Scenes of bulldozers charging down the roads, tearing down buildings and belongings while the scared and helpless residents beg for mercy have become common in India in the last year. The use of bulldozers to raze ‘slums’ is nothing new, but the rise in the use of these machines as an extrajudicial weapon by State officials is disturbing. How do we make sense of this grotesque behaviour? Khori Gaon’s ruthless forced eviction showed us a glimpse of bulldozer politics. It legitimised treating the urban poor and minorities inhumanely.
Khori Gaon’s demolition
Between July and August 2021, Khori Gaon, a 50-year-old settlement with a population of close to one lakh residents, was demolished in an extremely violent manner in the middle of a pandemic and monsoon. When the lack of due process, no temporary accommodation, no survey and the pandemic were highlighted to the court, alarmingly, the judges declared, “This forest land has to be cleared. We don’t want these Covid excuses. We cannot give any concession for forest land. We want a compliance report to be filed in 4 weeks …As far as forests are concerned, there can be no question of compromise. This is irrespective of policy and as to whether the State wants to accommodate the residents or not is up to them.”
Even prior to the demolition, the resident’s access to water and electricity was obstructed by the state. There was a heavy police presence who regularly threatened the community and patrolled the area. One resident observed, “They were torturing us, and their methods became even more inhumane when we did not leave. While men and young boys had it the worst, they misbehaved with ladies and children and did not leave the elderly too … they even leched at breastfeeding mothers ”.
Chilling videos of police brutality, news of incarceration of community leaders and activists, the humiliation of women and children, and obstruction of media coverage should have been enough to stop the demolition and hold the State accountable for human rights violations, but that was not the case. Instead, the courts continued to treat the community with contempt. Even after the hardships faced by the residents after the forced eviction and the health risks to the community were pointed out, the judiciary’s response has been anti-poor and showed a complete disregard for human rights.
Throughout the legal process, the courts have refused to hear the grievances of the vulnerable population; instead, they have continued calling the residents ‘forest encroachers’ while the law used for bulldozing the settlement is currently being debated in the apex court. The question of whether the land on which Khori Gaon and its high-end neighbours stand is a forest or not has started after the latter received eviction notices. No one bothered to check the status of the land when the urban poor settlement was bulldozed.
More than anti-poor ideology
Large sections of the State, the judiciary, the media and civil society share an anti-poor ideology. Informal settlement’s residents account for a considerable proportion of the population as well as its workforce in most Indian cities. Despite the middle-class and the elite’s dependence on them, they are perceived as failed parts of the city. The prejudice against informal settlement-dwellers was evident in the dominant approach to eradicating or relocating them during the post-war period. This ethos continues to be reflected in the current ‘slum-free-cities’ agendas.
There is a return to the modernist approach to planning that was dominant in the 1950s-60s. This ideology had presumed eliminating or pushing informal settlements to the peripheries could wipe out poverty. However, worldwide it was seen that informal settlements continued to grow, and they got even more crowded. Displacements exacerbated the issues that the communities solved by living in these settlements.
Forced evictions lead to generational poverty, increase school dropouts among children, and introduce barriers to healthcare and job opportunities. Social networks built over the years are disrupted, and women pay the highest price for this. While the State’s response to erase ‘slums’ remained unshakeable, in the last few decades, the violence of demolitions had slowed due to various court orders and resettlement policies. The above insights led to policy changes. There has been a recognition that informal settlements emerge due to systemic failures, and they need to be empowered to upgrade their living conditions. Odisha’s adoption of a pro-poor stance and push for land titling is one of the success stories in this regard. However, there is a resurgence of violent forced evictions in the rest of the country.
Usha Ramanathan points out that since informal settlements are never part of the urban planning visions, their clearance gets legitimised through the enforcement of legality. With the judiciary now leading slum clearance, the authority to demolish and the responsibility to rehabilitate have been separated. We witnessed this in the case of Khori Gaon. As a result, the alacrity shown in flattening the homes of the poor has not been extended to the rehabilitation process, which is in limbo even though nine months have passed after the demolition and no temporary shelter was provided. The flats presented as the alternative are uninhabitable, and the restrictive policy ensures most residents won’t be eligible.
Many writers have highlighted that the language used in courts impacts the way the poor are seen and treated. By showing that they are not ‘proper citizens’, they are considered undeserving of constitutional rights. In Khori Gaon’s case, by arguing that only ‘eligible’ residents will be rehabilitated, the court and the state have created another way to criminalise the urban poor.
Criminalisation and Dehumanisation
A similar pattern can be seen in Khori Gaon, Khargone and Jahangirpuri. After the outcry over the bulldozing post-Ram Navami, the police argued that only the homes of encroachers were demolished. In contrast, politicians have maintained that it was an act of punishing the rioters. However, there is no legal basis for this form of punishment. They have dehumanised the residents by twisting the narrative, criminalising the community, and arguing for their harsh punishment.
Dehumanisation is a process through which groups are rendered lesser than humans that their lives do not count. India has historically dehumanised groups on the basis of caste, religion and economic or social status. The mechanisms of dehumanisation propaganda are furthered by the media, the judiciary, the police and civil society. Often it amplifies existing prejudices in the minds of the listeners. By associating the ‘other’ as animals or objects, the majoritarian group finds it acceptable to deprive them of humane treatment, liveable conditions and legal justice.
Criminalisation and dehumanisation lead to the degradation of human rights. Home demolitions as a form of collective punishment is a pattern that was also observed in West Bank, Palestine. Even there, the demolition drives were often followed by violence and humiliation of the ‘othered’ group. They were denied human dignity. Additionally, Israel’s High Court of Justice accepted the state’s version and concluded that this form of punishment was necessary as a deterrence. They also concluded that domestic laws take precedence over international laws.
A similar pattern was noticed in Khori Gaon. A strong message from UN experts about the undermining of international human rights was met with a condescending response that the UN Special Rapporteur should stay away from making judgements about internal matters.
While the justifications given for the demolitions in the past year have ranged from forest conservation to ‘slum’ cleansing to collective punishment, there is a common thread across all—bulldozers have become weapons of urban cleansing. And the patterns of criminalisation, dehumanisation and degradation of human rights that followed during the Khori Gaon’s demolition are repeating.
At this juncture, we have surpassed the mild forms of dehumanisation characterised by socio-political and economic marginalisation in India. Irreparable harm has been done connected to the housing rights of informal settlement-dwellers and the rights of the ethnic minorities. Violence, lack of due process and bigotry have become normalised. It is not surprising that the state tried to change the law it used to demolish Khori Gaon once the high-end developments were under the threat of eviction from the Supreme Court’s order. Similarly, it is not surprising that the pattern seen in Khargone and Jahangirpuri is repeating in Shaheen Bagh, New Friends Colony and Mangolpuri.
(Ishita Chatterjee is a practitioner and academic in the field of urban studies whose work focuses on informal urbanism, socio-spatial justice, housing rights and cartography. She has been an active participant in social movements on housing rights in India)