Shankuntala and Mangal have been living on the outskirts of a newly constructed “park” by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in place of their home. Nearly 300 homes in the nearby Gyaspur basti were demolished by the DDA as part of reclaiming Yamuna floodplains land for ecological purposes. And yet, Shakuntala, 54, states that no survey of the land was done to ascertain how many homes would be demolished. She and her husband who a decade ago used to farm the land in the area and live off of the produce now survive on daily wages, state supplied rations, and whatever daily wage work the sexagenarian Mangal can manage.
The demolition took place in three phases in 2022. The first phase happened in June 2022, the second in July and the final lot of homes were demolished in August 2022. Ajab Singh lost his home on the day after Rakhsa Bandhan. He along with his family of seven now lives under a propped-up tent on the park, which is joined by a kachcha road to the Sarai Kale Khan main road. The family includes three young children and an elderly mother.
“I have land records of this place, and electricity bills. I even have my mother’s voter card made on this address,” says Singh.
Singh states that the demolition was completely illegal. “No survey of the land was performed by the DDA. We had filed a case for stay since many have been living here since early 90s. They just put up a notice in August and within two days, we were evicted,” he tells Outlook.
Last year, several news media outlets had reported on the gradual demolition of the Gyaspur basti, which the DDA claims falls under the Yamuna floodplains which it wants to preserve through an eco-restoration plantation drive to rejuvenate the floodplains. Soon after the demolition, the DDA planted several saplings and trees for the park’s beautification and to establish it as an encroachment-free eco zone. Singh, who once had farms in the fields, scoffs as he points out the desiccated twigs that remain in place of the saplings today.
“It was all an eyewash. They probably just want to sell the land to a private company and environmentalism is their new cover for exploiting the poor,” he states.
Residents of the area that has been dubbed as the Yamuna floodplains have repeatedly been subjected to forced evictions. Anita currently lives under a dirt hill in the park that repeated demolitions has created while Satyavati props a polythene tent at night on two poles and wraps her children in blankets at night, praying to the all the gods against snake bites before she sleeps. All of them paint pictures of the “pucca” homes they once had. They keep their papers safely inside packets but there is no safe spot to store the packets.
“We are not against development. But what about us? There is no plan for housing after the evictions, there are no jobs,” Anita’s husband Raju, a vegetable vendor, tells Outlook. “We cannot afford lawyers’ fee or rent. All we have is daily produce that we sell and eat.”
Earlier, farmers like Mangal and Raju could grow their own vegetables. But a National Green Tribunal (NGT) order on poisonous ground water led to a prohibition on edible farming in the area. Local farmer and owner of a former gaushala which was demolished along with the homes in Gyaspur states that the move was part of the conspiracy to take the land away from the poor and the legal owners by first declaring it poisonous and then planting trees on it. His family had previously owned much of the land the farmers were cultivating before the NGT ban.
These farmers also have documents to prove their residence in the area. But many remain unaware of the legal processes required to get a stay on the evictions or get rehabilitation or compensation from the government or landowning agencies.
There is also local discontent against the political parties for using the plight of homeless victims as bait for electoral gains. Local activist and nearby Bahlolpur Basti resident S Ali who owns a garbage collection business and provides employment to scores of local households through the work states that ahead of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi polls (MCD elections), BJP workers came to the area and collected several people living in the makeshift tenements of Gyaspur in trucks and took them to Govindpuri.
“They showed them flats in Govindpuri and promised that the evicted would get flats there,” Ali alleges. Convinced by the promises, many living in informal settlements in the area voted for the BJP. But once the elections were over, nothing happened. Ali, 59, who has himself worked with the BJP, now feels disillusioned with the party. “It’s not right to play with the emotions of the disenfranchised like this,” he states.
Ali, who works at a local level for the welfare of informal settlers and jhuggi dwellers, also lives on the land that the DDA has claimed. He along with some other residents of Bahlolpur Basti managed o get a stay on the demolition in the area in 2017. However, the future remains uncertain. “Fighting a legal case with DDA or other land owning authorities requires money and patience. Many people don’t have the resources to fight a long case,” he tells Outlook.
Following the inauguration of the park in Gyaspur, locals allege that local BJP MP Gautam Gambhir and several other BJP leaders had held a party to celebrate the new development.
“It’s like politicians are celebrating on the ruins of the homes of the poor,” Ali states. While the DDA is under the central government, locals allege that the Aam Aadmi Party has also failed to defend the rights of the citizens.
As per the 2015 Delhi High Court judgement in the Ajay Maken case, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) under the Delhi government is the nodal body for all evictions and rehabilitations. The court in 2010 in response the Sudama Singh vs GoI and Anr case had also stated that the government needs to do a survey of areas that had informal settlements before acquiring such lands for development or other purposes. Activists and locals allege that such norms are not being followed.