On the evening of June 15, 2023, we, activists of the All-India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), arrived at the Priyanka Gandhi Camp in Vasant Vihar to stand with the residents whose homes were set to be demolished the following morning.
On May 19, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) had sent a notice to this colony of about 100 houses, asking the residents to vacate the space by June 2.
The residents —mostly construction and domestic workers— approached the High Court for a stay, but the court merely postponed the deadline from June 2 to June 15 and refused to ensure rehabilitation. The residents were given the option of shifting to the temporary night shelters ran by the Delhi Urban Slum Improvement Board (DUSIB), which are widely known to be unhygienic and unsafe.
The High Court order acknowledged that the camp was part of an additional list of 82 jhuggis/jhopdis (slums) maintained by DUSIB, which is controlled by the Government of the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi. In recent months, DUSIB has unilaterally refused to recognise the list and thereby has denied hundreds of displaced residents fair rehabilitation. The courts have refused to press DUSIB to amend its stance.
On the evening of 15 June, the Delhi Police personnel who had arrived to facilitate the demolition asked us why we were present there. The demolition was going to be carried out as per court orders and the time to argue was long over, they claimed. So why were we there? We clarified that after exploring all legal means to stop the demolition till the residents were rehabilitated, we had arrived to provide immediate relief and to aid them in their search for new homes. Some residents were members of our union and they had approached us for help in organising themselves to demand rehabilitation. The NDRF and the police officials were visibly irked and asked us to leave.
I arrived at 5:30 am on June 16 and within half an hour my phone was snatched, and I was detained. Offended at my empathetic stance towards the residents, the two policemen who had been put ‘in-charge’ of me asked me to help load the police gears on to a police van. I flatly refused. They became aggressive and asked me, “How dare you help the residents but not the police?” They abused me and took me to the Vasant Vihar Police Station. There again I encountered tremendous verbal aggression, abuse, and veiled threats of physical aggression. Another activist and a resident were detained later in the day. We were released long after the demolition was complete, and only after lawyers, students, and activists arrived and pressurised the police.
Patterns of violence
Besides immediate help and organisational solidarity, there was an additional reason for our presence that morning. We feared that the residents might be subjected to police brutality, and we were proved right. The fears were based on the recent experiences of demolitions in different parts of Delhi which have been accompanied by severe violence. In Kharak Satbari, Chhattarpur, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) officials had arrived on October 21, 2022 with a full police battalion without any prior notice and without even carrying an official demolition order. In their hurry to demolish the homes, they even refused to let a mother take her child’s medicines out of the house with her. The child subsequently died. Many men and women were injured as the police beat the residents to submission.
In Mehrauli, the DDA officials did not allow even the most impoverished jhuggi dwellers to remain at the demolition site till they found an alternative residence. Designated officials threatened the jhuggi dwellers day and night following the demolitions in February and repeatedly snatched the tarpaulin sheets which sustained the most meagre and obscure jhuggis situated deep inside Mehrauli.
On May 1, 2023, bulldozers arrived in Tughlakabad. Over the next three days, over 2000 homes were demolished. Most of the people were not given any time on the morning of the demolitions to take out the necessary household equipment such as daily use utensils, home furniture, and children’s schoolbooks. Much of their household materials got buried in the debris. On May 8, the bulldozers arrived again to clear the area of these debris.
The women protested this fresh act of aggression. In response, the police arrested around 20-25 women, thrust them into a police bus, and took them to the police station. As per eyewitness accounts, male policemen used their sticks to push women into the bus. Many women were beaten in the bus and at the police station before they were released in the afternoon. Subsequently, the women started a hunger strike at the demolition site, which later had to be discontinued as they had to go looking for new homes.
Right to the city
The incidents at Vasant Vihar followed a similar pattern. Journalists, activists, and residents were beaten and detained during the course of the demolition. We were horrified to hear the internal conversations among the policemen about the demolition at the police station. The police officials shared their sheer joy of removing the ‘encroachers’ in the foulest language. If such are the social attitudes towards the poor and the working classes—the people whose labour builds and sustains cities and who almost invariably belong to Dalit Bahujan and Muslim communities— can we expect the people in the government and the Judiciary to do much better?
There are many reasons behind the recent escalation of demolitions in Delhi. The beautification drives due to the upcoming G-20 Summit, the inadequacies of the Delhi Master Plan 2041, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) vendetta politics, and the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) convenient silences have all come together to displace large numbers of people without even the promise of rehabilitation. This is a clear deprivation of their right to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution.
Each colony that has received notices or faced demolitions may have certain specific relationship to the state, but the acute lack of workers’ social and political rights to the cities is clearly emerging as a common theme. In the midst of the government- and Judiciary-enabled ‘encroacher’ discourse, some crucial questions are falling through the cracks. Why do workers live in ‘unauthorised’ colonies? If the state does not provide housing facilities to workers arriving in towns and cities in search of work, what options other than these colonies do they have?
The purported illegalities need to be contextualised. ‘Illegal’ colonies are seldom settled without the cooperation of political parties, local landholders, the administration, and the police. Subsequently, electricity connections are provided, and government identity cards issued at these addresses. These addresses form the basis of voter lists and are deemed legitimate for election purposes.
Yet when the state and its agencies wish to take possession of land, they dispossess citizens at will, while courts remain mere spectators if not eager facilitators of such dispossession. The documents which fetch votes to parties are deemed inadequate to ensure adequate and dignified rehabilitation. Isn’t it a form of violent disenfranchisement of India’s precarious and exploited working classes?
(Akash Bhattacharya is a political activist at All-India Central Council of Trade Unions. Opinions expressed are personal.)