Log toot jaatein hai ek ghar banane mein
Tum taras nahin khaate bastiyaan jalaane mein…
(People get broke building a home,
You don’t feel anything while burning them)
Underneath the Ranchi overbridge that connects Doranda to the main city, near the railway tracks that carry the proverbial Lohardaga mail immortalised in Meghnath’s documentation, on a pavement, sleep two old women – Suchita Kachchap (70) and Jitni Lohra (67). Last year, until the bulldozer of the Railways razed their houses, opposite which they are currently staying in the open air, surviving the chilling cold wave, they had, what they call ‘our home’.
On December 28, when the Railways showed their might by bulldozing at least 40 houses, inhabited by almost 200 people, mostly Dalits and Adivasis, at Lohra Kocha, the mainstream media were conspicuously silent. The families who stayed there for more than 60 years were neither provided any rehabilitation nor any temporary resettlement. A few of them found rented accommodation in nearby areas or in relatives’ houses; the rest still stay there without any roof, with minimum resources, combating the unbearable cold.
Anjali Kumari, an 18-year-old domestic worker whose grandparents settled here several decades ago, tells Outlook, “Since the railway authorities bulldozed our houses, I had to look for accommodation safe enough for me and my sister. However, managing finances has become a difficult task now.” It is impossible for her to find a different accommodation in a distant place as her workplaces are located near the railway station.
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Recalling the days of the earliest settlements here, Khushboo Devi, mother of one, tells Outlook, “When our mothers and grandmothers moved here, this place was a jungle. There were snakes and bushes and scorpions.” Like most of the indigenous people, they also settled after clearing the bushy area and making it inhabitable. One of the residents, in his mid 40s, on condition of anonymity asks, “If the Railways had issues, why didn’t they resist the ‘encroachment’ earlier?”
Though, in the recent past, the people in this neighbourhood have received consecutive eviction notices, they remember several promises made to them by political leaders of all the parties, including the ruling Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Talking to Outlook, social activist, Siraj Dutta, representative of the Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha, a civil society group working hard to bring in the notice of political ranks and files, says, “One must ask leaders like JMM Rajya Sabha member, Mahua Maji, BJP leader, Sanjay Seth, and Hatia MLA from BJP, Navin Jaiswal, about their stances. They were the leaders who had publicly assured them that nothing would happen.”
In a video that was shared by the Mahasabha on their social media handles, one can see BJP leader Sanjay Seth flanked by other senior leaders of the JMM, BJP and Congress, promising the people that they would not be evicted from their houses.
However, Jaiswal has put the blame totally on the ruling JMM government. He tells Outlook, “The government should have first given them rehabilitation before the eviction drive. If you look at any part of the country, some arrangements are always made whenever there is eviction.”
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Referring to the SC verdict of January 5 where the top court stalled the eviction of 4000 mostly Muslim families in Haldwani, Uttarakhand, on ‘humanitarian grounds’, he continues, “What did the government do to settle people who have been staying here for generations? It is definitely railway land but the responsibility lies with the Jharkhand government. The Railways never directly takes any action as they contact the district administration following which they conduct the drive.”
Jaiswal also visited the place and met the evicted people. Referring to the meeting that the Mahasabha has been citing, he adds, “In that public meeting, several leaders were present, including me, Sanjay Vijaywargi and C.P Singh. JMM MP Mahua Maji and their party leader, Ajay Shahdeo, clearly said that they would arrange for some rehabilitation prior to the demolition.” However, the promises were forgotten and the Railways, with the help of the police, and district administration cleared the site.
Justifying the demolition with the nuances of legal procedure, Divisional Railway Manager (DRM), Ranchi Pradip Gupta, tells Outlook, “We have followed the proper procedures. They had been served notice several times. Around 6 years ago, one of them filed a case against the eviction notice. We fought the case and we didn’t demolish the houses until we received the court order.”
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“It was only in mid-December that the district court gave the verdict and that was sent to the DC for approval and the eviction drive was conducted,” adds Gupta. Interestingly, his very first statement was, “It is a regular procedure. Which eviction are you referring to? We clear our lands from the encroachers at least 3-4 times a month.”
However, Dutta, was of a different opinion. “There was a shopkeeper who filed the case in the court and the daily wage workers whose homes had been demolished were not part of it,” the social activist says. Transcending the boundaries of ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’, on humanitarian grounds, he continues, “We have two specific points. Firstly, why no rehabilitation has been given to them? Secondly, how could they do this with poor people in the chilling cold?”
Dutta’s humanitarian demands however were not paid any heed by the deputy commissioner of Ranchi. As the Mahasabha met the DC with the evicted people, he told them that the value of land is very high in Ranchi and thus it would not be possible to arrange any alternative land. The maximum the administration can do is to give them shelter in Rainbasera. “The DC who probably stays in a sprawling bungalow free of cost is saying that people (made homeless by the government) cannot be given homes as land cost is high in Ranchi. This is simply ridiculous,” adds the social activist. While the administration cites the legal complexities, ever since their homes were demolished, the inhabitants have been forced to defecate in the open and change their clothes risking privacy with makeshift curtains by the roadside. “We have lost everything. We took a shower after over a week at the bus stand’s public washroom and paid charges for it,” says Khushboo Devi, for whom the bare sky is her only roof. Their eviction also comes with the excess burden of paying high rents for accommodation. Anita Devi, who is a domestic worker and earns a meagre amount, says, “Our family monthly incomes are less than Rs. 10,000 and now we have to pay Rs 4,000-5,000 for a single room.”
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Notably, all of the evicted people have their voter, ration and Aadhaar cards registered with the addresses of their demolished houses. “All of them have their identity cards registered with these addresses. How is it then possible that they be called ‘encroachers’? The government shouldn’t have in the first place allowed them to get registered had it been the case,” says Dutta. As we were leaving, shivering in the biting cold, even after wearing layers of clothing to cover our upper caste, middle class bodies, we saw 70-year-old Suchita wearing a thin saree trying to bend her body to the maximum extent to avoid the cold. When we asked why she wasn’t wearing a sweater, we got a bite of reality. “I washed it today and it has not dried yet,” said Suchita.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Under The Bare Sky")