Haldwani 'Railway Land' Eviction Case Reaches the SC. Is There Hope for Residents?

SC had directed grant of alternative land to squatters in a Mumbai case; held that Right to Life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution included the right to livelihood.

New Delhi: Following an Uttarakhand high court order, over 4,000 families residing in Banphoolpura near Haldwani railway station face eviction, despite living on the land near the railway lines for between 40 and 50 years. Some of the residents have approached the Supreme Court for relief, alleging that their case was not put forward aptly, and the apex court has decided to hear the matter on January 5. There have been several Supreme Court orders in the past which have called for protecting the right to life and livelihood of those being displaced.

The Banphoolpura case pertains to houses and other structures that have come up on a 2.2 kilometre stretch of land. The high court had in December 2022 directed the government to remove the encroachments from this piece of “railway land”. It had also directed that a week’s notice be issued to the residents to vacate.

The process of issuance of notices was to start from New Year’s Day, January 1. As the residents learnt about the court order, they took to the streets in protest. Many of them fear that the demolition of their tenements would leave them homeless in the peak of winter.

The residents have also been accusing the BJP government of not putting forth their case well, as the area is home to a large Muslim population.

Petitioner asks how schools, hospitals were possible if it was encroached land

One of the residents, Sharafat Khan, who approached the Supreme Court, was quoted by the Hindustan Times as saying that people have been living in Banphoolpura for “several decades”. Stating that most of them possessed electricity and water connections, had been paying house taxes and possessed registration documents for their properties, he asked: “How could the public buildings, including schools, and hospitals, be built there if we are living there illegally?”

Khan is not alone to approach the apex court. Apart from him, 10 others have also filed petitions seeking protection from eviction and demolition.

Khan accused the state BJP government of not standing up for the residents. “The state government didn’t argue well on our behalf in the high court,” he said, adding that there were several discrepancies in the railways’ claims in the matter. In its 2016 affidavit, he said, the railways had alleged that the alleged encroachment was spread over 29 acres of land but was now claiming that it was over 78 acres based as per the “recent demarcation survey”.

Over 50,000 people stand affected by eviction order

The petitioners have claimed that a demolition drive in the area would leave over 50,000 people homeless. The affected area houses a total of 4,365 identified structures including over 4,000 residential units, 20 mosques and nine temples.

Following the court order, a drone survey of the area was conducted by the joint teams of Railway and Revenue Department officials on Thursday for demarcating the allegedly encroached areas.

The Railway PRO of Izzat Nagar was quoted by the local media as saying a couple of days ago that following the high court judgment on removing “all encroachments on the railway land in Haldwani”, the notices would be served on “4,365 encroachments” through local newspapers and then the occupants will be given seven days’ time to shift.

Accused of not fighting case properly, BJP says issue not about Hindus or Muslims

The issue has also taken a political colour with the Congress claiming that the BJP government did not represent the people’s case well. The party legislator from Haldwani, Sumit Hridayesh, said “the government didn’t represent the affected people’s property in the high court and let the railways dominate proceedings”. He also charged that the Railways then came up with “an imaginary survey which says their 79 acres of land have encroached against a 2016 affidavit submitted in the high court which mentioned 29 acres.”

Incidentally, the state government had stated during the hearing that it had no say in the matter as the land in question belonged to the Railways. The Railways had claimed that those in possession of the land were not able to produce any legal document in support of their claims.

On behalf of the Congress, former chief minister Harish Rawat has also written an open letter to incumbent chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami for a resolution. Meanwhile, state BJP media in-charge Manveer Singh Chauhan said that the issues was “not about Hindu or Muslim” and that the “authorities are bound to abide by the decision of the court.”

When SC Constitution Bench had directed grant of alternative land to squatters

There may still be hope for the residents of Banphoolpura, as writing for The Wire in the wake of another similar demolition of slums on Railway land at Shakur Basti in west Delhi in December 2015, former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju had pointed out how when an appeal had come before a Bench, of which he was the junior member, against a Delhi high court order for removal of encroachments on government land in Delhi, he had referred to the SC’s decision in Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation.

In this case, which related to jhuggi jhopri dweller, Katju wrote, “a 7-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court had observed that the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution included the right to livelihood, and directed that alternative land should be given to the illegal squatters (i.e. JJ dwellers ) in Bombay.”

In the article, Katju had also written that, “Where these illegal encroachments or constructions are done by well-off people,  they are usually regularised subsequently on payment of a small amount. But when encroachments are done by poor people, they are often evicted and their shanties demolished, as if these poor people were not human beings at all.”

`Where will slum dwellers go, they too have Right to Life with dignity’

Arguing that land in cities has become too costly, Katju had questioned where such dwellers can go. “There are hundreds of thousands of such poor people. It is not just a legal problem. It is equally a human and social problem. We have to apply here not the 19th century positivist jurisprudence of Bentham and Austin, but the 20th century sociological jurisprudence of Roscoe Pound, by doing ‘social engineering’,” the former SC judge had written.

He had also cited several cases in which the SC had held that the word ‘life’ in Article 21 means a life of dignity, that right to shelter is a fundamental right being part of Articles 19(1)(e) and 21 of the Constitution; and that right to life guaranteed in any civilised society implies the right to food, water, decent environment, education, medical care and shelter.

“The promise of acchhe din cannot be just for the well-off. A poor person too has the fundamental right of a dignified life under Article 21 of the Constitution,” Katju had concluded.