Déjà vu: In one of Delhi’s oldest jhuggi cluster Lal Bagh, Dalit and denotified tribe families face eviction, yet again

An August 31 order of the Supreme Court of India is set to evict over 250,000 slum dwellers in the national capital. Of these, about 1,200 belong to the Dalit Kapadiya community and Mahavat denotified nomadic tribe, many of whom have been displaced in the past, too. For now, there is no resettlement plan.

| Updated: November 17th, 2020

Slum dwellers in Delhi's Lalbagh hope for a proper rehabilitation plan and relocation to a safe and government-approved place. Photo: Suchitra

In Mansarovar Park’s Lal Bagh slum cluster in Shahdara, Delhi, the anxiety is tangible. This slum, with a population of over 1,500, of which 700 are Dalit and 500 belong to a denotified tribe, an impending eviction looms over the residents after the Supreme Court of India’s directive on August 31, this year, to demolish 48,000 slums that lie along 140 kilometres of railway tracks in the city. This means the future of more than 250,000 people in the national capital is uncertain. Of these, at least 1,500 are from Lal Bagh, many of whom have witnessed similar eviction in the past.

According to the August 31 court order, “The encroachments which are there in the safety zones should be removed within a period of three months and no interference, political or otherwise, should be there and no Court shall grant any stay with respect to removal of the encroachments in the area in question.”

The deadline for eviction — November 30 – is nearing. For now there is some relief as, on September 14, a petition was filed by Congress leader Ajay Maken and several others asking for a rehabilitation plan before the eviction. In response, the Centre informed the bench that no demolition would take place until a final decision is taken in consultation with the Northern Railways, Delhi Government, Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board and the Urban Development Ministry. The apex court has granted a stay until a plan is submitted.

Most of these slum dwellers have witnessed similar eviction in the past. Photo: Suchitra

Last week, on November 10, the Home Secretariat and Railways called for a meeting to discuss the rehabilitation and resettlement plans for the slums when they were demolished, but there has been no update on that as of now. Neither has the Railways come up with anything. 

“Without the permission of the Railways, it is not possible for us to start any processes as the land belongs to them. But they have not responded to our requests sent to them for initiation of a plan,” Bipin Rai from the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) told Gaon Connection. This board, a body established under the Delhi Urban Settlement Improvement Board Act, 2015, functions under the Delhi Government and looks at civic amenities for slum clusters and resettlement policies and rehabilitation plans. 

“We have land and houses in Bhalswa in Northwest Delhi [25 kilometres from Lal Bagh], Dwarka in Southwest Delhi [36 kilometres away and Bawana in North Delhi [38 kilometres away], available for resettlement,” informed Rai.

“The government should not take any decision until they come up with a proper plan of rehabilitation. They need to properly survey and figure out how many people are going to be affected,” Dev Pal, a legal field researcher with the Housing and Land Rights Network told Gaon Connection

On August 31, this year, SC directed to demolish 48,000 slums that lie along 140 km of railway tracks in the city. Photo: Suchitra

But, as of now, there is no clarity on rehabilitation and resettlement of thousands of families that face the threat of eviction, and justifiably, these families are worried.

“Now, everything depends on the appeals made and we can only ask the government to allow us to continue staying here until proper rehabilitation is offered. Apart from waiting or dying in the process, what else can we do?” 65-year-old Bindu, a Dalit resident of Lal Bagh, told Gaon Connection. She has spent her entire life in slum clusters, first in Seelampur, and now in Lal Bagh, and sells fish bones to the slum dwellers, for a living. Her son left home many years back, she looks after her granddaughter. 

“No demolitions should be carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she pleaded.

“These authorities come and say jhuggi hatao, jhuggi hatao, (clear the slums) but where should we go? If they don’t give us any place to stay, how will we go?” Babli, an 11-year old school-going girl, demanded to know. 

Photo: Suchitra

Meagre lives

The SC order on August 31 was passed in a long pending case on waste management in the city. It was in response to a writ petition filed way back in 1985 by lawyer MC Mehta over air pollution in Delhi, to which, since then, other petitions were tagged on including waste management, pollution, and so on. For instance, it was claimed that waste was being dumped along the railway tracks, which was causing pollution, and for the safety and pollution control reasons, slums along the 140 km railway tracks in the city should be cleared. 

Ironically, the apex court’s order on pollution control and waste management is expected to evict slum dwellers, including children, majority of whom work as waste pickers. 

A Metro line passes over the Manasarovar slum, Lal Bagh, where more than 1,500 people live. Of these, 1,200 people either belong to the Dalit Kapadiya community or the Mahavant denotified nomadic tribe. The latter is originally from Uttar Pradesh, which once engaged in street performing arts, but now plays dhol at weddings, or works as waste pickers. The Dalit Kapadiya community takes old clothes from houses in exchange for utensils and sell these clothes on pavements. 

Sonia and her husband, both of whom are disabled, have seven children and live in Lal Bagh. They are all worried. Her husband begs, but hasn’t earned anything during the pandemic. “My young children engage in rag-picking, but with both of us being disabled, we have no hope. My children go to school nearby, and I constantly worry if they will also end up like me.”

Slum dwellers demand proper rehabilitation. Photo: Suchitra

Repeated eviction

This isn’t the first time the residents of Lal Bagh slum are being evicted and displaced. Most of these slum dwellers were earlier settled at a jhuggi cluster five or six km away at Seelampur, Delhi. They were evicted 15 years ago from there by government authorities without any rehabilitation or resettlement. On their own, they made their way to the Lal Bagh slum cluster that has been around for nearly 40 years. Some of the inhabitants have spent all their lives here. 

The Indian Railways on whose lands the slums have come up has tried to evict the inhabitants, once in 2013 in the bitter winters, and then again in 2017, but they were not successful. 

The slum dwellers are bitter about how promises were made by politicians just before elections and then broken with impunity. They are demanding proper rehabilitation. 

Education is the first big hit on the slum children. Photo: Suchitra

“The ‘Jahan Jhuggi Wahin Makan, (wherever there is a hut, there will be a home) campaign echoes in our ears now when we are on the brink of losing our jhuggis,” Ramu who is a resident of the Lal Bagh slum and is one of the displaced inhabitants from Seelampur, told Gaon Connection. “Our lives are uprooted again and again, first from Seelampur, now here — the education rights of our children is a joke … we are asked to move without being provided an alternative, what shall we do?” Ramu, who is also the pradhan of  the slum, despaired.

The inhabitants of Lal Bagh slum say that even if they are resettled, there is no guarantee that their problems will be solved. They are aware of shoddy resettlement of other slum dwellers in the past. 

For instance, Minatullah Aalam, a resident from a resettlement colony in Bawana, who was resettled there during the 2004 Yamuna Pushta demolition (when the Delhi High Court ordered clearance of slums along the Yamuna riverbed due to pollution), said education was the first big hit on the children. 

Even after being resettled in Bawana, most people endure lack of basic civic amenities in these localities. “The source of water, though ample in quantity so far, is low in quality, hard, salty and almost brackish,” said Aalam. “When we were resettled, a few were granted plots to build homes, but for the remainder of them, mainly from the Yamuna Pushta clusters, the relocation meant battling for water, electricity, roads, civic facilities, protection and a means of earning their livelihood,” he pointed out.

As of now, there is no clarity on rehabilitation and resettlement of thousands of families that face the threat of eviction. Photo: Suchitra

The challenge of rehabilitation

In response to the recent apex court order, after consulting with the impacted locals of some of the slums that are to be demolished, the Delhi Housing Rights Task Force, a coalition of housing rights experts working to protect and promote the human right to adequate housing, offered a detailed rehabilitation plan to the Railways, DUSIB and the Centre. 

The suggested plan for rehabilitation asks for a proper survey to assess demands and allot alternative housing to slum dwellers. What makes accommodation work is not only the quality of the housing unit or access to facilities such as water and sanitation; it is also its location, states the report, titled ‘Comprehensive plan for settlement on Railway land in Delhi,’ dated 5 October 2020. 

“According to the United Nations, proper housing is a human right and with ongoing demolitions in Delhi, they are violating those human rights,” said Pal of the Housing and Land Rights Network, which is also a part of this coalition that has prepared the rehabilitation plan.

“Resettlement is hardly affordable — it comes at a big personal and economical cost, and most people aren’t able to afford it,”  Raghuraj Singh, of Gram Rola Mazdoor Ekta Samiti, an organisation based in Wazirpur, working for protecting the rights of the informal labour force told Gaon Connection.

“Many people are missed out because of improper documentation, corruption and simply lack of money, and thus, surveys by a legitimate authority is of utmost importance,” he pointed out. 

The scenario will be no different if the resettlement or rehabilitation is done at a place far from where they have been living. “Accessing documents/changes in documents will be another issue, and again people will struggle to get their rightful access to PDS, pension or other welfare schemes,” said Bhawana Yadav, a social worker from Koshish by Tata Institute of Social Sciences, that works on the rights of denotified communities. It has worked with the Lal Bagh cluster for the last few years.

Chaudhary Ali Zia Kabir, who is working with Human Rights Law Network, has previously also filed petitions for the Lal Bagh community in 2017– feels this is a matter where legal precedence has not been applied properly. “In this case, the slum-dwellers were never allowed a chance to present their cases. Very basic legal maxims like audi alteram partem– no man shall be condemned unheard, are not being used by courts,” he said.

“The size of these forced evictions will be a blow to the city’s poor people and they will not be able to recover from it,” warned Yadav. “The eviction violates regional and global laws and resolutions to which India is tied, and betrays any pledge we make to each other,” she stated.

Despite repeated calls and emails by Gaon Connection, Northern Railways did not respond. 

Meanwhile, as the Supreme Court, the Centre, the Railways and the civic authorities decide on the fate of the slum dwellers, a proper rehabilitation plan and relocation to a safe and government-approved place is what the latter hope for, where they can exist in dignity, where their children can find schools, and where they do not have to live with the constant fear of being shunted out.