2.8 Lakh Homeless After Demolitions In Delhi in 2023, But Rehab Fails, As BJP & AAP Ignore Their Own Promises & Court Orders

15 May 2024 15 min read  Share

The Aam Aadmi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party promised to build new homes where old slums stood in New Delhi. Despite a nine-year-old rehabilitation policy and court orders that require rehabilitation, homes are demolished indiscriminately without. Slum rehabilitation fails because no slum built after 2015 is eligible for rehabilitation; because of the vague definition of a slum that is eligible for rehabilitation; and the thousands of rupees that slum residents must pay for a new home.

A Muslim man stands amidst the ruins of his neighbourhood after being forcefully evicted by the forest department, January 2024, one of about 50 houses razed in Sangam Vihar, New Delhi. He had lived in the area for more than a decade, and built his house about two years ago. It was being plastered when the bulldozers arrived. He requested that we hide his identity.

New Delhi: “Day after day, it is a relentless cycle of police harassment,” said Kalki Singh, 39, who belongs to the Gadia Lohar community and lives in a jhuggi or hut in the south Delhi neighbourhood of Chirag Delhi, where slums and a leafy, upscale neighbourhood coexist.

“This anxiety—that at any moment our house could be demolished—is distressing,” said Singh, who told us her family had lived in this informal settlement for nearly 35 years. 

The Gadia Lohars are blacksmiths, and Singh’s family continues the profession of smelting iron—from which they make tools, utensils and jewellery and sell them in front of their modest South Delhi hut. As she stood outside her plywood and cement home, Singh’s face was drawn, her fear apparent. 

As India’s capital prepares to go to the polls on 25 May 2024, the concerns of slum dwellers across Delhi have mirrored Singh’s—of becoming another target of the wave of slum demolitions and forced evictions across the capital city, despite having stayed for decades in their current place of residence.  

The promise made during the 2020 legislative assembly elections by the BJP regarding rehousing slum dwellers at the same spot where their homes once stood is no longer present in the party’s 2024 Lok Sabha election manifesto. 

The AAP had not released its manifesto when this story was published.  The Congress, the other major national party, made no mention of access to housing or a moratorium on forced evictions.

The latest data on evictions indicates that housing issues of the poor are not a priority for both parties, which are tussling for power in Delhi.  

According to a March 2024 report released by Housing and Land Rights network in Delhi, an advocacy group, around 278,796 were made homeless by government evictions in 2023. This included demolitions in mostly working-class neighbourhoods, such as Mehrauli, Punjabi Bagh, Tughlakabad, Priyanka Gandhi Camp, and Jamia Nagar. 

The report recorded 49 instances of evictions, averaging nearly one eviction every seven to eight days through 2023. The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) also demolished nine night shelters in the areas of Yamuna Pushta and Sarai Kale Khan along the banks of the Yamuna river. 

With 5.7 million people in Delhi living in either slums or unauthorised colonies, experts pointed out that recent demolitions were carried out without a plan or adhering to the government’s own rehabilitation policies or obeying court directives. 

About 11% of Delhi’s people live in slums which occupy no more than 0.5% of its 1,483 sq km area. 

The government cited clearing of encroachments, a “beautification drive”, and conserving the Yamuna floodplains as reasons for the demolitions. 

In several cases, residents said, notices were not served, while in some cases notices were served as demolition squads moved in, despite the law (here and here) requiring rehabilitation plans and prior notice before demolitions.

These demolition drives were carried out despite major political parties promising in their February 2020 election manifesto to provide slum-dwellers of Delhi with 'pucca housing for dignified living conditions' through the initiative called Jahan Jhuggi Wahan Makan (a home where the hut was), a project offering in-situ improvement of housing for the urban poor along with secure tenure.

In 2023, no resettlement was provided to 82% of those evicted in India, according to data from the Housing and Land Rights Network.

Despite these schemes, since India assumed the presidency of the G20 in December 2022, in addition to the erection of green barriers and G20 flex boards, tens of thousands in informal settlements across the capital have either lost their homes or been forced to live in fear of eviction.

Selections For Rehousing

The Sudama Singh & Others vs Government of Delhi & Anr judgement of 2010 said it was the State‘s “constitutional and statutory obligation to ensure that no jhuggi dweller is forcibly evicted and relocated” and that those set to be evicted have a right to “meaningful engagement.” 

After this judgement, the DUSIB Act was passed in 2010, establishing DUSIB as the nodal agency for the rehabilitation and relocation of Delhi’s slum dwellers under the provisions of the Delhi Slum & Jhuggi Jhopri Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy, 2015.

The law and the policy set out the following criteria for a slum home to be eligible for rehabilitation or relocation: the slum should have been built before 1 January 2006; individual homes in the slum should have been built before 1 January 2015; the slum should have at least 50 households to be recognised as a jhuggi-jhopri basti or slum; and to be eligible, the beneficiary should possess identity documents listed in the policy. 

Where DUSIB is responsible for providing rehabilitation and resettlement on land owned by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) is responsible for central government-owned and its own land. The DDA also came up with its policy in 2017 with the same cut-off dates. 

A 2022 development complicated the qualification criteria for rehabilitation and resettlement: a Delhi high court judgement said only residents of 675 slums listed by the DUSIB and DDA were eligible for rehabilitation under the 2015 policy.

The initial list of JJ bastis was created in the early 1990s, comprising 929 slum colonies identified by the Delhi government. Over time, various JJ bastis were dismantled through rehabilitation projects undertaken by entities including the DDA and the then Slum & JJ Department, now known as DUSIB. The slum clusters that remained were 675 in number. 

“Anyone acquainted with the housing landscape of Delhi would readily acknowledge the presence of numerous bastis beyond the officially mentioned 675,” said Kawalpreet Kaur, a housing rights lawyer. 

Settlements not covered in the list, including Tughlakabad, Pragati Maidan, and Kasturba Nagar, have witnessed demolitions without any rehabilitation in 2023. The demolition drive in the largest among these, Tughlakabad, impacted a population of 250,000 individuals without any plans for rehabilitation or resettlement. 

A 34-year-old woman who lost her home in the Tughlakabad demolition told Article 14 that her home was demolished without proper warning or notice. 

“We couldn't even grab our important papers that proved we'd been living here for years,” she said, requesting anonymity. “The government dismisses our appeals for rehabilitation, and we're left not knowing if we'll ever get the support we need.”

Kaur said an additional list of 82 settlements maintained by DUSIB for a few years was recently deleted. 

The government did not even conduct a survey of bastis in 2006, the cutoff date to be  eligible for rehabilitation, and instead relied on data from the 1990s, she said. “Since these jhuggis are not on the list it’s easier for the government to bulldoze them.”

While admitting in a reply to a Right to Information (RTI) application that the basis for the list of 82 bastis was “unknown” and was never verified through a survey, and thus uploaded on the website by mistake, the DUSIB has not undertaken any process to either verify or update its lists.

In June 2023, after the demolition of informal settlements that comprised the Priyanka Gandhi camp near Vasant Vihar, the high court ruling recognised that this camp was indeed part of the additional list of 82 bastis maintained by DUSIB. The agency’s unilateral disavowal of this list deprived numerous displaced residents of entitlement to fair rehabilitation.

The Ills Of The Resettlement Policy

According to section 2(g) of the DUSIB Act,  a settlement may be considered a JJ basti only if it comprises at least 50 houses, making smaller slum colonies ineligible for rehabilitation even if residents meet other eligibility criteria. This narrows down the scope of Delhi’s rehabilitation policy considerably.

However, a provision within the clause allows for any jhuggi/jhuggis scattered in nearby areas to be attached to a larger JJ basti, effectively considering them a part of such a basti and thereby eligible for resettlement, if they meet other criteria. The law, however, does not define what the phrase “scattered in nearby areas” means exactly, and its interpretation is left to the discretion of the DUSIB Board, or the courts, to decide whether a jhuggi/jhuggis will be eligible for such attachment and subsequent rehabilitation. 

This proviso is crucial to widen access to rehabilitation, for it recognises the ground reality of how informal settlements come up and are organised in rapidly urbanising spaces like Delhi, where land is a contested and limited resource. 

In 2016, the DUSIB attached five jhuggis located near Jharkhand Bhawan in Vasant Vihar to the nearest informal settlement located near Bangla Sahib Road. The distance between the settlement and the five jhuggis was around 12 km.

The words “scattered nearby” were thus interpreted to be as far as 12 km, but more often than not, courts have defined the term narrowly. 

In July 2023, in a Supreme Court order, an informal settlement near Shyam Lal College in Shahdara was denied relief, both in terms of protection from forced eviction and rehabilitation. The court's decision was primarily based on the fact that the Shyam Lal College settlement comprised only 17 households, and thus could not be considered a JJ basti under section 2(g) of the DUSIB Act. 

The Supreme Court dismissed the case and the petitioners’ contention that the Delhi High Court’s interpretation of the proviso was too narrow. “We find no infirmity therein,” the court said. The basti closest to Shyam Lal College was 3 km away. 

During the forced eviction of the settlement near Shyam Lal College, interviews with the affected community revealed that they had been living at the site for more than 40 years, and many residents possessed documents to prove their residency.

Lawyer Anupradha Singh said the rationale behind DUSIB’s policy of requiring 50 households at a site to be declared a JJ basti was unclear. 

“Given that the primary objective of the policy is just and proper rehabilitation, the consideration of the number of houses appears unjust,” said Singh. For what is primarily a welfare policy, she said, it was perplexing that a government would limit its accessibility, “especially to those most in need of it”. 

So, the legal provision offers a glimmer of inclusivity for residents of smaller settlements but leaves enough ambiguity in its wording for them to be excluded.

Not All Slums On Official List Are Eligible

Since the list of 675 bastis was not created for the purpose of rehabilitation, it includes settlements with fewer than 50 households. 

For instance, Block N in Raghubir Nagar in West Delhi consists of only four households, but is included in the list. 

In the case of Kalki Singh’s basti, Chirag Delhi, 17 households approached the high court. Residents were unsure if the court may grant a rehabilitation package if they were to be evicted, for the courts have been wary of expanding the scope of the provision to include smaller slum colonies.  

Asked how DUSIB came up with the criterion of requiring 50 households in one location for a basti to be eligible for rehabilitation, a DUSIB member who requested not to be named told Article 14 he did not remember and would need to check. “But nearby structures can be clubbed for eligibility,” he said.

On being asked what distance could qualify as “nearby”, the DUSIB member said this differed from case to case. “DUSIB also has some internal parameters to judge the same,” he said.

A Hard Stop For The Cut-off Date

The policy additionally specifies that no new shanties built after 1 January 2015 may be considered for resettlement. Shanties built after this date would be removed without offering alternative housing, according to the policy.

Extending the cut off date is crucial, since families grow in size when kids get married and start their own families. 

Akanksha Badkur,  a human rights lawyer, said that families living in slums for 30-40 years often “expand vertically”, adding floors to house growing families. 

“However, under current policies, these multi-generational homes are often recognised as a single unit,” said Badkur. “This results in them being treated as a single family during rehabilitation efforts, where they are allocated only a single housing unit at the relocation site.” 

She said families trying to create space for themselves in informal settlements were “pushed back into cramped living quarters, unsuitable for their large family sizes, leading to spatial congestion in various aspects.”

The DUSIB Act of 2010 emphasises the "redevelopment of bastis with the aim of enhancing environmental conditions and improving residents' living standards." However, the persistent congestion exacerbates the already poor environmental conditions for the residents.

Resettlement plots are not large enough to accommodate such multi-generational families, mostly averaging 12 sq m to 18 sq m. 

Rashee Mehra, a housing rights expert, emphasised the need for the DUSIB to conduct a fresh survey of the city's slums in order to update the count of 675 bastis

“This brings us to the core question of why these settlements emerged in the first place,” she said. “They filled the void of affordable housing in the city."

Mehtra said no provision had been made for those who had arrived after 2015.

“Have provisions been made for them through economically weaker section housing?” said Mehra, suggesting that the 2015 cutoff date be revised. “It cannot remain unchangeable.”

Other Rehabilitation Hurdles 

Even when residents successfully proved title and fulfilled criteria for rehabilitation , demolitions have not always been accompanied by resettlement.

Kaur said in the Priyanka Gandhi Camp, when the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) needed a site for their office, 97 houses in a recognised cluster that were clearly eligible for rehabilitation were demolished in 2023, the eviction approved by the Delhi High Court. 

At the site of their former homes, most jhuggis were vacated, and a few residents took up rental housing units nearby while their litigation continued in the Delhi High Court.

The issue of financial feasibility has left many slum dwellers unable to avail the benefit of the policy. Currently, a resident of a jhuggi must pay Rs 1,42,000 (for general category beneficiaries) or Rs 42,000 (for reserved category beneficiaries) to secure ownership of a resettlement house. 

"How can someone residing in a jhuggi afford such a significant amount all at once?” Mehra asked. The DUSIB policy offered no provision to pay in instalments. Most  jhuggi residents work in the informal sector and lack access to formal credit sources, she said. “This creates an overwhelming burden."

Maqbool Khan, 45, resident of a jhuggi in Savda Ghewra, a resettlement colony on the capital’s northwestern outskirts, exemplified this challenge. He commutes over 40 km daily to work as a labourer. Despite being eligible for resettlement, he could not get a home.  

“To acquire a plot in the resettlement colony, they demanded a one-time payment of Rs 7,000 in 2005,” said Maqbool. He could not afford the land at the time, and he continued to live in a jhuggi within the resettlement colony.

Asked whether resettlement is affordable for eligible slum dwellers, the DUSIB member previously quoted said, "Yes, people are definitely able to pay. It's not a substantial sum.” 

Residents of jhuggis allocate expenses towards various entities including the mafia, DDA and other systems, he said. “At least with rehabilitation, they find a sense of security; it offers them a dignified life here.”

The DDA policy focuses on a public-private partnership—which contracts developers to construct flats for “economically weaker sections” and recover project costs through a remunerative component by which the private entity may commercially exploit 40% of the total area. Here, too, beneficiaries are typically required to contribute Rs 1,12,000 and Rs 30,000 for maintenance for a dwelling unit of 25 sq m. 

Article 14 sought comment over the phone from  Vinay Kumar Saxena, Delhi’s lieutenant governor,  who is also chairman of the DDA, on why slum dwellers must pay Rs 142,000 and the possibility of future cut-off date extensions for eligibility. There was no response. We will update this story if he does respond.

About the cut-off date, the member of DUSIB said “we may revisit this in the future, as needed.”

He added that the union government was more focused on rental housing for the urban poor and migrants than on ownership, prompting DUSIB to reevaluate its approach. 

“We've built units for allocation, but they now sit empty, leaving beneficiaries in a difficult situation as their conditions worsen,” he said. 

Remedy Not Available Through Courts   

As per HLRN’s annual eviction report,  259,845 people, or 50% of those evicted in 2023,  lost their homes due to the enforcement of court orders.  In 2022, this figure was low at 33,360 people. 

The Supreme Court of India and several state high court judgments have upheld the right to housing/shelter as an inalienable component of the fundamental right to life (here, here, and here, among others).  

Yet those suffering forced evictions find it hard to benefit because courts are hesitant to provide the protection and relief that they themselves prescribe. 

In the case of the Tughlakabad demolition, the Supreme Court directed the Archaeological Survey of India to take action for the “removal of unauthorised construction as well as the encroachers from the public land.”

“When the courts themselves call the people land-grabbers and encroachers, where will people go for help?” asked Kaur. 

Over the last three to four years, the courts' approach to housing for the urban poor has recorded a marked change, said Kaur, with many orders “excessively fixated on hyper-interpreting policies.”

The compassionate demeanour of courts towards the marginalised poor appears to have dissipated, she said. “Instead, they've adopted a markedly specific and limited stance.”

Many activists and lawyers have avoided going to the courts in recent years. “We know that if it goes to court, the basti will be demolished,” said Anupradha Singh.  

The only way forward is for the entire policy to be reviewed and revised to encompass all affected individuals.

Mehra said rehabilitation alone would not solve the issue of affordable housing for the urban poor until the approach to housing is systematically altered. 

“When migrants seek livelihood opportunities in Delhi but cannot bear the cost of housing,” she said, “they are more likely to construct makeshift dwellings and reside in them."

(Anuj Behal is an independent journalist and urban researcher primarily focusing on the state of housing in the country. Aditi Singh is a legal researcher who works on issues of housing, justice, gender, and sexuality.)

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