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COVID Weighs On Shanty Town Life In New Delhi

Residents of the state’s 'bastis' get free rations and state-provided services on the back of ID documents with proof of address. But their homes are also subject to frequent demolition on the grounds that they are illegal encroachment.

New Delhi residents outside demolished slum dwellings
New Delhi residents outside demolished slum dwellings
Rana Paul*

The distribution of rations and other necessities during the crisis created by last year's COVID-19 lockdown took place mainly in the slum areas of Delhi. The irony, however, is that although the Delhi government provides the residents of these settlements with essentials, their homes are frequently demolished to evict them from their neighborhoods on the grounds that they are encroachments. And this practice has continued even during the lockdown.

"Thousands of households in Delhi were demolished during the lockdown," says Shakeel Ahmed, the convener of Basti Suraksha Manch (BSM), one of the networks that constitute the Delhi Housing Rights Task Force (DHRTF). "Some clusters even experienced multiple phases of eviction."

The evictions took place despite the fact that on April 28, 2020, just about a month into the nationwide lockdown in India, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing declared "an end to all evictions' until the end of the pandemic.

We have valid identity documents. So why are we devoid of justice?

Although there is no constitutional right to housing in the country, in 1976, India had ratified the UN's 1966 Covenant of the Right to Adequate Housing. Several court judgments, including many in the Supreme Court of India, have affirmed the right to housing, such as Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985), Chameli Singh vs State of U.P. (1996), Sudama Singh vs Govt of Delhi (2010) and Ajay Maken vs Union of India (2019). Along with these judicial measures, established policy regimes such as the Delhi Slum & JJ (JhuggiJhopri) Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy (DUSIB policy, 2015) intend to preserve the right to housing for all. But Delhi scripted a very arbitrary fate for its marginal urban dwellers during the pandemic.

When the bulldozers arrived at east Laxmi Nagar market colony, Jagatpuri, in June 2020, the residents of the settlement knew what they had needed to have done to stop the demolition of their homes. But they had been given no time to do it.

"If an application had been filed in court, there wouldn't have been any demolitions during the pandemic. But we got only three days to organise ourselves," says Ram Chandra, the pradhan (head) of the settlement. "The notice that should have come to us on Friday arrived on Saturday. Sunday was a holiday and on Monday our deadline had ended. Where do you go in this kind of hurry? Who do you get suggestions from?"

A September 2020 eviction in a basti near Batla House, New Delhi — Photo: Rana Paul

The east Laxmi Nagar market colony had been identified as a jhuggijhropri (hutment) cluster in 1982 by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) through its Census of Squatters survey. Over the years, the residents of the settlement turned it into a habitable space that was entitled to state-provided services. But although the colony had a historical presence, a decade-old lawsuit demolished it in the name of encroachment.

Elsewhere in Delhi, near Shastri Park, more than 135 families were evicted in a single sweep on Feb. 11, 2021. When Geeta Devi, a resident of the settlement. asked why her home was being demolished, an official told her: "The order has come from the court."

This left Devi frustrated by the paradox of existence in urban India. "If an order came from the court (to evict us), then why are we given free rations? Why were our gas services not cut off? We are offered free rations and simultaneously evicted from our houses," she says. The point she makes asks a valid question of the contemporary urban landscape: What does welfare mean if the right to a home is breached? The narrative of those who are frequently evicted shows that their life is exactly at the point of intersection between welfare on one axis and homelessness on the other.

Residents of such settlements argue that the government's provision of free rations and other essentials are not the only evidence that they are rooted in their homes. Their voter identity cards prove their address and their existence in the city, they point out. But even these identity cards are ignored during the evictions.

The tragedy in India is that the right of universal suffrage does not automatically lead to the right to housing.

"We have valid identity documents. So why are we devoid of justice?" asks Akbari Bibi, whose basti (settlement) near Batla house has been demolished three times since the pandemic began, on Sept. 24, 2020; Oct. 4, 2020 and Dec. 24, 2020. "We cast our votes in the name of the jhuggi (hut) numbers that are listed as our addresses on our voter identity cards. Our jhuggis are our identity on the land," says Bibi.

The tragedy in India is that the right of universal suffrage does not automatically lead to the right to housing, even when policies exist to provide housing rights. For example, the residents of the settlement near Batla house still have not received rehabilitation though they have valid identity documents that satisfy the DUSIB policy, 2015.

Even the poorest people in India find ways to invest in the construction of homes when the formal housing supply cannot meet their needs. The houses built by marginal dwellers are officially termed "informal," but Delhi has 675 jhuggijhopri clusters, according to the DUSIB policy, 2015, where people invest with money usually borrowed from their employers to construct houses that either remain unconstructed or are demolished due to routine evictions.

"I invested money for my house through a karza (loan) from my madam (employer)," says 40-year-old Sunita Devi, a resident of Israeli camp near Vasant Kunj, Delhi, who provides domestic help. "Only two days after the construction was completed, they demolished it. If I had known it was going to be demolished, I would not have taken the loan."

Devi's home was demolished along with hundreds of others on Sept. 28, 2020. Now, like many others in the same position, she worries both about paying back her debt to her employer and the possibility of getting another loan for another house.

The pandemic has led to exceptional changes all over the world in how people live and work. But for Delhi's marginal urban dwellers, the coronavirus changed nothing. They had always had to live their lives in increments that regularly collapse, building homes only to lose them and hope to start all over again.

*Rana Paul is an urban researcher, currently working in Delhi as a part of the UCLA Housing Justice in Unequal Cities network.

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Steve Gale/Unsplash
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