The multiple calls to stay at and work from home to curb the COVID-19 outbreak ceased to be a crude joke for residents in Gurugram’s Sikanderpur area, after the municipal body carried out a demolition drive, rendering almost 600 families homeless earlier this week.
The shanties – which were home to many for the past 25 to 30 years – were reduced to rubble in no time. A few days later, a sense of total devastation prevails among the aggrieved residents, who are crying “where do we go now” – with no hope of rehabilitation in sight.
The municipal authorities carried out the destruction on Monday, July 27, for which no prior information was given, Rakesh Kumar, 22, a resident of the area, told NewsClick. The only notice – more like a warning – was conveyed a day earlier, when around 20 homes were demolished in the area, which was known as Shyam Jha Basti for years, according to him.
“We were given only hours before we could collect our belongings. Many now lost their hard-earned savings, along with voter ID and Aadhaar cards – all of which carried the name of our basti as address,” he said.
Majority of the now homeless residents consisted of domestic workers and construction workers who were also among the worst hit due to pandemic-triggered lockdown, which had receded them to further penury. Almost all of them were surviving on their savings – many after losing their jobs – contented only to have a roof which provided a sense of protection against the viral infection.
“Now we wash ourselves, only when it rains. We eat, only when any NGO or social group comes to offer us some help,” Kumar said, who was working as a supervisor at a private company before his office was sealed owing to detection of COVID-19 positive cases in the building.
Kumar’s house, along with others, were demolished as they were encroaching upon government land, in this case belonging to the Haryana Government. Hari Om Attri, joint commissioner, Municipal Corporation Gurugram (MGC), who led the drive told NewsClick that the corporation “acted upon” the February orders, issued by National Green Tribunal (NGT), “which prohibited non-forest activity on forest lands.”
“We were directed to clear the illegal dwellings in the area by the court itself and so we did it,” he said.
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On being asked to share a copy of the NGT order, Attri denied saying that the “[municipal] office is closed today (Saturday).” He, however, confessed that the order didn’t carry any time-bound directions to the corporations. “But, that doesn’t mean, that it shouldn’t be complied with, at the earliest,” Attri added.
But, this justification has been opposed by the human rights activists and trade unionists active in the area, who question the “sudden urgency” shown by the municipal officers in carrying out a demolition drive.
S L Prajapati of Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU) told NewsClick that when he, along with others, approached the municipal corporation, they were informed by the officials there that the land was getting cleared, “for developing a biodiversity park, that is set to be inaugurated by the state Chief Minister himself on the coming August 15.”
A similar allegation was put forward by Kumar as well, according to whom, during the demolition “municipal officials stressed upon clearing even the remaining of our destroyed houses, ‘latest by August 12’, to inaugurate some park.”
Attri, while confirming the talks of a plan to turn the aforementioned land into a biodiversity, denied to attribute the same to any official order. “I don’t know, if any such plan is on paper, as yet. The state government might be planning to do so. We [municipal corporation] only followed the court orders,” he said.
The residents, responding to the double jeopardy that they have been subjected to, approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). In their complaint, the devastated families alleged that around 2,500-3,000 people living in the area, including women and children, “are now living under open sky”; while the local administration has not provided any kind of rehabilitation and alternative.
On Thursday, July 30, taking cognisance of it, the human rights watchdog demanded a report over the actions taken within four weeks and directed its DIG (Investigation) to depute a team for preliminary on spot inquiry.
Ravi Kumar, human rights activist, who has filed the complaint with NHRC, told NewsClick that there couldn’t be any court order which must supersede the recent directive guidelines that are issued by the government machineries in response to the virus outbreak.
“Considering the prevailing conditions, while the government is telling people to stay indoors, wash hands and maintain social distance, these families are pushed out on streets in the name of following court orders. Even natural justice entails any move within the ambit of law must be directed towards the welfare of the people,” he said.
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Moreover, the due process, as per the law, in carrying out the demolition drive was not followed, according to him. There was no information given to these families, as against a 15-day notice mandated under the Haryana Municipal Corporation Act, 1994, Kumar said.
Residents alleged that officials pasted “one notice” only after starting with the eviction process. That notice, accessed by NewsClick, was undated and unsigned, which Attri confirmed was the only “official communication” that was conveyed by the municipal corporation.
Kumar alleged that the authorities are “taking an advantage” of the pandemic situation “in further pushing out poor from the urban dwellings.” Opposing this, a section of residents have also moved the court demanding a stay on the eviction drive. Their hearing is scheduled on August 5.