When riverbed becomes real estate

The banks of Yamuna have witnessed many forced evictions of illegal settlers over the years. The officials, however, turn a blind eye to encroachment by massive infrastructures.
Forced evictions before the Commonwealth Games. (Source: Housing and Land Rights Network) Forced evictions before the Commonwealth Games. (Source: Housing and Land Rights Network)

Shalu’s household was evicted from Koyla Basti of the Yamuna pushta (embankment), a massive slum cluster on the banks of the Yamuna river in the year 2004. Earthmoving machines bulldozed thousands of homes at the site which was to host the Commonwealth Games of 2010.

Resettled in Bhalaswa, Shalu (42) and her husband, both ragpickers, were asked to pay Rs 7,000 by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) for securing a house at the resettlement colony. Access to schools, ration shops and hospitals and livelihood options were tough initially. Yet, she considers herself lucky to have got resettlement accommodation which was not the case with some of her friends at the slum.

She narrates the precarious situation faced by most slum dwellers at Yamuna pushta who had no legal rights to the land they had occupied for decades. Most of them did not receive title deeds when they moved into the slums. All their investment in building a house and obtaining access to other essential services to better their lives went in vain and they ended up stranded and shelterless.

Shalu works as a ragpicker at the Bhalaswa dump site now.

Shalu and her husband had bought some land in the pushta’s low-lying floodable area from an early settler who had come along a 13-lakh labour force that migrated to Delhi in the 1980s for the development of the Asiad Games infrastructure. When Shalu moved here in 1997, she could not lay her hands on affordable legal land in the city. She joined the migrant population who kept pouring into the jhuggi (makeshift hut) clusters near the Yamuna pushta. The couple reclaimed the land and did riverbed cultivation. Since their slums were low lying and got flooded every monsoon, they sought refuge in temporary camps during floods. Basic facilities were minimal but like most migrants, she received voter’s card and ration card with time. Work opportunities were available nearby, in the old city’s wholesale market of Khari Baoli. “The politicians used the insecurity of the slum dwellers to bind them in their political patronage network. After all, they were a valuable vote bank,” says Pushpa of Lok Shakti Manch, a civil society group active in Bhalaswa.

As per reports, more than four lakh residents of the Yamuna pushta had seen their homes demolished and swept completely off during 2004-2010 as part of Delhi’s beautification drive. Only a small number of them were resettled. A petition by the Housing and Land Rights Network says, “The demolitions were reported to have been accompanied by the excessive use of force, arrests, detentions, and ill treatment of the slum dwellers.”

Eviction looms large as Delhi grooms

Cut to March 2016. Shalu sits chatting outside her new home next to an open drain. Her one-room house of 12 square metre in the colony’s tightly-packed earthen street is powered by stolen electricity lines. As with most resettlement colonies, Bhalaswa’s living environment is anything but good. "The people were told that the landfill will one day be a park but all of that garbage with its foul smell stays put over there,” says Pushpa. 

Shalu laments that she was evicted to make way for games infrastructure and the city’s beautification drive. “It is my mortal fear that someday we will be asked to clear this place, too. We will be reduced to squatters or end up living in tin ka dabba (corrugated iron shacks) then,” Shalu adds. Her claim to the city has been destabilised.

“Twelve years after she got evicted, the Yamuna pushta continues to house numerous homeless people but much of the riverbed has paved way for the construction of Commonwealth Games Village,” says Shalu. Commonwealth Games are over but the beautification drive on the Yamuna riverbed continues. Pollution too has emerged as a big issue in this conflict over land-use now. “Yet, massive infrastructure continues to thrive on the riverbed--Delhi Metro Rail Corporation Depot, Akshardham Temple and the Commonwealth Games Village,” says Indrashish of Housing and Land Rights Network (HRLN), a Delhi-based advocacy group.

Another spate of evictions

During the evictions for the Commonwealth Games, the government was armed with a March 2003 order from the Delhi high court which called for the removal of encroachment on the Yamuna bed. Hearing a petition against the encroachment, the high court had ordered the Delhi as well as the central governments to clear the banks of the Yamuna.

Media reports suggest that in the past two months, Delhi municipal authorities have undertaken a massive demolition drive around the Yamuna banks. An order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) of January 2015 is being cited by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) for carrying out forced evictions. The order is based on a study by The Energy Research Institute in 2012 that indicated the presence of heavy metals in both irrigation water and on the floodplain soil. This led the NGT to prohibit the cultivation of edible crops and vegetables on the floodplains of the river citing that the “river’s water is highly polluted as it carries sewage and effluent from industries, but is still used for irrigation that can permeate the food chain and have harmful effects on humans”. People living and farming on over 800 acres of riverbed have been evicted. This time also, the demolitions were accompanied by excessive use of force, says Indrashish.

Forced evictions against right to life

“Forced evictions are widespread across the Yamuna riverbed even to this day. All this when official records point to the practice of riverbed cultivation during the winter season when the bed is dry in lieu of revenue paid by farmers,” says Abdul Shakeel of HRLN. “This is something that had been acknowledged in the city’s masterplan, yet it is considered illegal,” he adds.

Bibhuti Singh, the president of Delhi Peasants Multipurpose Society, the farmers’ organisation that challenged the court’s order in 2015, said in an earlier interview to India Water Portal, “The decision is hasty. We should have been given more time.” Over 10,000 farmers cultivating on the Yamuna bed are a part of this group. The court had refused to entertain the plea of the society in this case.

“Both international as well as national law regards forced eviction as a gross violation of human rights, not considering whether the land is under legal or illegal occupation,” says Shakeel. The environment minister of Delhi, Kapil Mishra was quoted as saying, “Why are they (DDA) evacuating farmers now? What is the problem if they agree to practice organic agriculture? How can you evict them when the Commonwealth Games Village is encroaching (upon) the bank? In fact, in some ways, the farmers have been protecting the river land from being encroached further."

This view was echoed by Vishwanath Srikantaiah of Biome Environment Solutions, a Bangalore-based design firm. “The judgment is both arbitrary and impractical and the case for cleaning up the river is being overstated”. “It is the city as a whole and not just the farmers who are polluting the river. Why should the farmers be singled out for punishment?” he told India Water Portal. Yet the DDA went ahead with its eviction drive which is likely to push many into dire poverty.

Abdul Shakeel recounts the history of forced evictions on the Yamuna's banks through the 1970s which peaked in 2006-2007 when the DDA went all out to free up the land for projects related to Commonwealth Games. “It’s a real challenge to improve lives in slums near the Yamuna without secure tenure. The Delhi high court’s order of May 2002, too directs that the slums at the Yamuna pushta be demolished, making it easier for the DMC to issue eviction notices and eventually demolish them,” adds Shakeel.

Tension simmers between those who like the right to property be respected and the others who stress on the welfare of the poor. In the case of Yamuna pushta, the petitions (in high court) to do away with the slum communities was filed mostly by factory owners and resident welfare associations nearby. “They ignored the fact that the poor have no choice but to be reduced to ‘illegal’ settlers in the absence of affordable housing,” says Shakeel.

In December 2015, the Delhi government’s parastatal, Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) approved the Delhi Slum & Jhuggi Jhopri Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy 2015. “Taking January 1, 2006, as the cut-off for slum-dwellers, the policy envisages that flats will be provided as a part of the rehabilitation plan,” says Shakeel. “However, no matter what the policy says, the land owning agency of DDA has always had problems in handing over lands to DUSIB on reasonable terms and conditions,” says Pushpa.  

What can be done?

Delhi has a long history of inadequate resettlement of displaced communities. Dunu Roy, director of the Hazards Centre, an organisation that works on the development policy and practice, points out, “During the 2002-04 evictions prior to the Commonwealth Games, homes of over 36,000 families were demolished and only about 9,000 were resettled in distant colonies. Many of the remaining people are either homeless, or have gone back to their villages, or found some rented or vacant space to occupy ("encroach"), or are living in fresh slums located right next to the resettlement colonies. The spaces that were vacated in 2002-04 have already been taken over by freeways, parks, and building complexes.”

Shahana Sheikh and Subhadra Banda of the Centre for Policy Research's Cities of Delhi project concur with this and recommend in-situ upgradation. They assert that improving the environment of slums by providing infrastructure improves housing conditions for the poor with minimum disruption. Despite this, in-situ upgradation has been implemented in very few areas. In a paper on the subject, they say, “We encountered two frequent explanations for the challenges facing implementation of the scheme: non-tenability and the difficulty of obtaining NOCs. We believe, therefore, that in-situ upgradation can be easily implemented in jhuggi jhopri clusters that meet two conditions: those that have been classified as “tenable” and are located on the land owned by the DUSIB. In “tenable” settlements, neither land use violations nor safety hazards should force the relocation of residents.”

When people are evicted from their homes despite policy recommendations to the contrary, there is no option but to believe that vested interests direct these evictions. As Dunu Roy says, “A different approach could have been to improve the living conditions in the existing slums, but the price of real estate is what government agencies and builders are eyeing.

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