New Delhi: When we met him, Sohil, 14, was watching children flying kites over the rubble of their lost homes in Delhi’s 14th-century Tughlakabad fort. Working as a “horse boy”, Sohil walks and feeds horses of local residents, for up to nine hours a day.
The son of a manual labourer, Sohil dropped out of school in July 2023 to support his family, after his home and neighbourhood in Tughlakabad were bulldozed on 30 April 2023, in the South East district of India’s capital.
The demolitions in these neighbourhoods were a long time coming. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) deemed the settlements around the historical fort, “illegal encroachments”, a status confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2003.
About 2,000 homes were razed, said locals of Churiya mohalla, in April-May 2023, with no rehabilitation plans for those affected, despite a 1 February 2023 Delhi High Court order that required public authorities to do so within four weeks.
A month earlier, in January 2023, the Delhi Commission for the Protection of Child Rights called for the demolitions to be halted until rehabilitation measures for children were framed.
None of this happened.
Nirmal Gorana, convener of the Mazdoor Awas Sangharsh Samiti (a workers’ organisation), who supports the affected communities, told Article 14 that he estimated 2,000 homes were destroyed in Churiya mohalla, the slum where Sohil lived.
The demolitions in Tughlakabad were part of a series of demolitions in Delhi—all done without rehabilitation of the affected communities—ordered before the G20 summit of 9 and 10 September 2023, leaving 260,000 homeless, as Article 14 reported in May 2023.
As the demolitions concluded, heavy rains swept the area, and children had fallen sick. Uncertain about what to do next, families had erected tarpaulin tents among the rubble of their homes or camped in the surrounding scrub forest.
When we visited, we found families splintered, with many girls living with relatives for safety. Many children and youth had dropped out of school or college to assist parents, who had been plunged further in poverty after losing homes.
Sohil said he missed his school.
“School jaana chahta hoon…lekin…hamare pass ghar nahi hai..woh sab thooth gaye..aur paisa nahi hai naye banne ko…(I want to go to school, but we do not have a house, our homes were destroyed, and we do not have the money to build a new one),” he said.
Children and families of Churiya mohalla meet daily at the site of their demolished homes to share their grief. Article 14 spoke to 10 families over two visits in August and September. With no rehabilitation provided, as the law requires, and no money to rebuild, their future appeared bleak.
Homes Built In 2010
Partly demolished, Churiya mohalla is a densely populated slum within the neighbourhood of Tughlakabad, located a km from the area’s historic fort. Residents were mainly migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal: daily wage labourers, vegetable sellers, cycle and auto rickshaw drivers and factory workers. The families we spoke to said they had lived in the mohalla since 2010.
Over the years, residents bought land and built brick and cement homes for themselves. Duped by local authorities and property dealers when buying land, residents were unaware that construction at the site was illegal. Municipal authorities issued no warnings, they said.
Munni Devi, 40, a local shopkeeper, said she bought the land for Rs 600,000 in 2010, and built a home spending another Rs 600,000 to Rs 700,000, investing almost all of her family’s savings at that point. Other families had similar stories.
A writ petition filed in the Delhi High Court in January 2023 by representatives of Tughlakabad residents says there are 14 mohallas around the fort, with about 250,000 residents: the ASI alleges 30,000 homes were illegally built. Residents were paying electricity and water bills and accessing entitlements under the public distribution system.
On the morning of 30 April 2023, around 50 bulldozers sent by the ASI accompanied local administration and police officials, as demolitions began in this and other mohallas. Most of the demolitions took place in what is called ‘Bengali colony’ of Churiya mohalla.
Sanju Mandal, 42, alleged the police beat him with lathis during the demolitions. “While I was resting outside, the police came and told us to vacate,” he said. “They did not even allow me to put my shirt on. They beat and chased us away.”
Construction Was Banned In 2003
Residents of Tughlakabad, including Churiya mohalla, received written eviction notices from the ASI on 11 January 2023, warning that their homes would be demolished in 15 days. Tabassum Badhshah, 39, said her family thought it was a “fake notice” as they had lived here for 20 years. The notices made no mention of rehabilitation or temporary shelter.
The Tughlakabad Fort is a centrally protected monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archeological Sites and Remains Act 1958. Settlements around the fort were deemed “illegal encroachments” under the Act. The notices forward pending directions from the Supreme Court (full summary here) emerging out of litigation.
In March 2003, the court ordered no further construction within the fort area. In September 2011, the court reiterated that the settlements were “illegal” and directed the ASI to act and submit a report within eight weeks.
In 2016, the Supreme Court transferred the case to the Delhi High Court for it to ensure compliance with the Supreme Court’s orders of removing both “unauthorised construction” and “encroachers”. Over the next few years, the matter bounced between the court, ASI and municipal authorities.
In November 2022, the Delhi High Court ordered the ASI and Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to file a status report within six weeks. Between the November 2022 order and the eviction notices issued by the ASI on 11 January 2023, the Delhi High Court’s website showed only one order, dated 16 January 2023, adjourning the case to April.
Distressed by the eviction notices, a set of Tughlakabad residents filed a plea in January 2023 at the Delhi High Court seeking a stop to the demolitions, which the court dismissed.
A second petition was filed in February 2023 by the Mazdoor Awas Sangharsh Samiti. This petition did not challenge the impending demolition, but sought directions for rehabilitation, including resettlement.
On 1 February 2023, the court ordered the government of National Capital Territory of Delhi, Delhi Development Authority, the MCD, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, the ASI, and the Delhi police to put together a “proper comprehensive plan for the resettlement/rehabilitation of the residents of Tughlakabad Fort'' within four weeks.
Kawalpreet Kaur, a lawyer for the petitioners, said that in spite of the High court order, no rehabilitation measures or plan were ever released. Gorana, the convener of the Mazdoor Awas Sangharsh Samiti, said in media interviews that the demolitions were prompted by the G20 summit.
“This is the government’s last desperate attempt to clean areas as much as possible,” he said.
A Fundamental Right Denied
In Delhi, demolitions and evictions are supposed to follow clear legal protocols.
In a 2010 judgement, Sudama Singh & Others vs Government of Delhi & Anr, the Delhi High Court reiterated the legal position that demolitions without rehabilitation or resettlement violate the fundamental right to housing and shelter under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
The Delhi High Court said that before any eviction, the State must survey all those facing eviction to check their eligibility for rehabilitation; and implement rehabilitation “in consultation” with affected persons “in a meaningful manner”.
Protocols on evictions and the guarantee of rehabilitation and resettlement under the Delhi Slum & JJ Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy of 2015 and the Master Plan for Delhi, 2021, were denied to residents of Churiya mohalla.
Less than a week after the eviction notices, on 17 January 2023, the Delhi Commission for the Protection of Child Rights wrote to the ASI seeking a halt to the demolitions, until measures for the rehabilitation of children were in place.
Clearly, the Commission’s concerns were not heeded.
After the notices, residents protested. Gorana said that 15 to 30 women were detained in police stations during the protests, with no first information reports (FIRs) registered. He said they were released once protests died down.
Crippled Lives, Devastated Families
The after effects of the demolitions, made more acute with no rehabilitation, have plunged the displaced families of Churiya mohalla into a sea of difficulties.
Losing the security of living in their own homes, families must now pay monthly rent.
“We have to pay for everything now, including water, electricity, food and rent,” said a woman, who would not reveal her name, in a crowd of people disconsolately sharing their stories.
“If we have to pay Rs 5,000 for rent per month, then what is left for us?” she said. “We barely have proper food. How can we take care of the education of our children in this condition? We have lost everything, our children lost all their books. We have to start from scratch.”
Reena Jain, 26, said that she had not been able to pay her son’s elementary school fees since July 2023. Families who could previously afford to send their children to private schools could no longer manage with the added cost of rent.
Rent for larger homes is about Rs 10,000 per month, leaving most families with the only affordable option: single rooms. Kavita Sahani, 17, and her family of nine now live in a single room. The rent is Rs 3500, 17% of their income. The family said that they had been managing by borrowing from two moneylenders. Similarly, from a two-story home, Sanju and his five family members now live in a single room.
Daily struggles have kept many absent from work. Some have been fired, as was Jain’s husband, who was employed in a private company.
Ratan Lal, 51, was a security guard at an office. He and his wife, a kidney patient, and son now live in a single room, with a monthly rent of Rs 2000. Providing for his wife is harder than before, he said.
After losing their home, Ratan Lal missed many days of work and was fired. His son now works, but the family finds it hard to pay for food. They barely turn on lights to keep electricity bills as low as possible.
Suman Uday, 47, a resident and local activist, said many struggled with depression and even suicidal thoughts.
“People are talking about suicide, so many children whose homes were demolished cannot attend school anymore, many families have returned to their villages,” she said.
Ratan Lal said, “People are falling ill because of what they are going through”.
As schools reopened in July 2023, many children of Tughlakabad began the academic year with their lives upturned. Education is being disrupted or lost entirely.
We found about 50 youth who had dropped out of school, or were unable to start college. Parents said that they were getting calls from teachers to send children to school, but they could not.
Many families, as we said, have had to send children to live with relatives.
Jarina Khatoon, 44, sent her two daughters, 18 and 25, to stay with their khaala (maternal aunt). They have stopped education. One wanted to be a nurse, but the family has no money for admission. Her son has dropped out of school to work.
“I wanted our children to study and lead better lives. I want my daughters to be educated,” said Khatoon, sobbing. “We are poor, it was our only hope and dream for the future. They are not with me, I am concerned about them.”
“Modi says, Beti pathao, beti bachao (educate daughters, save daughters),” said Khatoon. “Is this how our daughters are saved?”
Swapna Mandal, 12, a 7th-standard student, took us to the site of her razed home. “This was where my room was before,” said Mandal, daughter of a factory worker. “I lost all my things, and my mother has no money to buy anything new. I wanted to be a doctor. I love studying, but I cannot study well in our single room.”
When we met Kavita Sahani, 17, she smiled shyly. As she began to narrate what happened, her eyes welled up. She missed her friends, her home, tuition classes and much more. Since the demolition, she has not been able to study.
“My father does not have the money for my admission to a nursing college, and our homes are gone,” said Sahani. “I miss many things, especially my classes. But what can we do? All my other friends have joined college. I have nothing to do these days, I cannot study.”
‘All We Want Is Our Land Back’
Khatoon and another woman had placed a cot, some leftover vegetables, and a bucket under a tarpaulin spread on the open ground, over the rubble where the demolitions took place.
When we visited in early August 2023, about three months after the demolitions, we found many women spending their days and evenings at the demolition site. Some were separated from their families.
“We cook and sleep here,” said Tabassum Badshah, 39. “We will live and die here. We want our land back. That’s the only thing we need.”
Sahani spent her days in a frail, shabby enclosure made of plastic sheets. She and her family of eight preferred to live where their home once was than in a single room. They made do with a few utensils and necessities enough to survive, holding on to important documents, such as Aadhaar cards.
Badshah said she had lost key documents, including her Aadhaar card, during the demolition. Fortunately, she was able to keep her electricity bills as address proof.
“We have been paying our taxes and bills for all these years,” said Badshah. “Why would the government shun us now? We are poor people, we worked hard our entire lives to build these homes. We want our land back.”
Khatoon worried about her daughters “How can our daughters live in this open space, we have nowhere to go,” she said, weeping.
When we visited the site in September 2023, we found the area of Khatoon, Badshah and others’ razed homes deserted. The women and their families were gone. A security guard was stationed, and labourers were clearing out the rubble. A new boundary wall had been erected on one side of the area, where thousands of homes once stood. Gorana said he believes the ASI is behind these developments.
Struggling without rehabilitation, some families went to a local political leader, whom they know as netaji (leader). The only response they got was, “Let’s see during the next elections.”
(Hana Vahab is an independent journalist and researcher focusing on human rights, education and gender.)
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