New Delhi: A few weeks after the Supreme Court ordered the demolition of the residential properties in Khori Gaon, bulldozers began to destroy the settlement under police and Army presence.
Referred to by the Court as an encroachment, the settlement contains over 10,000 homes, with over 1 lakh residents (for scale, this is little under the population of the entire city of Darjeeling in Bengal, according to the 2011 Census). This is a conservative estimate – a UN official has issued a statement where the number is pegged at 2.5 lakh.
There are more than 5,000 pregnant and lactating women and over 20,000 minors in the settlement.
As the bulldozers began their work, there was panic in the lanes as the police went from door to door ordering people to clear out their goods before their house would be torn down.
Samina Khatoun, in her forties, has lived here for over ten years. She has four children, and works in stitching piecework. She, like several others in her neighbourhood, told The Wire that she had to pay Forest Departments Officials and Police officials while building her house – a form of systemic bribery which led the residents and owners of these houses to believe they had some official protection, as reported earlier.
All of Samina’s worldly goods have been tied into bundles and tossed into a large empty plot, as they wait for the bulldozers one lane away to reach them.
“For two months we have been screaming ourselves hoarse about this, and nobody cared,” Areefa* says. “There is no point in talking to the media.”
In the morning, an armed police force of hundreds shoved away the crowd that gathered before the bulldozers as they began demolition. A day ago, residents alleged that the police lathi charged them to disperse their peaceful protest, with a video showing one man severely injured after allegedly being shoved into a wall after being beaten. The forces fanned out and took up position along the lanes leading to the demolition zone, and in front of houses.
“Was the Supreme Court asleep for the past 10 years when this settlement was being built?” one Sulekha asks, “that today they have given the order to finish the poor? They have not given the order to break down my house, they have given the order to put poor people on the hangman’s noose,” she said rhetorically.
Sulekha’s house is due to be demolished today. She has four daughters, one of whom is six years old. “The government has had no pity, no mercy on us.” As she breaks down, a man sitting behind her raises his voice.
“Be quiet,” he orders. “What will you get by crying, nobody is listening.”
She takes me to her home, and says, “They never told me not to make this house, never said that it was government land. At that time was there no government? At that time had the entire administration died? Now after we have started to live our lives, they have come to tear it apart.”
Miriyam, her daughter, says that the police have told them to clear out their goods today, or they will be destroyed along with the house. One lane away, we can hear the crashing sounds of walls collapsing under a bulldozer’s arm. “We won’t leave here until we have to,” Miriyam says. Many in their neighbourhood have already fled.
Raveena Khatoun lives beside Samina’s house. Her husband is a tuberculosis patient. Her house has been emptied of all its goods, but in the oppressive heat, it is too much of a strain for her husband to sit outside, and he sits alone inside the empty house.
Raveena’s son, around four, marches to the pile of their goods, and gently lays down four tiles that they have pried out of the walls. Down the lane, people are taking down their doors, window grills, even hinges – these can be sold for scrap metal, at least, and the smallest amounts of money will buy them time to figure out where they go from here. Many have sold property in their villages to buy the land and build the homes which are being demolished today.
While they could have depended on the community earlier, with the entire community being destroyed, many have literally nowhere to go – not enough money to rent, no village homes to go back to, and impoverished by the lack of daily wage employment during the pandemic, causing them to spend their meagre savings to keep their children fed.
“Does the judge have no mothers or sisters, that he has made us all homeless? Is he an animal? No human would treat other humans like this,” Raveena says. “When there were hundreds of police, were the judge’s eyes torn out, was he dead, when these houses were being built? Why have they waited until thousands of homes have been made? Did the earth begin to tremble beneath him?”
The police are lining the lane behind this one, along the bulldozer’s proposed path. In this lane, a single man in uniform is helping people put their goods away.
When asked why he alone, of all the others, was doing this work, he says, “Because I live here. This is my house,” he says, pointing to the house beside Raveena’s. “I came off duty to do this.” He refuses to be named – he has not told his colleagues that he lives in Khori Gaon, because it is humiliating for him. “They’re just doing their jobs,” he says. “If I were told to do this, I would do it too. It is not their fault. They’re following orders.”
The day grows more unbearable as the morning passes into noon. With high humidity and temperatures at 35 degrees, it is becoming dangerously hot, and the police have made themselves comfortable for the long haul. Many are lying down wherever in the lanes they have found shade, and several of them are lying down inside the houses they are here to demolish, with the residents having fled. This reporter was forbidden from photographing the police on threat of arrest.
With the police growing more somnolent in the heat, they are no longer too concerned with keeping people away from the bulldozers, with the demolition well on track. One of the bulldozers at the start of the lane has had an engine failure, and in the ensuing pause, residents have crept back to see if there was anything salvageable from the remains of their homes.
In front of one demolished house, two cows with chains around their necks are baying inconsolably. One of the cows is pregnant. Their keeper, Aarti, is distressed – she has fed them this morning – they are not baying out of hunger, but because they want to return to where they usually spend their day out of the heat, and are foxed by the rubble. The pregnant cow begins to chew on a tangled steel wire lying on the street amidst the debris.
Aarti, 30, has lived here for nearly 20 years. She has three children, the youngest of whom is six.
“First they told us to come here and make homes. They gave us everything, Aadhaar cards, we didn’t steal anything. We earned this money with our labour, and spent it on making these houses. And even then the government doesn’t think we deserve houses. We just want to be allowed to live here. We will make a tent and stay, if we can, let them break down our houses if they want, but just let us stay here.”
Aarti’s children have not eaten since yesterday, when her house was demolished. She was allegedly dragged out of the house by the police, before the bulldozer arrived, when she refused to leave. Many women report the police dragging them out of their houses by their hair.
Zeenat Parvin, 30, has five children, and her house has also been demolished. “I cannot go to rent anywhere because they are asking for Rs 5,000 advance (deposit). Where should I get that from? We have had no work since January.” Parvin and her husband are daily wage labourers. “They are not giving us a room because we have five children, they say we will only let those with two children come…We haven’t come and occupied this land. We paid for it, we bought it.”
“Did the Supreme Court give orders to beat up people or to break down homes?” says “Where are we supposed to go? The police are beating us if we say something, if we do something,” says Harish.
Harish is a migrant from Nepal, whose house is near the church, and works as a guard at a restaurant in Delhi. “I worked so hard to build this house one brick at a time, but at that time where was the administration? I wish they had come then. Why did they not come then, and why have they come now?” he says, voice rising into a tearful shout. He breaks down in tears.
“When I made this house myself brick by brick, where were they then? They have made me homeless now, I have to live in the street. The PWD, the MCD, the Forest Department, where were they then? They took money from us all…where were they then?”
Anas*, says that the joke is that when PM Narendra Modi said “Garibi Hatao” (Remove Poverty) everyone actually heard it wrong – and what he was saying, was “Garib HI Hatao” (Remove only the poor.)
His friends sitting with him laugh – gallows humour at its finest. Anas has been taking a hammer to his own house, and has pried out everything he can take with him. In the empty room with iron beams supporting a tiled roof, there is only a matka of water. He is lingering at the window, holding onto the bars of the grills – he has not been able to remove them, but he does not want to leave them. At the time of writing, the bulldozer was three houses away from him, already tugging on the electric cables tied to his roof as it brought down the houses ahead. He did not plan on leaving.