Society

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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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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