Haldwani: Residents across Banbhoolpura region of Uttarkhand’s Haldwani city are holding candlelight marches, sit-ins and collective prayers to resist the Uttarakhand high court order calling for the demolition of over 4,500 settlements in the region.
On December 20, a bench of the Uttarakhand high court, led by Sharat Kumar Sharma, ordered the removal of 4,500 settlements in Banbhoolpura. After this, a public notice was issued on December 30 by the office of the Divisional Railway Manager, Izzatnagar, asking residents to vacate the region within a week.
The high court order comes against the backdrop of a longstanding legal tussle over the ownership of land in the region, which is home to a predominantly working-class population hailing from the Muslim community.
A petition opposing the demolition drive is scheduled to be heard at the Supreme Court on January 5 by a bench of Justices S.K. Kaul and A.S. Oka. Several points of contention have been raised by the residents and their advocates in this petition.
The petition, which was accessed by The Wire, states that the land in question, the residents of which are being called encroachers, is in fact Nazul land. This refers to non-agricultural land that is owned by the government which can be leased to families and in some cases, even given as freehold. Moreover, the applicants state:
- That the railway has no evidence to claim this land as its own and the parties have not substantiated their claims of ownership, and
- Over a thousand appeals by residents have been pending before the district courts pertaining to individual cases of land ownership being contested under the ambit of the Public Premises Act, 1971, in relation to the case.
Additionally, the petition claims that the high court order does not take into account the state’s Reforms, Regularisation, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Prevention of Encroachment of the Slums Act, 2016. More importantly, the applicants state that several residents have sale deeds and copies of leases to establish them as the legal occupiers of the land.
The claim of the North Eastern Railway (NER), which states that 78 acres of land fall under the ambit of “encroached” territory, is also being contested.
A tangled web
The issue of the alleged encroachment of the Banbhoolpura land arose in 2007, when the NER claimed 29 acres of land near the Haldwani railway station. In an affidavit filed the same year, the NER informed the Uttarakhand high court that it had cleared 10 of the 29 acres of land from encroachers and appealed to the court to pass an order directing the state authorities to help it get back the remaining 19 acres.
The issue then subsided and no further demolition was carried out. But in 2013, the issue resurfaced when one Ravi Shankar Joshi filed a public interest litigation in the high court asking for an investigation into the collapse of a bridge that had been constructed in 2003 on the Gaula River with an expenditure of Rs 9.4 crores.
On the basis of this PIL, a commissioner was appointed by the court to investigate the bridge collapse. In 2015, the commissioner filed a report stating that illegal mining was taking place on the banks of the river Gaula by those living in the area. Following this report, the high court summoned the NER, which once again claimed that 29 acres of the land had been encroached. In 2016, the high court issued an interim order calling for the removal of all encroachments within approximately 29 acres of land in the area. Two separate orders were issued to carry out anti-encroachment drives.
However, the government at the time stated that it did not have the means to carry out the process. Moreover, the state government sought a review of the court’s November 9, 2016, order, stating that the ‘encroachers’ could not be removed from the area as there was no demarcation of railway property. The petition also referred to a few sale deeds which showed that some of the land in question had been legally purchased. The state also filed a counter affidavit, asserting that the land belonged to the revenue department.
In January 2017, the high court once again directed the state government to clear the alleged encroachments. The occupants of this ‘encroached’ land then approached the Supreme Court together with the state government, arguing that neither the 2014 PIL nor the pleas before the high court when the case was heard, had mentioned anything about unauthorised occupants on the land. Their petition before the apex court also argued that it was not even clear that the NER owned the land, considering that the area had been occupied and had had permanent structures on it since before independence in 1947.
On January 18, 2017, a Supreme Court bench stated that individual petitions in the case should be heard by the high court. It directed the affected parties to move the high court and file individual applications seeking the recall or modification of its eviction order. The Supreme Court also directed that the matter be heard by a division bench of the high court and disposed of within three months, while all pending appeals before the district court should be dealt with ‘uninfluenced’ by the decision of the high court.
Thus, an estate officer was appointed to ascertain the legal titles of the land in question, issue notices to all the individual occupants of the land and hear their objections to the eviction.
However, the estate officer, allegedly without referring to any sources, stated that the land belonged to the NER and that the occupants were illegal encroachers who had to be removed. Based on this report, fresh eviction notices were issued to the people of Banbhoolpura, but now, these notices were sent to people residing on 78 acres of land, rather than the 29 acres that the NER had twice claimed in court. No substantive evidence of ownership of either the 29 acres or the later claim of 78 acres was provided by the NER in court.
they mysteriously recused themselves from the case. In 2016, they claimed that land belonged to them ie state govt.
3) Railway is only claiming the land besides railway tracks where Muslim settlement exists. A few kms up and down the same track, all Hindu settlements are legal?
— Sharjeel Usmani (@SharjeelUsmani) January 3, 2023
‘No one listens to us’
Mohammad Yusuf, a lawyer in the district and the high court, told The Wire that the high court order was passed despite pending appeals against the encroachment claims by several residents.
“This case is being treated as a trial despite the fact that the appeals are pending. People have bought the land through auctions, and several people have received their land pattas. Freeholds were done and sale deeds were also registered. House tax is being paid by residents here and is being taken by local authorities,” Yusuf said.
The petition currently pending before the apex court states that 17 schools and 16 places of worship fall in the area notified for demolition.
“This area has homes, temples and mosques, community centres and water tanks,” said Mohammed Akhlaq, a resident of the area. “Some of us have ownership papers. Our appeals are pending in the lower courts. But despite all this, the high court made such a big decision without giving us the space to provide facts. Only one week’s notice was served to us in a matter in which over 50,000 people will be affected and we did not receive a chance to be fairly heard.”
Akhlaq added, “No one listens to us. When administrative officials come and meet us, they do so only to tell us that we will have to leave this area and to ask us to support the decision, or else our houses will be bulldozed.”
‘This is politically motivated’
Residents of the region as well as their political representatives claim that the demolition drive is politically motivated, aimed at changing the demography of the region to benefit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), where it has failed so far to make electoral gains.
Wakar Rasul (name changed), a daily wage worker who has lived in the area for the past five decades, said, “Where will we go? We are daily wagers and poor. If we are evicted, we will be without shelter. Already, we are dying due to unemployment and starvation. Now the railways are kicking us in the gut. This land does not belong to the railways. This drive is an attempt to eliminate us. We believe this is a political strategy to remove Muslims and change the demography of the area.”
The residents pointed out that the eviction order is similar to other demolition drives across the nation that have unfairly targeted the minority Muslim population.
Shaheeda (name changed), who is almost 100 years old, said, “We have given up everything to make our homes and now we are being targeted as Muslims. Why were we allowed to build our homes here in the first place? Our homes were built from scratch, with our sweat and blood. These homes have deeds. The BJP has never won from this area, so this is being done to trouble Muslims.”
Harish Rawat, a former chief minister of Uttarakhand, posted an open letter on the issue on his social media, questioning the motives of incumbent chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami in this issue. Meanwhile, the Congress party and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen have slammed the state government and demanded a stay on the eviction drive.
According to Sumit Hridayesh, the Congress member of the legislative assembly (MLA) of the Haldwani constituency, the move impacts the political demography of the area.
“My stand on the issue is very clear,” Hridayesh told The Wire. “In Uttarakhand, all the mahanagars have very little freehold land. Some 70% of even my town rests on Nazul land. The BJP government in the state has categorically failed to provide support to the poor. The people living there have pattas, leases and sale deeds. There are schools, hospitals and residences dating back more than 100 years. There are temples and there are mosques. This is a huge travesty of justice and this injustice is being served by the government of Uttarakhand and CM Dhami.”
‘NER has no claim’
Several Right to Information (RTI) applications have been filed by the residents of Banbhoolpura for answers on the ownership of the land.
“The railway claims that 29 acres of this land belongs to them on the basis of a map created from a 2017 survey. These figures are being thrown at us to scare us and confuse us since we all hail from the labour class. When we filed an RTI, in 2017 the response said that the railway has no documents to back its claims over ownership of land,” Mohammed Ayaz, a resident of the area, told The Wire.
The Basti Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, which was formed to represent the affected parties when the litigation process first began, has also argued that the map provided by the railways to the high court is based on a 1959 survey, while the residents of Banbhoolpura have leasehold documents dated as far back as 1937, meaning that the claim of the people on the land is older than the claim of the railways.
Shakeel Ansari, a local councillor, explained: “The land I am standing on while talking to you is Nazul land. Over 150 RTI applications were filed pertaining to the status of the ownership of this land. But time and again, the state government states that the land belongs to them and the Nagar Nigam takes care of the land. I have grown up here and so has my father who is 80 years old. We went to the same inter-college. At a time when governments across the board take care of their citizens during the harsh winter months, the residents of this region are being discriminated against. Our protest continues every single day. Women, men and children are stepping out onto the streets every single day to get the government to hear us.”