“You are not stuck at home, you are safe at home … Together we will fight COVID–19”, reads the Twitter banner of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India. COVID–19 was notified as a disaster on 14 March 2020, after which the National Disaster Management Act and Epidemics Act were enforced in the country, along with a nationwide lockdown which went on for 54 days in different phases. 485 days into the pandemic, the government continues to implore people to stay indoors, maintain ‘social’ distance to avoid contact with the deadly virus. Indeed, shelter continues to be the primary refuge of people to safeguard themselves against coronavirus.
Astonishingly, even in the face of the worst public health crisis the world has seen in over a century, forced evictions without rehabilitation have been witnessed across the country. The untimely and unreasonable violence of the state on its citizens, already suffering from loss of livelihoods and precarious living conditions, further exposed them to the virus and violated their Right to Housing. According to Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), about 54,000 people were evicted and about 10,000 houses were demolished between 15 March to 31 October 2020.
Evictions take place for various reasons, namely development projects, beautification, river widening, and increasingly, as the climate crisis worsens, in the name of protecting the environment. Recent examples are of the Supreme Court judgement of September 2020 (during the first wave) to evict 48,000 households along railways tracks in Delhi, and of June 2021 (during the second wave) to evict 10,000 households in Khori Gaon in Faridabad. In the Khori Gaon judgement, the Court said, ‘As far as forests are concerned, there can be no question of compromise … we don’t want these COVID excuses … whether the State wants to accommodate the residents or not is up to them’. The judgement had nothing to say about the presence of five star hotels, business towers, etc. on the same forest land as Khori Gaon, and what is to be done with the forest land after demolition.
The urban poor are branded as encroachers, instead of being seen as victims of the nexus between politicians, bureaucracy and the land mafia.The failure of government(s) to provide affordable housing forces the poor to resort to informal housing, which in turn makes their settlements vulnerable to demolitions. Right after the devastating second wave of the pandemic, and before the anticipated third wave, demolishing houses, according to the ex-UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, is nothing short of a ‘potential death sentence’.
To address the forced evictions during the second wave of the pandemic and to further housing rights, Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) and Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) organised two state-level consultations for Mumbai Metropolitan Region and Assam, and a national level consultation to discuss a possible action agenda against forced evictions. The consultations hosted housing rights activists, advocates and people affected by evictions. Speakers presented the following cases of forced evictions:
Ahmedabad: Motera Tribal Slum was evicted twice by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, first for the Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar Metro Rail Project, and then days before the visit of the former President of the United States of America. The rationale for the latter is often to hide the poor, but in effect, it is to hide the failure of the administration to provide affordable housing.
Assam: Evictions in Sipajhar, Hojai, Karimganj and Darrang districts in June 2021, according to the state government, is to ‘reclaim state-owned land from encroachers … and to take all steps to protect the state’s land, identity, culture, language and heritage from aggressors and illegal migrants’. The specific targeting of settlements predominantly occupied by Muslims, indicate a communal agenda. The state government has not assured rehabilitation of the evicted families. The evictions ridicule the moratorium against evictions ordered by the Gauhati High Court.
Bhopal: More than 40 houses were demolished in Murgi Palan Basti without notice in December 2020. The eviction was carried out to clear the way for a road. The families were surveyed in the month of September 2020 with the assurance that they will be rehabilitated in situ. But the government started to resettle them to the Bhanpura rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) site constructed under previous housing schemes. The settlement of about 150 families is about 25 years old and it is situated adjacent to the Riviera Town, a high profile society where most of the women from the settlement work as domestic workers. Women whose houses were demolished feared loss of livelihood as the new resettlement site does not have any such opportunities.
Chennai: More than 250 houses of Gandhi Nagar were demolished by Chennai Municipal Corporation on 9 December 2020. The settlement, situated near the banks of the Cooum river, was demolished on the behest of clearing encroachments along water bodies after the floods of 2017. Most of the residents of the settlements are informal workers involved in manual scavenging, construction work, as auto drivers, etc. Most of the families resisted the eviction as it could have had a huge impact on their livelihood.
Delhi: Debris from the Central Vista Project was dumped in Yamuna Khadar settlement and residents were given 30 minutes to vacate before demolition. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the land owning agency, wants to build a green area. The Slum Union moved an application in the Delhi High Court. On 26 February, the Court issued a notice to the Public Works Department (PWD) to provide a written clarification on why they have been threatening people living in Yamuna Khadar with demolitions. Since then, no new instances of mud dumping have occurred, but people here fear that this is only a temporary respite.
Faridabad: On 7 June, the Supreme Court ordered the demolition of about 10,000 houses in Khori Gaon built on Aravali forest land without instructing the Haryana administration to rehabilitate them, showing complete disregard for the poor who are already suffering from loss of livelihoods, precarious living conditions since COVID–19 was declared as a pandemic. Neither has the court ordered action against the government officials, land mafias and the politicians who have benefited from the selling of forest land to the residents of Khori, nor has it specified what is to be done with the forest land post-evictions. The residents of Khori continue to fight for their right to housing.
Mumbai: About 250 families were rendered homeless in Charkop by the local administration and the forest department at a time when the city was recording 7,000 COVID cases daily. The demolition of houses was to ensure a buffer zone of 50m from the mangroves. The eviction was in compliance with the High Court order. According to the notice issued from the Tehsildar office dated 7 April 2021, to comply with the order given by the Bombay High Court in the matter of Public Interest Petition №87 Bombay Environment Action Group and others vs. Government of Maharashtra in 2006, the action was taken to remove any type of construction work within 50m from the mangroves. The order was made in 2018 whereas people have had legitimate documents since 2001. The residents continue to demand rightful rehabilitation.
A group of panelists were then asked to share their understanding of evictions in the midst of the pandemic and suggest a possible action agenda against forced evictions. The panelists included Kranti LC, Senior Advocate at Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), Manju Menon, Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research (CPR), Lakhi Das of Adarsh Seva Sansthan (ADS) and Brother Varghese Theckanath, Director of Montfort Social Institute (MSI). Key discussion points from each speaker are summarised below.
Brother Varghese Theckanath, Montfort Social Institute
There should be a moratorium on all evictions. If existing laws are not enough, we must fight for a new law. The government must immediately implement the cheap rental housing promised during the first wave of the pandemic. Both Central and State governments should issue directives to landlords against forced collection of rents. Many states have promised a migrant workers policy, while some have drafted a policy, many states are yet to draft a policy for the welfare of migrant workers.
Lakhi Das, Adarsh Seva Sansthan
In Jharkhand, we fight not just for housing, but for ownership rights (malikana haq). Jharkhand has plenty of land to accommodate housing for the urban poor, but unfortunately there is no political will to do it. The state government doesn’t have its own urban development policies, it merely implements policies of the Union Government. Therefore, for instance, the Smart City project for Ranchi is going to affect many informal settlements. Land ownership in Jharkhand gets complicated due to various legal provisions like the 5th Schedule, Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act, Santhal Parganas Act and the land leased to companies in urban areas. The Union government should issue a guideline for state governments to help them accommodate slum dwellers in affordable housing projects. Majority of evictions in Jharkhand took place in rural areas due to multiple Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreements between the state and mining companies. The Rehabilitation & Resettlement (R&R) policies did not take into account evictions in urban slums. The organisational strength of movements in both urban and rural areas has weakened, due to various restrictions and regulations. We must continue to organise people to fight.
Manju Menon, Centre for Policy Research
Evictions are a result of a serious problem of distribution of land. For instance, about two thirds of Delhi’s population lives on 15 per cent of land. There is no way the poor cannot break rules while making houses as families expand. There is no land for the poor in cities. Also, what are the rights of the poor who cannot afford to buy land in cities? Evictions, landlessness, homelessness are societal issues as much as they are about land rights. They are an atrocity on Dalits, religious minorities and women. The state too sanctions officials to conduct evictions with impunity. There is also an acceptance within society on evictions that target the poor. The state is a ‘de-housing’ machine. Whether in the name of development projects or environment protection, the state from colonial times to the present date continues to evict people without humane rehabilitation.
Kranti LC, Human Rights Law Network
Despite many courts ruling against evictions during the pandemic, government(s) used COVID–19 as an excuse to push various development projects, and were ready for evictions between the first and the second lockdown. Housing rights activists and lawyers are of the opinion that as soon the COVID situation eases, there will be more evictions. The refusal of the Supreme Court to consider the COVID emergency to stay evictions is an indicator of impending evictions on an unprecedented scale. We must work together to push for rehabilitation under various schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and state-specific policies.
Evictions are a gross violation of Humans Rights, the Right to Adequate Housing and the Right to Life guaranteed to all citizens in the Constitution of India. Under no circumstances should evictions be normalised as unavoidable or necessary, whether for infrastructure or to protect the environment, as it unjustly targets the urban poor, specifically Dalits, tribals, religious minorities and women. Evictions put an already vulnerable group exposed to harsh weather conditions, loss of livelihoods, affecting mostly children, women, elderly and the disabled. Evictions undo decades of place-making practices of the urban poor who survive in the city despite all odds. It is also a negation of their contribution as the working class that builds and sustains cities. Evictions without humane rehabilitation or affordable housing push the poor to live in insecure housing, thus sustaining the cycle of evictions.
During the first wave, a national tribunal was conducted on forced evictions. To read about it click here.