“How will I sleep?” That was the first thought that raced through 56-year-old Fatimabi’s mind on December 20 last year when she heard about the high court’s (HC) eviction order. Having lived most of her life in shanties and tenements propped by the side of the railway line in Haldwani, Uttarakhand, she has developed the peculiar habit of falling asleep to the rhythmic sound of trains rattling on the rails. She came to the city in the 80s after her marriage to a local who passed away many years ago. She and her children remained with the family and continued to call the neighbourhood home. “I’ve lived in Indiranagar for about twenty years and for ten years in Ghafoor basti. My children were born here and have married here,” Fatima states. “Now they want us to just up and leave,” she observes.
In the transit town of Haldwani, about 50,000 people are currently embroiled in a legal tussle with the North Eastern Railways (NER) and the state government for their right to reside on what they call their ancestral land. The predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Banbhoolpura, sprawled around the railway lines that connect Kathgodam to Bareilly, has been on edge ever since the new year, which ‘welcomed’ it with an ultimatum disguised as an eviction notice in the morning papers. Issued by NER’s Izzatnagar division, the sternly worded notice asked ‘illegal encroachers’ to move out within a week or face the wrath of bulldozers. It also said that all costs for damages would be recovered from the encroachers. This meant that those left homeless by the demolition were also liable to be fined for it.
“God only knows what would have happened that day had the Supreme Court (SC) not intervened,” Fatimabi states. Her house falls within the 78 acres of land that the NER has claimed. But it’s not just temporary shanties and makeshift homes that the Railways intend to demolish. The area contains at least four government schools, three temples, one government hospital, a municipal office and several mosques, along with hundreds of pucca houses, arterial streets and colonies that have developed over the decades. Locals point out that several structures in the area, including one of the schools in Azad Nagar and a mazaar (grave) are a hundred years old, predating independent India.
“The government today is calling us illegal encroachers on railway property. But our ancestors have been living here for nearly a century. We have land records to prove our ownership. The Railways, on the other hand, has shown us no proof or gazette that establishes their ownership of the 78 acres they are claiming,” says fruit merchant and Banbhoolpura resident Sarfaraz Ali, whose upscale, three-storey house towers over the market in Azad Nagar in the disputed territory.
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On December 20, the Uttarakhand HC ordered the eviction of 4,500 houses in Banbhoolpura based on a 2013 PIL filed by a local activist Ravi Shankar Joshi. Following protests and widespread criticism of the HC order, the SC on January 7 ordered a stay on the eviction.
The eviction order comes in the wake of a land dispute that dates back decades.
The issue was first raised in 2007 when NER stated that 28 acres of the land surrounding the Haldwani railway station belonged to the railways. It further filed an affidavit in the matter and claimed that it had cleared 10 percent of the encroached area. Soon after, the bridge on the river Gaula broke due to excessive flooding.
Following the 2013 PIL over the collapse of the bridge, a 2015 report found that some residents of the ‘encroached’ area were involved in illegal mining in the river Gaula. Based on this finding, the HC in 2016 ordered the eviction of 28 acres of ‘encroached’ land.
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At the time in 2016, the state government had supported the affected people and filed a review petition against the HC order. It also said that there was no demarcation of railway property and filed a counter-affidavit in which it claimed that the land was indeed the property of the revenue department.
In 2017, the HC once again ordered the eviction of the people of the area. This time, the residents approached the SC, contesting the NER’s claims.
But in 2021, the bridge on the river Gaula broke once again and Ravi Shankar Joshi once again moved the court. In December 2022, the HC has ordered the latest eviction. Now, the area being sought by the railways has increased to 78 acres.
The case is set to be heard by the SC again in February. Until then, the lives of about 50,000 residents hang in the balance. “These people are squatters. They set up temporary tenements in the area and get support from local political leaders to help get water and electric lines. But they have no real documents to prove anything. They are given eviction notices and yet they don’t move on their own. Everywhere, the railways faces the same problem,” Haldwani resident, D.K. Saxena, who claims to be a former railways employee, tells Outlook.
Ali and many others in the eviction zone, however, do have proof of ownership. Ali himself claims his forefathers arrived in Haldwani during British rule and were given pattas (95- year-old land leases) which they have either converted to freehold licences or are in the process of doing so.
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Omar Imran, another Azad Nagar resident who has a freehold licence for the property on which his two-storey house is built, states that there is a deliberate attempt to only portray the rescinders as ‘squatters’ or worse, ‘Bangladeshis’ and ‘Rohingyas’. Imran, who got his freehold documents made in 2015 based on land records his family had maintained from the pre-Independence era, feels that the media is only showing the slums bordering the railway line to misdirect viewers. “Some of which might actually be illegal encroachment. But to claim that 78 acres of a city that has existed from decades is illegal is absurd,” he states.
Haldwani locals claim that the issue was never about encroachment but environmental exploitation and corruption in which the people are being made scapegoats.
“It all goes back to 2008 when the bridge that was built on the nearby river Gaula collapsed and locals living in Banbhoolpura were accused of illegal mining in the riverbed which allegedly led to the collapse of the bridge,” city-based advocate Vijay Kumar Pandey, providing legal counsel to the residents of Banbhoolpura as well as the Nivaran Jan Kalyan Society since 2017, tells Outlook.
To understand the link between the mining and the encroachment case, one must first look at the history of industrialisation and environmental exploitation that began in the area over 200 years ago when the British first arrived in the Kumaon region in 1816 and chanced upon the riverside town of ‘Halduvani’ (Haldu forest), which they renamed Haldwani.
Every year, the rains bring the ephemeral Gaula River, one of the multiple veins that feed the mighty RamGanga, to life with gushing torrents of water. Emanating from the hills around Nainital, the river, which lies dormant through most of the year, swells to an enormous squall and breaks off bits of the mountain which it deposits in the lower reaches of the Kumaon region before joining the Ramganga river. Once the route through which the locally mythical, renowned merchant Dhan Singh had carried timber to the nearby suburb of Kathgodam, the river made the region an important industrial hub, propelled by the British administration’s push toward extending their railway network. The rocks (rodhi), boulders and silt-rich sand that the river Gaula left in its effervescent wake were perfect for industrial use, including laying railway tracks. The river itself was used to ferry timber (possibly from Haldu forests) to Kathgodam until the British brought the railways to the city in the mid-19th century.
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“All this probably made Haldwani a very exciting location for the burgeoning mercantile class at the time, who rushed here and brought with them a flurry of cheap labour,” says activist Uzair Ahmed, a Haldwani resident and brother of a former city councillor.
Ahmed, born and brought up in Kidwai Nagar of Haldwani and actively involved in the Basti Bachao Andolan, feels that the whole issue is a cover-up. What started initially as an investigation against corruption, the use of substandard construction material and waste of public money was turned into a case of anti-encroachment after some reports blamed illegal sand mining in the riverbed for the collapse of the bridge, instead of investigating those in charge of construction. “The 2011 Kumaon Commission report as well as other investigations by experts showed that mining was not the cause for the collapse. And yet we were targeted,” Ahmed states.
He also clarifies that Banbhoolpura residents were never party to the case. “We were being represented by the government. But at the time, it failed to properly represent us in courts and made us look like illegal encroachers involved in mining, even though most of the mining in Gaula is done by the government through private contractors,” Ahmed says. Nevertheless, in 2016, the Uttarakhand HC hearing Joshi’s PIL found residents Banbhoolpura guilty of illegal mining. They were dubbed encroachers and the court ordered their eviction.
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“That’s how a corruption case became a matter of encroachment,” Ahmed and Pandey state.
The Congress has since tried to repair the damage and retain the Banbhoolpura vote bank by filing for a review of the 2016 High Court eviction order in the same case. It had also claimed that the Railways did not have any proof of the demarcation of land.
“The Railways, in an original affidavit submitted before the High Court in 2007, wrote that 29 acres of land was theirs. Now, all of a sudden in 2016, the railway draws an imaginary line on a piece of paper, and, mind you, they have submitted in court that there was no demarcation that happened, they have claimed 78 acres,” Sumit Hridayesh, Haldwani MLA and son of three-time Congress MLA, Indira Hridayesh, tells Outlook. “That 78 acres includes schools, state hospitals and a nagar nigam (municipal corporation) community centre. Of course, two-thirds or more of that land came under Nazul law, meaning government land”, he adds.
Hridayesh also states that there is a mountain of evidence to show that the land does not belong to the Railways but that the high court order in December was the result of the “state government’s failure to intervene on behalf of its citizens or to protect its own land.”
Locals in the tenements of Dholi basti and Ghafoor basti claim that Congress has always been on their side. “Madamji (Indira Hridayesh) helped everyone here. She got the electric lines and water lines,” a Ghafoor basti resident who doesn’t want to be named states. Having lived her whole life in Ghafoor basti, she adds, now it feels like the government is against them. “How is it a coincidence that only Muslim areas are targeted in the evictions?” she asks.
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The Haldwani evictions come in the wake of several similar eviction drives by the Railways and other land-owning bodies in the recent past in BJP-ruled states like Assam and others like Jharkhand and Delhi, where Muslim-dominated localities have been demolished or threatened with eviction. “First love jihad, now land jihad. These narratives are meant to alienate and disfranchise minority populations but also mask the government’s failure to provide land, housing and jobs to all. By claiming the minorities as encroachers, it basically wants people to believe that some outsider population is taking away local jobs and resources,” says Imtiaz Ahmed Ansari, assistant professor of Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia, speaking to Outlook.
Media portrayals of the residents of Haldwani as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and land jihadis have left many in the affected areas angered. Meanwhile, others worry that in the guise of communal agendas and land disputes, the issue of the over-mining of the river Gaula is getting neglected. In the past decades, both the government and private contractors have befited from mining the riverbed for sand.
Environmental activists have found repeated instances of illegal mining in Gaula. Excessive mining has led to floods and loss of homes along the riverbed. Incidentally, the bridge on the river Gaula, which jumpstarted the issue, sustained flood damage yet again in 2021. Uzair Ahmed himself has footage of illegal mining taking place in prohibited zones. “But 50,000 people cannot be held accountable for the government’s failure to prevent illegal mining or for the collapse of a bridge which was made using shoddy material and had
design flaws,” Uzair Ahmed states.
Ahmed and most others in Banbhoolpura who have land records state that they are not seeking rehabilitation but a permanent stay on the eviction. Mohammad Riaz of Kidwai Nagar, who brought his property tax papers to prove his ownership over his ancestral property, is firm that he will not move even if he is offered compensation or rehabilitation and that he wanted to stay on his legally owned and taxed ancestral land.
The more modest settlers of Dholi basti and Ghafoor basti like Fatimabi, however, state that they will move in case they are offered rehabilitation. “We don’t have the money to fight in court like the others. But we hope the court won’t leave thousands of women and children homeless,” she states.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Fact and Fiction: A Tale Of Exploitation And Eviction")
Rakhi Bose in Haldwani