Welfare Measures and Forced Evictions: How the Pandemic Uncovered the Paradox of Life for Delhi’s Marginal Urban Dwellers

As residents of the state’s bastis get free rations and state-provided services on the back of identity documents with proof of address, their homes are subject to frequent demolition on the grounds that they are encroachments.

The distribution of rations and other necessities during the crisis created by last year’s lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic took place mainly in the slum areas of Delhi. Ironically, however, although the Delhi government provides the people of these settlements with essentials, their homes are frequently demolished to evict them from their neighbourhoods on the grounds that they are encroachments and this continued even during the lockdown.

“Thousands of households in Delhi were demolished during the lockdown,” said Shakeel Ahmed, the convener of Basti Suraksha Manch (BSM), one of the networks that constitute the Delhi Housing Rights Task Force (DHRTF). “Some clusters even experienced multiple phases of eviction.”

The evictions took place despite the fact that on April 28, 2020, just about a month into the nationwide lockdown in India, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing declared ‘an end to all evictions’ until the end of the pandemic.

Although there is no constitutional right to housing in the country, in 1976, India had ratified the United Nations’ 1966 covenant of the Right to Adequate Housing. Several court judgments, including many in the Supreme Court of India such as Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985), Chameli Singh vs State of U.P. (1996), Sudama Singh vs Govt of Delhi (2010) and Ajay Maken vs Union of India (2019), have affirmed the right to housing. Along with these judicial measures, established policy regimes such as the Delhi Slum & JJ (JhuggiJhopri) Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy (DUSIB policy, 2015) intend to preserve the right to housing for all. But Delhi scripted a very arbitrary fate for its marginal urban dwellers during the pandemic.

Seeking a home

When the bulldozers arrived at east Laxmi Nagar market colony, Jagatpuri, in June 2020, the residents of the settlement knew what they had needed to have done to stop the demolition of their homes. But they had been given no time to seek the remedy they required.

“If an application had been filed in court, there wouldn’t have been any demolitions during the pandemic. But we got only three days to organise ourselves,” said Ram Chandra, the pradhan (head) of the settlement. “The notice that should have come to us on Friday arrived on Saturday. Sunday was a holiday and on Monday our deadline had ended. Where do you go in this kind of hurry? Who do you get suggestions from?”

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The east Laxmi Nagar market colony had been identified as a jhuggijhropri (hutment) cluster in 1982 by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) through its Census of Squatters survey. Over the years, the residents of the settlement turned it into a habitable space that was entitled to state-provided services. But although the colony had a historical presence, a decade-old lawsuit demolished it in the name of encroachment.

Elsewhere in Delhi, near Shastri Park, more than 135 families were evicted in a single sweep on February 11, 2021. When  Geeta Devi, a resident of the settlement asked why her home was being demolished, an official told her: “The order has come from the court”.

This left Geeta Devi frustrated by the paradox of existence in urban India. “If an order came from the court (to evict us), then why are we given free rations? Why were our gas services not cut off? We are offered free rations and simultaneously evicted from our houses,” she said. The point she made asks a question of the contemporary urban landscape: What does welfare mean if the right to housing is breached? The narrative of those who are frequently evicted shows that their life is exactly at the point of intersection between welfare on one axis and homelessness on the other.

Residents of such settlements argue that the government’s provision of free rations and other essentials are not the only evidence that they are rooted in their homes. Their voter identity cards prove their existence in the city, they point out. But even these identity cards are ignored during the evictions.

“We have valid identity documents. So why are we devoid of justice?” asked Akbari Bibi, whose basti (settlement) near Batla house was demolished three times since the pandemic began, on September 24, 2020, October 4, 2020, and December 24, 2020. “We cast our votes in the name of the jhuggi (hut) numbers that are listed as our addresses on our voter Identity cards. Our jhuggis are our identity on the land,”Akbarai Bibi pointed out.

Also read: ‘I Don’t Have the Option to Rent a House’: How Migrant Workers Differ From the Urban Poor

The tragedy in India is that the right of universal suffrage does not automatically lead to the right to housing, even when policies exist to provide housing rights. For example, the residents of the settlement near Batla house still have not received rehabilitation though they have valid identity documents that satisfy the DUSIB policy, 2015.

A waste of debts

Even the poorest people in India find ways to invest in the construction of homes when the formal housing supply cannot meet their needs. The houses built by marginal dwellers are officially termed ‘informal’, but Delhi has 675 jhuggijhopri clusters, according to the DUSIB policy, 2015, where people invest with money usually borrowed from their employers, to construct houses that either remain unconstructed or are demolished due to routine evictions.

“I invested money for my house through a karza (loan) from my madam (employer),” said 40-year-old Sunita Devi, a resident of Israeli camp near Vasant Kunj, Delhi, who provides domestic help. “Only two days after the construction was completed, they demolished it. If I had known it was going to be demolished, I would not have taken the loan.”

Sunita Devi’s home was demolished along with hundreds of others on September 28, 2020. Now, like many others in the same position, she worries both about paying back her debt to her employer and the possibility of getting another loan for another house.

The pandemic has led to exceptional changes all over the world in how people live and work. But for Delhi’s marginal urban dwellers, the novel coronavirus changed nothing. They had always had to live their lives in increments that regularly retreat, building homes only to lose them and hope to start all over again.

Rana Paul is an urban researcher, currently working in Delhi as a part of the UCLA ‘Housing Justice in Unequal Cities’ network.