As a harsh north Indian winter sets in amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic, over 50 families in Varanasi are paying the price for “beautification” ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit to his constituency on November 30.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to inaugurate the six-lane Varanasi-Prayagraj road project on ‘Dev Deepawali’. The inauguration is expected to take place in the presence of about 5,000 people in the Mirzamurad area of Varanasi. Following the inauguration and after watching the light and sound show at Sarnath, the PM is slated to attend the Deepotsav on the Ganges Ghats.
Amid the preparations for the grand event, over 50 families comprising about 250 people, including children and the elderly, are currently camping out in the open without food or water in Suzabad town. The area is clearly visible from the bridge that connects Mughal Sarai and Rajghat, from where Modi’s convoy is likely to pass.
According to reports a helipad is being constructed barely a kilometre away from where the families shanties were.
Gulabi (name changed), a resident of the area, asked: “We are being told to go away or there will be consequences; where do we go with small children?”
The dwellers are demanding that they be rehabilitated as they are currently camping out in the open near the site, where their makeshift tents were set up initially. They were later removed by the Uttar Pradesh police over the course of the last two days. The slums were initially razed in February this year. Since then, the families have been scrambling for shelter.
Image credit: Saurabh Singh, Inner Voice Foundation
Sarita (name changed), another resident of the area, alleged that the police were harassing them. “Women are sleeping under polythene and they are touching us while we are under blankets to keep a check on us. We are extremely scared; we have been told that they will beat us up with the help of female police officers,” she said. “The police told us that they do not care about our life and livelihood; they said that the Prime Minister is visiting and if we are seen, we will be beaten up,” she added.
Rajesh (name changed), an elderly resident said that they are being “dragged out forcefully” and not being rehabilitated. “We have been telling them that if they want to remove us, just tell us where to go. We fear that they may register cases against us,” he added.
The trend of removing the marginalised from the streets during a high profile visit is not new. It happened during PM Modi’s previous visit. When US President Donald Trump visited India earlier this year, walls were erected in order to hide slums.
The residents of the shanties allege that they were not given any prior notice and no alternative shelter. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court had issued a strict order to states against forced evictions. In a bid to help out the dwellers, multiple appeals have been made to the administration for rehabilitation.
Speaking to NewsClick, Saurabh Singh, an activist working with the dwellers said: “The problem was compounded in February this year. The dwellers generally occupied the space around the massive Deen Dayal Upadhyay Moorti. After being removed from the site, they struggled for shelter and rations during the pandemic. Now, as the harsh winter settles in, the women are creating shelters with saris and other material. We had written to the authorities and even the SDM. Now, ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit, their houses have been destroyed yet again.”
Singh added, “We request Mr. Modi to take notice of how the guidelines of the Supreme Court on evictions are being flouted openly; we want for these people to be rehabilitated immediately.”