Forced Evictions Are Unjust. Here's Why They Should Concern us Even More Now.

We should be careful that post-COVID-19 recovery plans do not sanction evictions under the guise of economic revival.

Imagine you are at home, sleeping. A thundering sound pierces the air. You peer out to find three bulldozers and a large police force wielding sticks. A crackling voice on a hand-held loudspeaker orders you to vacate your home.

Children shriek and adults rush about, trying to gather their belongings. You cannot fathom what is happening. You have lived in this house for 20 years. Built it over time, with hard-earned savings. It is small, just a room-and-a half. And in a matter of a few hours, it is gone.

Your home, your possessions, everything you have collected and saved, reduced to rubble. And now you are out on the streets. 

Hard as it might be to imagine, this is what over 568,000 people in urban and rural India have gone through over the last three years – forced evictions and demolition of their homes.

The Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), through its National Eviction and Displacement Observatory, has just released a comprehensive report on forced evictions in India.

The study found that central and state government authorities demolished over 177,700 houses in 2017, 2018, and 2019, which means that at least 519 people lost their homes daily, with almost five homes being destroyed hourly, or about 22 people being evicted every hour.

Furthermore, nearly 15 million people across India currently live under the threat of displacement. Though deeply disturbing, these figures are conservative, as they only reflect cases known to HLRN, and thus present a partial image of the true scale of this grave but unreported national crisis. 

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These numbers may shock us, but we need to remember that these are not mere statistics. These are real people – men, women, children, older persons, Dalits, Adivasis, and persons with disabilities. People who have lost not just their homes and sense of safety and security but also their livelihoods, income, health, and very often their education, and prospects of a better tomorrow for themselves and their families.

A man and his child look out of their window in Dharavi, Mumbai. Photo: PTI

Forced evictions ensure the entrenchment of poverty. They result in increased impoverishment and income and social inequality in society. They violate national laws, policies, and schemes. They contravene international human rights obligations. They go against humanity.

But they continue – with full impunity for responsible officials and agencies. They persist through the use of state power that arbitrarily declares the poor of this country as ‘illegal residents’ on public land, even when they hold government-issued documents establishing their ‘legality.’ It is ironic that although illegal means are often used to demolish homes and evict the poor, it is the people who are declared ‘illegal’ not the actions of the state.

Despite the fact that affected persons suffer extensively and sometimes even lose their lives during or in the aftermath of eviction drives, and that laws and human rights standards are infringed, no action is taken against those responsible for such evictions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ripped the mask off several flawed public policies and revealed major social protection gaps around the world. A significant global realisation has been that adequate housing is critical for people’s health, safety, and lives. Secure housing has been recognised as a means of prevention and adequate recovery from the coronavirus. The mantra to stay well is ‘stay home.’

Also read: The Right Time to Speak of Housing Rights in India is Right Now

Not paying heed to this call, even during the pandemic, state authorities in India forcibly evicted at least 20,000 people from their homes (between March 16 and July 31, 2020), as recorded by HLRN. During this critical public health emergency, for a state to continue the brutal demolition of homes of low-income communities is not just a violation of human rights law but is also inhumane and indefensible.

India already has among the world’s highest number of people living in homelessness, with over four million homeless people in urban areas, and over 75 million people living in urban settlements in insecure housing without access to essential services.

Instead of focusing on improving their living conditions and actualising the ‘housing for all by 2022’ slogan, the government continues to demolish homes and evict people without due process, including prior notification and resettlement. In only 29% of the incidents of eviction in 2018 and 2019 for which information is available, was some form of resettlement provided by the state.

The overwhelming majority of affected persons are left to fend for themselves; a large number is rendered homeless. For those who receive alternative housing, the relocation sites are generally remote and devoid of adequate housing and civic and social infrastructure facilities.     

Evictions under guises

Evictions in India are carried out under various guises, the most common being ‘slum’ clearance or removal of ‘encroachments’ and ‘beautification.’

A slum in Kolkata. Photo: Calcutta Rescue/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Over the last three years, 46% of those evicted, at least 262,400 people lost their homes for this reason. The inherent assumption that low-income communities are ‘encroachers’ on public land and that ‘beautification’ implies getting rid of them is deeply discriminatory and problematic.

The second reason used to evict people is infrastructure and ostensible ‘development’ projects (27%), often carried out under the garb of ‘public purpose.’ But the public that benefits from such projects is different from the public that pays the price for them, with the loss of homes, livelihoods, and lives.

Another reason increasingly being used to clear people—mostly indigenous/tribal communities—out of their habitats is ‘forest protection’ and environmental projects (17%). Such evictions are based on the fabricated binary between people and the environment, being projected by certain conservationists and often supported by the judiciary.

Under the guise of ‘disaster management’ too, lands are being cleared of the poor in cities like Chennai. But the location of alternative sites in low-lying, flood-prone areas brings into question the real reason for these evictions.

Euphemisms like ‘resettlement’ and ‘relocation’ are being used to promote segregation and spatial inequality, especially in urban areas across the country, but in reality these are state-sponsored dispossession exercises gaining sanction in official policies.

Greatly disconcerting is the lack of access to justice and effective remedy for affected persons. Courts, in several instances, have been responsible for authorising evictions. Research by HLRN reveals that in 2019, over 20,500 people were evicted as a result of court orders, including of the National Green Tribunal. Where the judiciary has recognised the unlawfulness of evictions, orders are mostly in the form of stays on further evictions; they generally do not provide relief and restitution of the rights of affected persons.

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In cases where progressive judgments upholding the right to housing have been issued by courts, the state is delinquent in not implementing them. Orders calling for evictions, however, are immediately executed, again revealing deep-set prejudices against the poor and their habitations.

Despite the alarming scale and magnitude of this phenomenon, the issue of forced evictions is not discussed in the legislature or bureaucracy, not spoken about in most policy circles, and not documented. No official data on evicted or displaced persons exists in India. If such a serious human rights emergency is not recognised in the country, how can we hope for adequate policy response let alone justice for the thousands of affected persons and the millions living under threat of eviction?

It is time now to break the culture of silence around evictions in India. It is time to recognise forced evictions as gross violations of human rights and as criminal acts that must be investigated according to the law. India needs to impose an immediate moratorium on forced evictions, for any reason. When natural disasters displace people or destroy houses, the state provides relief and compensation.

But when the state renders people homeless, why is that not recognised as a human disaster? All evicted or displaced and homeless persons must receive priority attention, including in allocation of housing and adequate rehabilitation. India should promulgate a ‘right to housing’ law, upholding housing as a human right and guaranteeing tenure security, as well as a ‘right to homestead’ law to allocate land for housing and subsistence livelihoods to landless and homeless people. 

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We should be careful that post-COVID recovery plans do not sanction evictions under the guise of economic revival, as that would result in further distress and setbacks. Any country that cares about economic and social justice, and is serious about meeting its legal obligations, must ensure everyone’s right to live in peace, security, safety, and dignity, which inherently requires ending forced evictions.

Shivani Chaudhry is Executive Director, Housing and Land Rights Network, Delhi. Views expressed are personal.