Social Issues

Eviction fear looms large over thousands of slum dwellers in Indian capital

By David Asta Alares

New Delhi, Sep 23 (efe-epa).- After the Covid-19 lockdown shut Rekha Devi’s small dry fruit for months, the young Delhi slum dweller faced another threat of being evicted even as the city and her business were slowly getting back on track.

An eviction order of the Indian Supreme Court could potentially affect over 200,000 people, including Devi, living in shanties along the railway tracks in the Indian capital, and around 70 other families in the same settlement of tiny houses made of tarpaulin and metal sheets.

“When the notice to evict us arrived, we were unable to even sleep at night. We were worried, where would we go with our children if the slums are demolished,” Devi told EFE, covering her face with one end of her colorful sari.

The woman said she and her husband had been selling dry fruits from a small stall close to the colony’s entrance for 15 years.

A neighbor, joining in the conversation in front of the local grocery shop and a small Hindu temple, insisted that she had been living in the small settlement – situated between two bustling streets and a railway line – for 50 years.

This means half a century of living with all the discomforts imaginable: lack of bathrooms and running water, piles of trash gathering around, and being forced to live with dozens of people in narrow lanes that make social distancing practically impossible.

However, the residents insisted that no Covid-19 case had been detected in the neighborhood so far.

Ironically, the number of trains has been reduced due to the pandemic, and now the neighborhood seems like a haven of peace compared to the din of the traffic elsewhere in Delhi, although the pollution is palpable and the danger of living close to railway tracks persists.

On Aug. 31, India’s top court ordered the eviction of slum colonies situated within 15 meters (50 feet) of the railway tracks, a safety zone where the construction of houses is not allowed.

The order covers a total of 48,000 houses or more than 200,000 members of the poorest sections of the society, who live in unauthorized colonies in different places near Delhi’s railway network.

“The encroachments which are there in the safety zones should be removed within a period of three months (without any) interference, political or otherwise,” the court order said.

The affected residents received temporary relief on Sep. 14, when Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta said the government would not carry out evictions during the next few weeks.

The federal government is discussing with the Indian Railways and the provincial government of Delhi, which said last week that it was ready to rehabilitate the 48,000 families.

The fact that the Supreme Court did not even utter a word about the possible rehabilitation of residents has shocked Ali Zia Kabir Choudhary, a lawyer specializing in housing and member of the nonprofit Human Rights Law Network.

“The slum dwellers and the issue of garbage are dealt with in the same paragraph. So in the same stroke, you know, remove the garbage and remove these shanty dwellers,” Chaudhary told EFE indignantly.

The lawyer, whose group has filed a petition to halt the evictions, said that Indian law recognized the right to housing as a fundamental right and there were clear legal precedents in this regard.

He said even when land needed to be acquired for a public purpose, slum residents had to be rehabilitated.

However, during the visit to the slums of Delhi’s Mithai Pul area, HRLN activist Dev Pal Shakya emphasized that the rehabilitation could not be forced.

The locals have solid reasons for refusing to be moved, even to a robust house with running water and electricity.

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