Bulldozer Raj Continues to Attack Delhi’s Urban Poor


Bulldozer Raj Continues to Attack Delhi’s Urban Poor 

Akash Bhattacharya

Targeting Pucca Houses

Demolitions in Delhi have been happening at an escalating pace over the last few months. In slums all around the city, demolitions became an issue during the municipal elections. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) promised the voters that if they won the election, they would use their combined clout in the Legislative Assembly and the Municipal Corporation (MCD) to bring slum demolitions to a halt. Soon after the elections, eviction notices were served in Mehrauli and Tughlakabad, potentially affecting over a lakh people.

The demolition drives all over the country have displayed several features so far. On the one hand, it has been used as a form of political vendetta against dissenters, especially against Muslims. It has become one of the ways in which the state displays its brute power. On the other hand, it has been used to displace “illegal” slum dwellers during the pandemic and after. Slum demolition has a long history in India. With increasing urbanization and the lack of quality housing in cities, slums have increased and so have the anxieties surrounding them. 

In Delhi, the bulldozers have been deployed primarily to root out “illegal constructions” in a city where more than 70% of houses do not have “authorised” status. “Illegal” buildings include elite apartment blocks, farmhouses and hotels belonging to the rich, which have so far not been targeted. The slums have borne the brunt of the demolition drives. Increasingly we find the bulldozers targeting constructed “pucca” houses as well, inhabited not by the lowermost rung of the urban poor but by long-settled working-class families which are on the cusp of inter-generational upward mobility. This marks an expansion of the state’s war on the working classes.   

In Kharak Satbari near Chhattarpur a brutal demolition drive unfolded on 21 October 2022. With a 70% Muslim population, Kharak Satbari is a warren of two-storey and three-storey homes, finished with plaster or cheap tiles, stuck together along narrow streets. The homes are occupied by working class families, including street vendors, small businessmen, people engaged in domestic or construction work, some self-employed, who have lived there for decades and have managed to give their children a good education. According to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the homes in Kharak Satbari were demolished after the agency lost a land dispute with a private construction company. Mirroring similar recent actions in India’s capital city, the demolition was undertaken in violation of Supreme Court orders and New Delhi’s own municipal statutes. 

Eviction Notices in Mehrauli and Tughlakabad

On 22 December 2022, an eviction notice was issued in Mehrauli, covering 33 khasras which, as per DDA’s claims, belong to the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. This area includes a long stretch starting from Mehrauli bus stand to Andheria More. Although the DDA claims this area as its land, an AICCTU team learnt (based on preliminary investigation) that the land is in fact divided into four parts: some of it is privately owned, some it is DDA land, some comes under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and some under the Waqf Board. Interestingly the residents of the targeted areas include some middle-class families living in apartment blocks as well.

Soon after, another notice was served in Tughlakabad. On 11 January 2023, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) issued eviction notices to all “unauthorized” households within an area of 100 metres of the historic Tughlakabad Fort. Residents were asked to vacate the premises at their own cost within 15 days or face a demolition drive. Most of the houses targeted are not jhuggis but constructed houses, resided in by workers of various categories, small shopkeepers, petty businessmen - all belonging to the category of the urban poor. They are predominantly Hindu.

The current notice was served in the context of an earlier order issued by the Supreme Court (SC) in 2016. In February 2016, the SC directed the ASI to remove all “encroachers” and to file periodic status reports on the same. There have been small scale demolitions over the last few years in the aftermath of the 2016 order. On 24 November 2022 the SC gave the ASI six weeks to remove all “encroachments” and file another status report on 16 January. That report is yet to be filed.

There are crucial loopholes in the justification for the eviction notice in Tughlakabad. As per the 24 November order, the necessary survey – which would ascertain the legality of each household – is yet to be completed, and hence the notice is uncalled for. Besides, the demolition notice made no mention of rehabilitation.

The ASI had told the court that its survey had not been completed for “reasons beyond control” and listed “unrest” as one of the prime reasons. The ASI was hiding some key facts. The designated 100-metre radius contained a government school and dispensary as well as houses of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Mr. Ramesh Bidhuri. None of those buildings seemed to have been earmarked for demolition. The presence of these buildings is a key reason as to why the ASI is reluctant to complete the survey.

Learning Lessons from Haldwani

The key feature in the latest round of demolition / eviction notices is the targeting of constructed houses as opposed to make-shift slums and shanties. As we have already stated, the targeted sections consist of workers who have worked in the city for decades and have thereby gained a certain amount of social and cultural capital. Some low middle classes houses have been targeted as well. These people have been able to put up a sharper resistance than slum-dwellers.

Over the last few weeks, the affected people have displayed a remarkable ability to reach out to civil society organizations, lawyers and to political parties to mobilize support for their cause. AICCTU has played a leading role in these mobilizations and organized a demonstration at Jantar Mantar on 20 January 2023 under the banner of Awas Adhikar Manch. It was attended by residents of Chhattarpur, Mehrauli and Tughlakabad and well covered by the media.

Notably, the eviction orders in Mehrauli and Tughlakabad came at a time when the mass protest at Banbhoolpura in Haldwani (Uttarakhand) had succeeded in extracting a favourable stay order from the Supreme Court. The success of the mass mobilization as a tactic had become public, and the residents of Mehrauli followed suit. A Jan Sangharsh Samiti came together and organized a panchayat and a candle march to draw attention to the situation.

The complications regarding the land titles as well class differences remain a barrier to greater unity and solidarity within the Mehrauli Jan Sangharsh Samiti, but the level of unity achieved despite these barriers is noteworthy. In Tughlakabad, there was a spontaneous protest of hundreds of residents and a peaceful road block the day after the eviction notice was issued. Here the challenge is not much internal class differences but the enormous stranglehold that the local land mafia over the area. The mafia actively prevented people from attending the Jantar Mantar demonstration on 20 January. 

Towards a Housing and Land Rights’ Movement

The result of these protracted demonstrations is that while there is no stay order in any the three targeted areas viz. Chhattarpur, Mehrauli or Tughlakabad, there have been no further demolition either since the 21 October demolition drive in Kharak Satbari. Temporary relief is being sought in all these cases either through courts of law or through local political negotiations. AAP has played a key role in facilitating the negotiations with local BJP MPs and DDA officials, which has temporarily reassured some residents.

These short-term localized arrangements shave in turn stymied the potential of a concerted city-wide mass movement against the bulldozer raj, at least for now. AICCTU activists have communicated to people everywhere that settling for vague promises and short-term resolutions will be of little use, given the determination of the government to forge ahead with the demolitions at the first available opportunity in the coming years.

There is a need to demand a permanent resolution through regularisation and the granting of land and housing rights to the working classes, who have a right to the city which they run. AICCTU has demanded that the courts should stop calling the workers “encroachers” and recognize them as workers. The time is perhaps ripe for trade unions to take up the question of workers’ housing on a larger scale.

Land and housing crisis has always been a feature of Indian cities. Now with increasing urbanization, it is heading towards a tipping point and the burden is being shifted to the poor. This is emerging as a key pillar of inequality. Only trade unions with a strong commitment to workers’ causes can launch a successful land and housing rights’ movement in the semi-urban and urban areas, which can in turn help broaden the social and political base of working-class movements.