It was Ghodeshahwali mohalla of Sendhwa in Madhya Pradesh. Shahista was in tears, sitting on the street in front of a huge heap of rubble. She broke down while referring to her bulldozed home just as her life’s dream was, too. It was Ramzan, a month of piety and prayers. For many, Ram is a symbol of Ram Rajya, of good governance. Along with her husband Babar Khan, who is over 60 years old, Shahista was pulled out of her home as they were frying samosas for iftaar. Babar was also thrashed. As the floors of her home came crashing down, so did her hopes of living out her old age in peace. In the haze of memory, she didn’t recall that it was the police who pulled her out and beat her husband. All she remembered were the JCBs (excavator) and bulldozers. She kept repeating these, as if they were the culprits. Where did the attackers come from? Who drove these weapons? Who were the directors and witnesses of the action, when Shahista’s house—built with assistance of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana—the Centre’s scheme bearing the PM’s name, crushed her right to a shelter?
Everyone who had gathered there knew the answers to these questions, but were hesitant to name the guilty—netas and babus. I am reminded of the 90s slogan: ‘Bolo, kaun hai atikramandar? Sarkar! Sarkar! Sarkar!’ Today, these infringements are proudly referred to as punishment. No doubt, at some places in UP and MP, some properties of mafia dons were also demolished, even as a chief minister became popular as Bulldozer Baba. But were all the demolitions carried out legal assaults on illegal assets? Did the warriors who drove these machine-weapons carry out their orders with impartiality, without any heed to class, caste and religion? The answer is no.
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The act of bulldozing slums, especially ones where construction workers live while toiling to build the beautiful cities and the grand castles within, has also become a way for the powerful to settle scores with the powerless. They are rendered homeless the moment documents are made the sole basis for recognising their right to ownership of spaces for survival, not their contribution to the economy’s production, distribution and services.
What is common to both situations? It is not just the weapons used, but the war being fought to level the land to settle differences. Whether it is class, caste or community (religious minorities, Dalits and Adivasis), the discrimination gets reflected in actions that are, more often than not, violent. After all, what is encroachment? Whose actions are deemed as such? When it should be the responsibility of any city administration to ensure spaces for its denizens to live and interact, on what grounds can the rulers send bulldozers to the dwellings of one set of people? Can communal attitudes of one community against another be used as an excuse? These are questions that need serious answers.
Whenever the urban poor have faced such depredations, we have seen that they are denied constitutional rights, while their human rights are impinged upon. Those who give their sweat and blood to work in the factories and on the streets, can’t afford a house or a plot to build a hut. They are the toiling majority, working mostly for an elite minority without any social security or guarantee of protected livelihood. In Mumbai, where almost 60 per cent of the urban poor live in slums, deprived of commensurate value for their labour amid housing that is unaffordable to most, it is they that repeatedly faced the heartbreak of demolitions—more than 75,000 homes in 2004-2005 alone. Every single research paper and report on expanding cities reveals that it leads to shrinking space for the “dispensable” labour force. The inputs of the skilled and unskilled workers are the real capital on which these megacities stand, yet these are never valued. There was always a need for sites and services reserved for these exploited contributors. Once, they could assert this as a right. Today, though, they are ruthlessly exploited and given no relief by law, even to build temporary shelters for themselves. An iron hand delivers them judgment that rarely comes via the judicial process, and yet is treated as inevitable governance. Rulers consider snatching the land from under their feet—to build jogging tracks, farmhouses or lavish malls—as their right. Power-mongers, who are considered managers of the land, water, forest or minerals, charge a price to change land-use in favour of the rich, insulting the toilers who are the real investors in every process we call progress. No doubt a handful of mercenaries can be found in every slum, who act as intermediaries, but they only serve to hide the real movers behind iron curtains of money and market, while tarnishing the image of entire slum communities. Meanwhile, the children, women, aged and infirm are left without even basic services of water and electricity, till the time they are made to face the bulldozers.
Backed by the voices of thousands, a people’s movement raised the slogan of ‘Ghar bachao, ghar banao’, as we approached the authorities, followed legal processes and even appealed to the conscience of the judiciary. And continue to do so. When one morning, Sonia Gandhi agreed to listen to our gathering of 100-odd women in front of her house, who referred to the Congress’s own election manifesto and cut-off date, we were assured of support for asserting our right. Knowing that demolishing houses built before any cut-off date without providing an alternative would be an interim solution, we questioned why such dates were not applicable to the rich, who already own tens of houses across the country. We also asked how they not only continue to receive certifications for these houses, but also essential services at those addresses.
Neither is the rich ever questioned on their greed, nor does our tax system recover even two per cent of valuation of their wealth, which could then be utilised for fulfilling the education, health and housing needs of the poor. This is another kind of bulldozing over values of equity and justice, and it invariably hits the communities that are already socially disadvantaged and discriminated against. For example, across various social divisions, women face cumulative inequity. Atrocities emerge as inevitable repercussions. Who is held responsible for this? Without equitable and just planning, and democratised spaces, how can the exploited and oppressed expose the rulers’ bulldozers?
The class divide gets aggravated when casteist and religious fundamentalists get armed with the same weapon—the bulldozer. When a politician is feted for using these machines of destruction against some mafiosi, and wins the mandate of the largest state, Uttar Pradesh, does the society realise the danger of the model, or that the mechanism is likely to be applied elsewhere? When the Constitution and every law in it insists on due process, even for a murderer, can bulldozers and excavators be used to teach a lesson to someone the ruler deems an offender? The judiciary cannot be bypassed or replaced by bulldozers or JCBs. Democracy can’t survive without impartial investigation, whether to protect fundamental rights, or to identify the instigators, conspirators or attackers among citizens. Let us also not approve any violent or unjust means of achieving justice as well. Just as eviction of the urban poor wreaks injustice against the labouring classes, so too are demolitions of houses as penalty for alleged mob actions a reflection of the communal mindset, and is an assault on humanity.
Today, when the country is facing attacks on freedom of expression, of practicing religion, and even agitating against injustice—bulldozers and JCBs are taking a toll on legal and human rights. Any post-facto adjudication or deterrent action against terrorism that is politically motivated or profit-oriented, can’t serve the greater good. We have witnessed in the Narmada valley how destructive eviction and displacement can be, and how irreversible the damage is. Adivasis are compelled to oppose new rounds of displacement, knowing that their already affected brethren are yet to be rehabilitated. Dalits and minorities—oppressed through intimidation and genocidal threats—can’t easily take up the challenge against this loot, violence and discrimination, unless there is a social movement like the recent one by farmers.
Women in Shaheen Bagh gave us a glimpse of the power of the falcon that can save their sky. Movements by Dalit youths and students in the aftermath of the suicide of Rohith Vemula gave us hope that the vulgarity of communal politics can be challenged.
I am reminded of our cadres, who, years ago, lay down before bulldozers to save the dwellings of 40 lakh settlers from the attack of land mafias blessed by politicians, and of Mumbai slum dwellers who occupied lands to build houses. Whether in Jahangirpuri or Sendhwa, the challenge is to stop criminalisation, communalisation and corruption, all symbolised by the bulldozer. We appeal to the hearts and minds of the humane citizenry—you may not be able to stop the inhuman war in Ukraine, but you can certainly stop those who are bulldozing our Constitution.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Riding Roughshod")
(Views expressed are personal)
Medha Patkar is India’s foremost social activist