With threat of eviction looming close, slum dwellers squatting on railways land in New Delhi, on Friday launched a stir demanding resettlement and/or upgradation offer from the government at their own terms.
The Railway Basti Jan Sangharsh Morcha, a coalition of slum residents and activists working for the rights of those living in temporary hutments along railway tracks in New Delhi, noted that even though the court had said that there will be no forced eviction immediately, it demanded that the government should provide in-situ upgradation rather than resettling them away from their homes.
The protests come in the wake of a 31 August Supreme Court order in which the apex court had directed removal of 48,000 slum dwellings along 140 kilometres of railway tracks in Delhi within three months in a phased manner.
The top court had also restrained any court from granting any kind of stay with respect to removal of encroachments in the area, adding that there shall not be any kind of political interference in execution of the plan.
"The encroachments which are there in safety zones should be removed within a period of three months and no interference, political or otherwise, should be there and no Court shall grant any stay with respect to removal of the encroachments in the area in question," the court had said.
Following this, Congress leader Ajay Maken and several residents from these clusters urgently approached the court for relief against the demolition order, The Hindu reported.
"Slum dwellers have a fundamental right to the city. They are an integral part of the social and economic fabric of the town... If the demolition of slums is carried out amidst the current pandemic, more than 2,50,000 persons will be forced to move around the city in search for shelter and livelihood," Maken said in his submission to the court, according to the newspaper.
As per rough estimates, there are around 2,40,000 people living in slums in Naraina Vihar, Azadpur, Vihar, Shakur Basti, Mayapuri, Sriniwaspuri, Anand Parbat and Okhla among others.
The Central Government, in response to Maken's plea, clarified on Monday that it had no immediate plans to uproot over 2 lakh families in the middle of the pandemic, adding that discussions were underway between the Union Ministry of Urban Housing Development, the Railways and the Government of NCT of Delhi to implement the top court's order, Hindustan Times reported.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal also assured the slum residents that no sudden coercive action will be taken against them and that their representatives will be invited to be a part of the consultations deciding the fate of the slum residents.
The Delhi government also clarified that any resettlement of rehabilitation will have to be done as per the Delhi Slum and JJ Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy, 2015.
According to the said policy, residents of jhuggi jhopri clusters which have come up before 01 January 2006 shall not be removed without rehabilitation. Furthermore, the policy favours in-situ rehabilitation " which provides for alternative accomodation in the same place as the slum cluster.
The residents association welcomed the statements made by the Central and state governments, but decided to go ahead with the protest to seek a lasting solution to the problem.
Among other things, the residents have demadned to be consulted during the planning, the rehabilitation plan prioritises in-situ upgradation, and that resettlement should be treated only as a last resort.
The slum dwellers feel that the timing of the Supreme Court order was particularly harsh as the poor had been already reeling under the impact of COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown.
Forty-eight-year-old Veeramma, who works as a domestic help in the nearby domestic clusters, says that the pandemic took away her entire family's livelihood and now the court's order could mean that she may also become homeless.
"My husband cannot move. My son is a daily wager, he doesn't have much work, too. We don't have enough ration to feed the family for another week," said Veeramma looking at her two-year-old granddaughter, a third generation to be born in the slum cluster.
"We don't have the money for my granddaughter's milk. Even if we beg, we won't get anything. The times were never so bad," she told PTI.
Elumalai, 35, reminded the government''s promise of "jahan jhuggi wahin makan" made before the elections.
"We do not say we won't accept the court''s order. This land belongs to the railways and they will take it one day, but where will we go? No one cares for us," Elumalai, whose father came to Delhi from Chennai in 1978, told PTI.
Interestingly, each household in the slum has got electricity connection, Aadhaar card, voter id, and ration card, the news agency reported.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government had built community toilets for the slum dwellers last year, so that no one defecates in the open or on the tracks, Shankar Sarangam, a driver told PTI.
"The salary has been reduced by half. I have a family to feed. We were thankful to god that we have a roof over our head. Now the jhuggi will be gone, too. The railways should have at least considered the timing of the move. The impact of the pandemic will linger on for another three years," Sarangam added.
With inputs from PTI