘Old Khori Gaon’, which was first settled, there are pukka roads, covered drainage systems and state-provided electricity.
In the high court judgment on Khori Gaon Colony Kalyan Samiti … vs State Of Haryana & Ors circa 2016, the court clearly establishes that the state has been complicit in the settling of this ostensibly protected land, in that residents have ration cards and voter cards with their addresses in this land, with a few occupants being provided electricity connections as well.
This is a matter of record. It also merits note that there are several properties, technically within the same boundaries of notified forest land, which do not face the threat of demolition – among these are The Taj Vivanta Surajkund, The Atrium (member of the Claridges Hotel Group), The Pinnacle Business Tower (owned by the Baani Group), and the Radha Soami Satsang Beas compound.
And yet, the people who are facing punishment for this encroachment, which the state has effectively enabled and officials and private corporations have all benefited from, are the poor.
“Whatever cream there was to take off the milk they have taken,” says Sushant* (30). “There’s nothing left for them to take anymore, which is why they are evicting us.” The consensus seems to be that the only conceivable reason that the court and state is deciding to take such an active role in dismantling Khori Gaon, is because they have something to gain from it – more than just the conservation of forest land.
“There was no way that the administration did not know and could not see when this Lanka was being made,” Sushant says. “If you go to put a single brick here, the forest department comes and takes a cut…the police come with them… The world would laugh if it heard this. For 40 years, the Supreme Court didn’t notice this?”
The request the residents are making is not for their money to be returned, or for rights to land they have bought – they simply want a place to live. “The state has committed an injustice against the public – in the same newspaper where they say that you should stay at home to stay safe from COVID-19, beneath that they note that 100,000 people are being taken out of their houses.”
“The land mafia is being kinder than the state now,” he adds. “Whatever breathing room we have now, is coming from them. We know that they did wrong by us. But has anyone made this injustice right?…We don’t have work today. We have no money. We don’t want land, or a flat – we just want a room to live in, a place to hide our heads. So where are we supposed to go?”
*Names have been changed for privacy.