“They have taken away our homes; we have nowhere to go and no one to help us,” lamented Muhammad Ilias. The 76-year-old, who hails from Araria in Bihar, had lived in a hut in Jamia Nagar’s Dhobi Ghat slum cluster for over two decades until the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) razed his home during a demolition drive on September 24, 2020. Ilias, who is visually impaired, now lives in a makeshift structure with his family of 14.
All the slum-dwellers whose homes were demolished by the DDA during September and October last year are in the same boat now. More than 700 residents were forcefully evicted and over 200 huts were destroyed during the first phase of the demolition drive. On October 8, 2020, a second phase of demolitions was initiated by the DDA with bulldozers destroying the rest of the jhuggis when most residents were out working.
A month ago – in December – the DDA dug up the residents’ land in order to construct boundaries and elevated structures resulting in deep swamps where their homes once stood.
Speaking to NewsClick, 26-year-old Bibi Akhteri, a mother of two, said: “We have nothing left. None of us were home when they came and destroyed them. No one told us it was going to happen.”
Her family of four now shares a tiny temporary tent with another family of six. There is just enough space for them to lie down if they all huddle up together. Bibi Akhteri works as a domestic help in a nearby house. Her husband, Mohammad Jahangir, is a manual labourer. She was born in the Dhobi Ghat slum; it was the only home she had known. Her family had lived there for 27 years.
“The ones who could afford to rent huts after the slums were demolished have done it. The rest of us have nowhere to go. We do not earn enough to be able to pay rent,” she said. Like Ilias, her family is also from Araria. “Floods have destroyed our homes in the village. We don’t even have somewhere to go back to,” she added.
Bibi Akhteri is also a part of the Dhobi Ghat Jhuggi Adhikar Manch. The women of Dhobi Ghat have formed the collective to agitate for ‘Jahaan Jhuggi Wahan Makaan’ (Home where the jhuggi was). Members of civil society had distributed clothes, shawls, blankets, ration kits and tarpaulins among the families. “However,” she said: “The guard came and tore off the tarpaulin. We don’t even have the right to protect ourselves and our children from the cold.”
The dwellers have repeatedly asked local Aam Aadmi Party MLA Amanatullah Khan for help. However, no one has shown any interest in helping them. Saira, 28, another resident of the slum, said, “We have gone to Amanatullah’s house four times. He either refuses to say anything or tells us to go to the police station. The police tell us that this is a sarkaari maamla, they cannot do anything. Members of the committee even went to Chief Minister Kejriwal’s office, but he did not meet them,” Saira said.
According to the residents, water tankers used to come to the area earlier but since the slums were demolished those tankers have not been seen. They do not have access to clean water. Ilias said, “Sometimes, some kind locals let us take water from their taps.” His wife, Sabina, told NewsClick: “When they demolished our homes there was nothing left. We had no food, no utensils to cook in. It was all gone.”
Ilias and Sabina live with their son, daughter-in-law, a widowed daughter and nine grandchildren. His son, a manual labourer, is the sole breadwinner in the family.
Bibi Akhteri has two sons, aged nine and 11. She said that while they were both in school, the pandemic struck and “schools are taking classes online. We cannot afford to buy smartphones, so my children have to miss out on their education. This is what worries me the most – more than unemployment and homelessness – that my children cannot study.”
She added that every family in the slum has multiple children and that none of them can study any more because they do not have smartphones. “We can’t even afford to rent rooms or feed our children properly. How will we buy such expensive phones?” she asked.
Earlier this week, the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) released a statement condemning the illegal demolitions by the DDA and expressed their solidarity with the affected people, particularly the women of Jhuggi Adhikar Manch, who have organised themselves and are leading a valiant struggle amid a crisis.
They have demanded that all the residents of Dhobi Ghat be ensured full rehabilitation and fair compensation for all losses with immediate effect by the concerned authorities. NAPM has also demanded that pending rehabilitation, interim monetary grants as well as relief support be extended to all the families by way of food grains, domestic materials and necessary supplies and that special attention is paid to the nutritional, education and health needs of children and women in the area who stand affected by the demolitions. It also called for an inquiry against police personnel who used undue force against the residents including senior citizens, women and children, and suppressed their rightful expression of dissent.