Wednesday, November 29, 2023

‘Left Roofless’: Residents face demolition in New Delhi’s Priyanka Gandhi Camp

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Photo: Ashish Kumar Kataria

In the sweltering heat, a large number of personnel from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), along with the Delhi Police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), were present as they demolished the shanties (Jhuggis) in the Priyanka Gandhi Camp at Vasant Vihar, New Delhi.

The slum cluster entrances were barricaded, preventing residents from accessing their shanties. Despite their requests, officials did not allow them to retrieve their belongings and forcibly pushed them back.

On June 16, the NDRF, in collaboration with the Delhi Police, the National Disaster Management and Response Centre (NDMRC), and the CRPF, carried out a demolition drive at the camp, rendering nearly 500 people homeless.

According to a notice issued by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs on May 19, the residents were informed that they had illegally occupied the land belonging to the NDRF and were instructed to vacate by June 2.

Challenging the notice, the residents filed a petition with the Delhi High Court (HC). However, the High Court did not grant a stay on the demolition and set a deadline of June 15 for the residents to vacate their homes.

The residents, however, claimed that they had been residing there for three decades, since 2001, and possessed official documents such as Aadhar cards, voter ID cards, ration cards, election cards, and electricity bills to prove the legality of their residence.

Lakshmi Prasad, a distressed 52-year-old man, expressed his frustration, stating, “We have been living in this camp for the past thirty years, and now suddenly we are considered illegal occupants?”

He claimed to have all the official documents to prove the land belonged to him.

“It seems like the documents of the poor are not considered valid, and they are left to live in misery, face forced displacement, sleepless nights, and starvation.”

Lakshmi Prasad. Photo: Ashish Kumar Kataria

Prasad added, “The NDRFs approached us a month ago, promising to provide basic facilities and shelter. They asked us to submit photocopies of official documents such as Aadhar cards, Election Cards, Ration Cards, and other documents, which we did. We were assured that our problems would be addressed, but that did not happen.”

Residents claimed that the NDRF requested photocopies of their official documents for a survey but used them as evidence for the demolition rather than for their betterment.

Prasad further explained, “Within a month, we received an eviction notice, which was inhumane and mocking of our desperation. We were told to live in Rain Basera or night shelters, which is not feasible as those are meant for homeless people. We had a roof over our heads, but witnessing the demolition and being denied our rights did not soften the hearts of the authorities.”

According to the 2015 policy announced by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), any pre-2006 Jhuggi Jhopri (JJ) clusters whose residents possessed relevant documents dated before 2015 were entitled to a dignified settlement.

However, this provision was not implemented during the eviction at the Priyanka Gandhi camp, and the affected residents did not receive the dignified settlement they were entitled to.

Arrest and assaults

During the demolition drive, residents alleged that the Delhi Police, along with the CRPF, subjected them to physical assault, harassment, and abuse, particularly targeting women. Several residents were also arrested, and injuries were reported.

Renu, a 32-year-old woman who works as a sweeper, said, “They (Delhi Police, NDRF, and CRPF) arrived in the middle of the night with bulldozers and announced that they would commence demolition in the morning. We had no other place to go. We requested them to spare us from the demolition as we had children and elderly members with us and couldn’t leave immediately.”

“We tried to resist, but the male officials from the Delhi Police beat and harassed us while the female officials stood by as silent witnesses to the atrocities against women. We were arrested when we showed resistance against forced displacement and demolition,” Renu told Maktoob.

“Even a female minister living nearby couldn’t spare a minute to see or help us. She once promised to support us when we sought her assistance, but when the demolition was imminent, she didn’t meet us or say a word. What can we expect from those who have turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the underprivileged and marginalized? We are helpless, hopeless, and now without a roof. Where will I take my family? Nowhere. The male police officials even dragged my daughter on the road, beat her, and arrested us.”

Another resident named Sunita broke her tooth while resisting the demolition. She was allegedly beaten and abused by the police officials.

“We were told to live in Rain Basera. How can I take my daughters there? It’s not safe, and there are concerns about the people who reside there. How can I expect that people living there will treat women with respect? How can I stay there when anything can happen? We don’t want to move there,” Sunita emphasized.

Meanwhile, in 2020, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) allotted land to the NDRF for the construction of its headquarters without considering the presence of the existing residents.

Photo: Ashish Kumar Kataria

Rekha Singh, General Secretary of Gharlu Kaam Kachi Mahila Union, who has been advocating for the welfare of the slum cluster, mentioned, “I have been working for the welfare of this slum cluster, and we have female members from this camp who work with us. One of them, Roshni Mandal, was arrested when her house was being bulldozed.”

“We fought in court for their rehabilitation, but nothing happened. During a hearing, the Additional Solicitor General (ASG), representing the NDRF, claimed that they required the land for their headquarters and shifted the focus towards national security. The court’s interest shifted in favour of the NDRF, which refused to stay the demolition order, leaving the residents devastated. The government expects them to live in Rain Basera, but why should they? Why can’t they be provided proper rehabilitation?” Singh questioned.

However, the matter is scheduled to be heard again on August 3, 2023.

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