As the row over the death of a toddler during a demolition drive to free encroached railway land in Delhi reached Parliament, the Railways came under fire from the Delhi High Court Monday for clearing the Shakurbasti jhuggi cluster “without alternate arrangements” for rehabilitation of its residents “in the biting cold”.
“What was the tearing hurry to demolish in December? …You really don’t care about the people, you just want to remove them,” the bench of Justices
S Muralidhar and Vibhu Bakhru told Railways counsel Jagjeet Singh, pointing out that there were “a number of children suffering out there”.
“This court can’t help but observe that this action exposed them to grave risk considering the peak winter season,” the bench said, noting that reports indicated that the drive had “already led to the unfortunate demise of one child”.
It directed that no further action to remove people from the area be taken until “a satisfactory rehabilitation plan is in place”.
The direction came on a PIL filed by Congress leader Ajay Maken through advocate Aman Panwar who sought court orders to “ensure” rehabilitation of the displaced residents of the jhuggi cluster.
The bench pulled up the Railways after counsel Singh failed to answer queries on whether a proper survey of the area had been done as per law. He was unable to say how many jhuggis were in the area or the number of people affected since he had “not had any time” to get data from the Railways.
“Was there any survey,” the bench asked, adding that “Railways had no business removing people” who were protected from removal under the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) policy and the Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Act which provides for protection of jhuggi clusters which existed before 2006.
Singh said he had not received any briefing from officials except for the information that notices had been issued prior to the demolition.
“You are forgetting what your role as a public authority is. Your role is to ensure that people who satisfy the eligibility criteria don’t get removed. Just because you’re the Railways doesn’t mean the law doesn’t apply to you,” the bench said.
The court directed that “responsible senior officials” from the Railways, Delhi Police and DUSIB be present in court Wednesday “with all relevant documents” to answer queries on the demolition drive.
The Railways argued that it was “not responsible for rehabilitation” since it did not have alternate land. Singh told the court that Railways had “paid 11 crore to the DUSIB” to remove the jhuggi cluster but the agency failed to do it. The DUSIB counsel, however, said they had not even been informed that the demolition drive was to take place.
Singh argued that the removal of the jhuggi cluster was “necessary” since it was “right next to the railway tracks.”
“We had to remove them because they were in the safety zone… they were sitting on the tracks and stopping trains. There were also deaths,” Singh argued.
The bench, however, refused to accept the argument. “Are they safe now? You have forced them to suffer and shiver in the cold. Every minute that they sped out in the cold counts,” the bench said.
The Railways claimed that notices for pending demolitions had been issued in March and again in September, but the drive could not be carried out as Delhi Police delayed providing police personnel to support the demolition drive.
The bench also refused to accept the argument that the demolition drive was undertaken under orders from the National Green Tribunal which last week imposed a fine of Rs 5 lakh on the Railways, and 1 lakh each on DDA and DUSIB for failing to clear jhuggi clusters near the railways tracks. The bench commented that the government “did not take action” on several orders issued by various courts “till heavy costs were imposed.”
“Given the scale of the human tragedy, the court expects all parties to act in coordination to ensure that relief and rehabilitation are given to persons who lost their homes. This should be done without regard to the legality of the Shakurbasti slum as it existed,” the bench said.