Amidst the relentlessness of the Covid-19 pandemic, a call shattered the tranquillity of my power nap. An unfamiliar voice, weighed down by sorrow, whispered, “Brother, our home is demolished.” Before I could utter a word, the line abruptly went dead. It was him — I knew exactly where I needed to be. Without a moment's hesitation, I embarked on a journey, taking the metro and an auto, determined to reach the village of Khori — a place nestled on the border of Haryana and Delhi.
As I ventured forward, I was greeted with a shattering scene. Piles upon piles of debris and rubble lay under the scorching Delhi sun, before me — once standing tall and proud, these remnants of homes were now reduced to a haunting landscape. Furniture, televisions, beds — every essential possession lay scattered, forsaken. The air was thick with anguished cries and desperate screams. The government, in the midst of a raging pandemic, had razed thousands of houses, justifying its actions by claiming the land belonged to the forest department. However, what it failed to do was provide the displaced residents with proper rehabilitation, leaving them shattered and homeless.
A few weeks earlier, I had met Tara Devi, a house helper struggling to make ends meet in Delhi’s affluent neighbourhoods. Clad in masks and armed with sanitisers, she took on odd jobs to survive during those challenging times. Tara had arrived in Delhi 30 years ago, full of dreams and aspirations, with her husband. Tara’s husband succumbed to alcoholism while she found herself shouldering the burden of their livelihood. Working as a house helper became her lifeline. Over the span of 25 years, she diligently saved every penny, her sole focus on building a home for herself. Brick by brick, wall by wall, she painstakingly turned her dream into reality. However, just two months after she finished the whole construction work of her house, the government heartlessly shattered her hopes, serving her a notice claiming her home fell within the jurisdiction of the forest department and would be demolished.
Raja Babu, Tara Devi's son, clutched his Aadhar Card, an official government document that bore the address of their beloved Khori village. With a mix of anger and pain in his voice, he questioned the system’s hypocrisy. How could the government issue an identity card to a place they considered ‘illegal’? How could the politicians, who eagerly sought their votes, be oblivious to their existence?
As I delved into documenting the hardships, I was shocked that none of the media channels covered the widespread demolishment. The journalists in their comfortable studios were preoccupied with measuring the chest size of a supremo while just a few kilometres away, unplanned resettlement was unfolding. The village had three entrances, all guarded by the police, and the site of demolition was heavily policed. Cameras were not allowed, but in a democratic country, when the administration prevents media coverage, the media should not remain silent. They should make more noise and bring attention to these events.
Year after year, political parties promise the poor that they will provide them with houses during elections. The government also introduced the Jahan Jhuggi Wahan Makaan scheme, but when it comes to reality, these are empty promises. The forced demolition of homes without proper support is not only a violation of human rights but also perpetuates inequality and suffering. The resettlement houses, like the ones in Dabua Colony, are in terrible conditions, overrun by illicit activities.
Tara refuses to go to Dabua Colony, even if the government breaks her home into tiny pieces. She won’t risk her family’s safety and prefers to stay amidst the debris of her house, erecting a tent for shelter. Her neighbours question why no one is there to support them when the government promised and sought their votes. The government’s approach lacks empathy and ignores the fact that a home represents more than just a physical structure. It symbolises stability, security, and the basic right to have a place to live.
The connection between forest conservation and human rights is a delicate balance that requires careful consideration. Preserving and protecting our forests is vital for the health of our planet, biodiversity, and fighting climate change. However, it is equally important to respect the rights of fellow humans, especially those with limited economic means.
In Khori, a village that has been home to many daily wage workers for decades, they were suddenly uprooted in the name of reclaiming forest land and providing fresh air to the city. One wonders if the government will truly be able to turn this land into a thriving forest. It is something that we all need to think about.
I would like to conclude this column with a powerful statement from Mr Colin, the defence lawyer for the Khori villagers. He points out that while grand ashrams, luxurious hotels, and lavish societies remain untouched, the administration only focuses on demolishing the homes of daily wage workers. He doubts whether the government would dare to demolish these extravagant structures. Let these words resonate within us and inspire us to question and challenge the injustices faced by the marginalised and voiceless. Together, we can strive for a more equitable and compassionate society.
(Views expressed are personal.)