Bulldozers. Crumbling walls. Rubble. Fallen electric poles. Lost possessions. Vanished memories. Broken childhoods. A home lost forever.
In 2018, Housing and Land Rights Network published a factsheet — 2.6 lakh people were forcefully evicted across rural and urban India in 2017. This was a ‘conservative’ estimate, they said, and the actual figures are likely to be much higher. The evictions took place despite the government’s Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Housing for All by 2022 Mission). Evictions were carried out, often without following standard processes (such as giving the community adequate notice before demolishing their houses). Resettlement, if at all, has been in inadequate, cramped, unsafe, and unhealthy surroundings.
The feeling of standing as audience while your home gets pulled down, scurrying to fetch the last of your belongings that you can get your hands on, and the trauma of having to accept that your home will never be your home again is unfathomable to those who have never experienced it. Imagine these effects on children, who constitute about 40% of an informal settlement’s population.
To those insulated from such realities, evictions may seem justified in the name of city beautification, and ‘development’ plans for urban centres. After all, the goal of creating world-class, slum-free cities has been broadcast in mainstream media and drilled into popular imagination in different ways and formats.
The roads seem so crowded anyway with these ‘encroachers’ and ‘illegal’ citizens, who often don’t have to pay any taxes (never mind their earning potential). Why should we clamour for their housing rights, when our own housing space is becoming a luxury?
We need to talk because forced evictions constitute gross human rights violations, particularly the right to adequate housing. Far from providing marginalised people access to better lives, they are the tools propagating the poverty cycle further, ensuring that the inequality gap gets larger, not just in terms of wealth distribution, but access to basic facilities and services too.
Evictions are an everyday phenomenon in our fast developing nation, and children its worst victims. From denial of food, water, health, education, a number of child rights are violated when children are evicted from their homes and left homeless. The sudden loss of a secure home, being uprooted from a familiar community, exposure to harsh weather, loss of schooling, child labour, unsafe conditions … the list of wrongs inflicted on children is endless.
Millions of children grow up watching their houses being demolished and rebuilt over years of hard labour, only to be demolished again …. and such fortunes are faced by their children too as the cycle repeats itself unceasingly. Here’s a glimpse of what it often looks like.
When a home is demolished, years of effort to set up a dignified life come crashing within a second. Children watch their parents standing helplessly as homes are brought down; these impacts on their mental and physical state are unknown.
Evictions cause great damage to and loss of household possessions. School books and uniforms go missing, sometimes they are even confiscated, along with other items. Hard-won certificates and awards are lost. Families often end up losing their legal entitlements, making it difficult for them to access basic services (such as a water/electricity connection) in future.
Rehousing provisions, if any, are often at distant, often unfamiliar locations. Families are forced to occupy cramped living quarters in rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) sites, without adequate light and air. Their ‘subhuman’ living arrangements have increased the incidence of tuberculosis, and other diseases.
Children have often reported feeling unsafe in these ‘vertical slums’, locked up in rooms where no one can hear them if they feel threatened, unlike the open structure of their erstwhile settlements. Rape and abuse of children is rampant, unless checked. Further, sanitation issues are aplenty in the R&R sites. Girls, especially, have no access to play spaces and are restricted home, stunting their physical development.
With R&R sites located far from their former localities, children’s schools become inaccessible. Parents, forced to seek alternative livelihood opportunities after being resettled in faraway sites, find it difficult to make ends meet. The losses suffered and lack of a stable income often lead to children dropping out of schools.
Once children are out of school, they often take to work to supplement the family income. Many of them work long hours, often in hazardous conditions, subject to the whims and fancies of their employers. They are overworked yet underpaid, spending their meagre earnings on food or drugs. A recent study suggests how majority rescued child labourers have gone back to work over time, given inadequate rehabilitation processes.
Older children, especially girls, often become caregivers in the family from a young age. With the parents forced to work long hours, the responsibility of caring for the younger siblings rests on their shoulders.
In a few more years, even before they have got a chance to enjoy their childhood, the young ‘caregivers’ are married off. Following their early marriage, the girls settle in new informal settlements, where they continue to struggle for their rights.
Unfortunately, the eviction cycle does not spare their new homes either. Civic authorities arrive in due course, informal settlements are razed, and the community is left to pick up the pieces of their life and restart again. This may be someone’s tenth experience of eviction. It is also the first time a child watches helplessly as his house is brought down.
#UprootedChildhoods is a collaboration between YUVA and Leher, attempting to spark dialogue on a critical yet oft invisibilised concern — the views of children on housing. The campaign draws from YUVA’s in-depth interventions with children over the years across cities, and Leher’s focus and commitment to child rights, with a preventive approach towards child protection. Through the different blogs, photo essays, video stories, infographics and other formats we hope to present many faces of urban childhoods.