The year 2020 will remain etched in history and in the minds of populations across the globe as one of uncertainty, fear, new normals and an ‘unprecedented disaster of global proportions’. Though the term unprecedented in itself accentuates the inability to allow prior preparation, thereby justifying the diverse responses observed by nations the world over, what it fails to rationalise is the contradictions observed in those responses aimed to cater to the well being of its citizens, resulting in deepening vulnerability of its most marginalised.
Forced evictions constitute a gross human rights violation, particularly the right to adequate housing, leaving the affected families in extreme poverty. But forced evictions during a global pandemic directly disregard people’s right to life itself, leaving them homeless and defenseless against a virus that has claimed the lives of millions across the globe. It also openly contradicts the government’s mandate of enforcing lockdowns and social distancing norms, the violation of which was seen to be punishable by the state. Furthermore, the devastating impact on the economy due to the government-induced lockdown rendered these people without livelihood options to sustain themselves and adding to their precarity were these forced evictions that left many without a home and the difficult decision of choosing between food or shelter with the little finances that were left. Recently, the ex-UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, aptly described being evicted from one’s home during COVID-19 as a ‘potential death sentence.’
In India, COVID-19 was notified as a disaster on 14 March 2020 after which the National Disaster Management Act, 2005 and Epidemics Act were enforced in the country, along with the call for a nationwide lockdown that went for about 3 months in different phases. However, the analysis of news reports and the recent report titled Forced Evictions in India in 2019: An Unrelenting National Crisis by Housing and Land Rights Network has shown that over 50 incidents of forced evictions took place in the country during the pandemic. Additionally on 31 August 2020, the Supreme Court ordered to evict over 48,000 households living near the railway tracks in Delhi, one of the largest evictions to be undertaken in the country under the direction of the nation’s highest court. Even though the order has been temporarily stayed, this eviction could adversely impact over 3 lakh people during the pandemic that is still ongoing.
In an attempt to bring forth the cases of eviction during the state induced lockdown, document them and advocate for the human rights of those affected and those who continue to face the threat of evictions, Rashtriya Awas Adhikar Abhiyan organised an online ‘National Tribunal on Forced Eviction during the pandemic in India’. The tribunal consisted of four jurors – Adv. Colin Gonsalves, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court of India and the founder of Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), Mr. Husain Dalwai, a politician from Indian National Congress party and a former Member of the Parliament of India representing Maharashtra in the Rajya Sabha, Prof. Darshini Mahadevia, a professor and a former member of the Advisory Board of the Global Research Network on Human Settlements (HS-Net), of the UN Habitat, and Brother Varghese Theckanath, a human rights activist and director of the Monfort Social Institute.
Six cases of eviction were selected and presented from different parts of the country, to showcase the wide-ranging impact these evictions have had on the people.
The case of Gardanibagh in Patna (Bihar)
Home to over 100 families that had been living in hay and mud huts in the locality for over 20 years, Gardanibagh faced a forced eviction under the supervision of the magistrate accompanied by police officials on 13 May 2020 during the height of the pandemic and country-wide lockdown. The case, presented by Dorothy Fernandes from Asshray Abhiyan Patna, spoke of the people’s perils prior to the eviction, where they struggled with access to basic services and facilities as well as their current situation of being forced to live on footpaths in houses made with plastic sheets currently. The possible reason cited for carrying out the demolition was the construction of premium houses by the state government on the given land. The case was also able to highlight the absence of the provision of housing under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), even though Patna is one of the selected cities proposed to have housing for urban poor.
The case of Amchang in Guwahati (Assam)
In a cruel turn of events, more than 100 families face the threat of eviction in Amchang, where the majority of people were brought in to be resettled after being displaced from other flood prone areas in the 1990s and promised land tenure by political leaders. Due to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by an environmental non-governmental organisation claiming the settlement had encroached on forest land and was a threat to the wildlife and biodiversity of the area a massive eviction drive was carried out in 2017. Bulldozers were brought in, children beaten with rubber bullets, men detained, women beaten for resisting eviction and even elephants brought in to demolish the area. The massive outrage in response to the brutal nature of evictions, resulted in an order by the High Court to form a committee and resurvey the area, which has not taken place till date. On 8 May 2020, once again a notice was served to 40 families by the forest department, claiming to own the land. While the court has stayed the order, the threat of eviction still looms over these families, who are demanding the resurvey and demarcation of forest land.
The case of Keshavpuram and 70 other slums (Delhi)
One of the largest eviction orders by the Supreme Court to demolish over 48,000 households near a 140 km stretch of railway tracks, came on 31 August 2020. The details of the case cite reasons of environmental degradation, specifically depleting ground water, that has been attributed to encroachment rather than industrial development. Railways have also stated the reasons of safety and hindrance in dealing with garbage as reasons for evictions. However, the case taken up by Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) has resulted in halting the eviction and demands for rehabilitation prior to eviction have been presented.
The case of harassment and eviction of homeless families (Mumbai)
In a city, most adversely hit by the pandemic, homeless people near Ruia College who have been living there for over 40 years found themselves severely harassed with their belongings being seized by the Municipal Corporation without any prior notice. While temporary shelters for the homeless were made accessible during the pandemic, they are unable to cater to the large population of over 1,60,000 homeless people in the city as stated by Amrutlal Betwala from YUVA while presenting the case. As per official Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) records, this number stands at 56,416 homeless people. In a city that witnesses mass migration, in the hope of economic mobility, housing for the poor should be made a priority and available under PMAY and shelters for the homeless should be increased.
The case of Kochaguttapally village in Siddipet (Telangana)
On 19 April 2020, 100 families who had been living in Kochaguttapally for over six decades were evicted, without warning, by the revenue department to pave the way for the Kaleshwaran Lift irrigation dam project in the area. Though prior to the evictions, 40 families had been fighting against the declaration of their land as ‘non-residential’ by the revenue department and had received a stay, it was in the midst of the pandemic that the department took the unfavourable step of demolition. The people are now demanding their rightful compensation for their losses.
The case of Dhobi Ghat Batla House (Delhi)
Situated at 200 meters from the Yamuna river and home to 600 families, Dhobi Ghat has been burnt and demolished twice since 2019. On 24 September 2020, 100 homes were demolished by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) that stated following the order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for ecological preservation and an anticipated DDA public project. The families are now living in the open and dependent on civil society groups to support them with ration and food. Nilesh Kumar from Basti Suraksha Manch who presented the case also spoke about the presence of land mafia in the region, the fear of which had resulted in submission by the families and allowing evictions without protest or appeal.
The tribunal presented cases and threats of forced evictions across diverse geographies, varying magnitudes and carried out for the diverse reasons, yet all adversely impacting vulnerable groups and violating their most basic and fundamental human rights. The jurors after listening to each case, provided their input, strategies and encouraged work by civil society to fight against these grave injustices. Some of the key takeaways from the juror’s address and comments were:
● Building a people’s movement along with extensive usage of legal provisions that safeguard the rights of people
● Taking the people’s movement beyond the question of housing alone and including the intersectionality of livelihood, basic services in it using a rights based approach
● Campaigning for people’s rights, involving local voices and calling out contradictions in governmental functioning, especially towards the marginalised
● Engaging with governance bodies to provide rehabilitation and compensation to affected families, preferably in-situ
● Advocate for housing for all and against forced evictions especially halting all evictions during the pandemic
● Increasing participation and representation of local people in the urban planning process to ensure that the concept of sustainable cities stems from sustainable communities that help build it
While the tribunal greatly assisted in understanding the gross human rights violations continuing to take place during the pandemic as well as develop certain intervention strategies, forced evictions still continue across the country.
During an unprecedented pandemic, rendering people homeless should be considered equivalent to a human disaster necessitating priority, attention and adequate rehabilitation. However, they not only go unaddressed in policy response but also unheard in public discourse. It thus becomes imperative to break the silence around these violations against humanity, investigate them and finally put an end to them thereby ensuring people’s right to live peacefully and with dignity.
Anuja Sirohi, YUVA