Housed in Uncertainty: How Demolitions Throttle Delhi Neighbourhoods

A look at how the past, present and future of Jahangirpuri and Sarojini Nagar remain beholden to demolition drives, eviction notices and unfair removals.

New Delhi: Nearly 15 million people live under the threat of eviction and displacement across India, according to a 2022 report by Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN). Between January 2021 and July 2022, over 62,330 houses were demolished and 3,31,560 people forcibly evicted, and driven into homelessness, destitution and vulnerability. Slum clearance, encroachment removal, environmental projects, city beautification and development projects are some reasons evictions are carried out by the state. Added to this list, lately and increasingly, is the spate of trigger-happy “bulldozer responses” of the state against minorities and political dissenters.

In this photo story, we revisit Jahangirpuri and Sarojini Nagar areas in New Delhi, to understand the human costs of demolition and eviction drives. The state has maintained that inter-state migration is the reason for the prevalence of large-scale encroachment in the cities. The residents, however, claim to have migrated generations ago.

Block C in Jahangirpuri, a predominantly Muslim majority area, saw an anti-encroachment drive by the North Delhi Municipal corporation (NDMC) on April 20 last year, incidentally four days after a Hanuman Jayanti Yatra procession passing through had caused communal tensions and had left nine people injured. An order by the Supreme Court halted the demolition. In Sarojini Nagar’s slums, despite the temporary stay by the SC on demolitions for development work, residents live in constant fear. 

The anti-encroachment drive in Jahangirpuri was carried out over the span of nearly three hours, in the presence of the NDMC mayor and amidst security cover by the Delhi police, despite the SC order to halt the exercise. In that time, parts of a mosque complex, many legally-established shops and rehdis or pushcarts were destroyed.

On April 20 last year, parts of a mosque complex were demolished.


An ‘Integrated Facilitation Booth’ connected to the Jahangirpuri police station for increased “community policing” and many stories of upended livelihood and trauma are what remain of the incident, many months since.

The Integrated Facilitation Booth connected to the Jahangir Puri police station.

Sajid Saifi’s electronics shop shares a wall with the mosque. “We had an LED display board with the name of the shop ‘Electronics Gallery’. That was destroyed by the bulldozer. As were the shop’s safety reinforcements,” Sajid says. 

Reshma Sharma, an employee, shows us the damage, with ‘before and after’ photos of the shop, which the owners say was established in the 1980s. The iron grills had yet not been reinstalled at the time of our visit in late 2022.

“I bore a loss of Rs 3-4 lakh. The shop remained shut for three months after the incident,” Sajid says. A father to three daughters, he lives with his family above the shop. They were not given any notice ahead of the demolition, he alleges. “We were asked to go inside the house even as the bulldozers rolled in.” 

There are laws in every State, like the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957 and Delhi Development Act, 1957, that mandate giving prior notice for a demolition.

Reshma Sharma, an employee, showing the damage to the electronics shop with a before and after picture.

“Jahangirpuri has become jahanumpuri (land of hell) now,” Sajid says, “The area has earned a bad name since and the number of customers has also reduced drastically,” he adds.

His shop stocks washing machines, refrigerators, stove tops, and blenders, among other things.

The shop stocks washing machines, refrigerators, stove tops, and blenders.

Opposite the Integrated Facilitation Booth is Rihana Bibi and husband Sheikh Shariyat’s paan rehdi, selling chocolates, packed snacks, soft-drinks and tobacco products. Before the demolition drive, they also sold puri-sabzi (fried bread and curry) in their cart. “We would start preparing the food every day at 5 am,” Rihana says. Their rehdi was one of those destroyed on that day. “Our stove and utensils were crushed. We cannot afford to buy them again,” the 42-year-old says. The rehdi they now use was donated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Rihana Bibi and husband Sheikh Shariyat’s paan rehri.


Showing us a Certificate of Vending issued by the NDMC, she says, “Our rehdi was not illegal. When the government issued this pharchi (certificate), how can they call us encroachers and destroy our livelihood?” Beside the ‘vendor type’ field, the certificate reads ‘food/ Snack with gas cylinder/ fire’. 

“We weren’t given any time to move our rehdi out of the way of the bulldozer,” her husband adds.

Their family, like many others, had migrated from Medinipur in West Bengal to Delhi as labourers for the 2010 Commonwealth Games construction sites. They lived “Yamuna ke uss paar” (the other side of the Yamuna river) before settling down in Jahangirpuri, one of the 55 resettlement areas set up by successive governments. 

“We have two unmarried daughters and need money for their weddings. We also have a bank loan to repay. We managed to pay back almost Rs. 10,000 per month earlier. Now, managing even Rs. 3,000-3,500 has become difficult,” Rihana says. The couple are both diabetic. “He needs regular insulin injections which we could afford with our puri-sabzi business. Now, we cannot. We hardly buy our medicines,” she says, pointing to her husband.


Amit Kumar’s puri-chole stall, operating on a rehdi gaadi, was burnt down during the April 16 communal violence. “A scooty was lit on fire that day. Along with the vehicle, my rehdi also burnt down,” he says, pointing to soot marks that have remained on the rehdi despite repair and paint jobs, on which he spent Rs. 25,000. “I took a loan to pay for the repairs. I repay Rs. 1,500-2,000 per month.”

“For almost three months after the demolition drive, the police did not allow anyone to open shops. Saare rehdi bandh pade the (all carts remained unused),” says Inam-Ul-Haq, joint secretary of the local masjid trust. “Rehdiwallas are daily-wage earners. They survived on ration distributed by civil society organisations. Some political organisations like the CPI(M) donated new rehdis, so those whose rehdis were destroyed have been able to make a living again.”

Amit Kumar’s puri-chole stall.

Along with shops and rehdis, some houses too were damaged in this anti-encroachment exercise, denying people not just their livelihood but also housing. 

According to the Delhi Development Authority, the city comprises 1,731 unauthorised colonies. About 60% of Delhi’s population lives in unauthorised constructions. The state can carry out demolitions and evictions only after following due procedure and under the authority of law. Due notice, opportunity to be heard before demolition and rehabilitation for eligible persons are mandated by law and judicial precedents. Overnight demolitions like the one in Jahangirpuri violate the rule of law, depriving citizens rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

“Governments have maintained that migrants from other states comprise the bulk of residents in unauthorised constructions and encroachment. But, most are not first-generation migrants,” says Aravind Unni, Urban Poverty Thematic Lead, Indo Global Social Service Society (IGSSS). “Aise kaise bol sakte hai ki mein dilli ka nahi hoon (‘how can anyone say I am not from Delhi)?” asks Amit.

“I was born in Delhi. My parents, very early on, migrated here from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh.” Even homelessness is not just a migration issue because most of the urban homeless population are not first-generation migrants, Aravind stresses.

Rehana Adib, Founder Secretary of Astitva Samajik Sanstha, adds, “Many migrants coming to cities are Dalit and Muslim women working as daily-wage labourers in construction sites and living in temporary tin-shed houses constructed for them.” 

Rehris were not allowed to operate for almost three months after the incident.

In April last year, the Union government pasted eviction notices on hundreds of homes and jhuggis in Sarojini Nagar. School-going residents from these communities approached the Supreme Court for a stay on the eviction drive. Halting the drive, the SC had asked for a “humane” treatment of the dwellers, “as a model government” should. The case is ongoing, with the next date of hearing on April 11, when we last checked. The families, living in constant fear and uncertainty, angrily ask how the government can label them outsiders and encroachers when they have been living in the same jhuggis for the past 23-30 years. Most families have identity documents like Aadhaar card and voter’s ID at this very address. Some also have electricity connections and have been paying its bills for many years.

In April last year, the Union government pasted eviction notices on hundreds of homes and jhuggis in Sarojini Nagar.

One of the young petitioners, Happy Mathur, a student of class 3, wants to be a doctor. “My favourite subject is English,” he says. His mother Poonam Devi, while making lunch for the family in their house, tells us, “This is my mother-in-law’s house. She migrated here from Hathras with my father-in-law. My husband was born here. How can the government call us encroachers and evict us?”

Happy Mathur’s house in Sarojini Nagar.

Further away from Happy’s cluster of jhuggis is Matka Gali, called Kumhar Ki Toli and Scindia Pottery colloquially. Houses on this street too have been given notice of eviction. Sharing Poonam’s frustration, 35-year-old Pratap Singh, a resident of Matka Gali says, “Our jhuggis have been here for the past 40-50 years. How can the government say we are not from Delhi or that we are staying here illegally?” 

“Our parents and uncles came to Delhi in search of work. They worked at the pottery-glazing kiln here and settled down,” he adds. The eviction is part of the Union government’s redevelopment plans. The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) has said it will provide rehabilitation and resettlement for eligible dwellers. “They conducted a survey and numbered our homes. But the actual rehabilitation has not happened. Where will the families go if they are thrown out of their homes?” Pratap says.

Matka Gali, called Kumhar Ki Toli and Scindia Pottery colloquially.

Pratap fears rehabilitation in the outskirts of the city or far away from their current housing. “Our business is here, our children’s schools are here, we work in the houses nearby. If we are resettled elsewhere, our livelihood is finished.” 

Rehana Adib explains that children end up forgoing education due to familial migration. “As their parents settle down in different places, education of children from these lower classes is hampered. This was the case even during COVID-19.”


Pratap Singh’s shopfront on Matka Gali; he lives with his family behind the shop.

Geeta Bura, 22, moved to the jhuggi from Bajura in Nepal after her marriage. Her husband was born in the jhuggi they have been asked to vacate. A mother to two children, Geeta works as a domestic worker in the neighbouring houses while her husband cleans their cars before going to work at a car dealership shop. This family, too, is anxious about where they will be rehabilitated.

“The court case has been dragging on without a resolution. Will we be homeless? Will we get compensation? Or, alternative housing? These questions are on our mind all the time,” says Jyothi, another resident of the jhuggis and a master’s student of political science. “My father is a welder. He made these with his own hands,” she says, pointing to the gate of their house, as her father looks on.

“Last week, we didn’t get water in our house. We thought our water connection was cut on purpose, to coerce us into leaving. But the pipe had just come undone. This is the kind of fear we live in daily,” Jyothi adds. Geeta narrated a similar incident with electricity. “We simply don’t know if we will have a roof over our head the next day.”

This uncertainty has heightened concerns of safety for the women residents in the jhuggis. Jyothi says drunk men, in small groups, loiter around their jhuggis after sunset and women have been harassed by them. “They taunt us about the eviction and say they’re on public property and not our personal property when we ask them to go away,” she says.

Geeta Bura moved to the jhuggi from Bajura in Nepal after her wedding.

These jhuggis were constructed amidst Union government service quarters by the working class. Barbers, gardeners, guards, domestic helps, cooks, tailors, electricians, mechanics, cleaners, dhobis, istreewalas (persons who iron clothes), and others have settled down amongst the blocks of the government-official households they worked for. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs undertook redevelopment of the housing complex, temporarily shifting the officials from many blocks of Sarojini Nagar to housing quarters in areas like Kidwai Nagar and R.K.Puram. The April 2022 eviction notices on the jhuggis were to facilitate this redevelopment of staff quarters.

Jahan kaam kiya wahi bas gaye (where we worked, there we settled down),” says Raghubir Prasad, Pradhan of the jhuggi settlement. “All of us have identity documents at this address, but nothing to prove ownership.” An istreewala himself, Raghubir has stayed in his jhuggi for the past 40 years. The government has not approached them with any offer of rehabilitation. “If they do give us alternative housing or land, it must be within a 4-5 km radius from here. Otherwise, it’ll affect our children’s education and our rozgaar (livelihood),” he says. “Whatever happened to ‘Jahan Jhuggi Wahan Makaan’?” he gestures, alluding to both the Union and Delhi State government’s promises of in-situ slum rehabilitation.

Raghubir Prasad has stayed in his jhuggi for the past 40 years.

Mange Lal is an istriwala living in his jhuggi since 2001. His house has been numbered 127. “We were told we’ll get an alternative allotment of land or a house by the officials who painted the number on our house. But when will we get it? Where will it be located?” he asks. His 14-year-old daughter, Pooja, is a class 10 student. “What will happen to her education if we are forced out of our house and into a different locality?” He adds, “The officials told us our house stands on their land. But, we built it with our hard work.”

“What will happen to the education of my daughter, who is studying in class 10, if we are forced out of our house and into a different locality?” Mange Lal, an istriwala asks.

According to HLRN, in 2021, at least 100 houses were destroyed daily across the country, 567 people lost their homes every day or, 24 people were evicted out of their homes every hour. “All those without any social capital in the cities end up as urban homeless population after an eviction or demolition drive,” Aravind says. 

On the street, just beyond Mange Lal’s press shop was a fruit vendor with his cart. Upon seeing us enquiring about the evictions, he asks, “Makaan hata rahe hai kya? Meri ladki ki shaadi hai. Tab tak rok denge?” (Are they [the government] demolishing houses? My daughter’s wedding has been arranged. Would they wait till it’s over?) The rhetorical question hardly belied the uncertainty and helplessness that was now his daily reality. 

The article was published with support from Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD).

Pragati K.B. is a graduate student of Social Anthropology, University of Oxford, and a freelance journalist.

Nangsel Sherpa is an independent researcher. 

All photos are by Pavitra Venkateswaran.