A YEAR after Shillong was brought to a standstill by violent clashes at Punjabi Lane, the Shillong Municipal Board (SMB) on Friday put up notices asking its residents to furnish information and documents certifying them as owners of a land or structure there. This was meant to formulate a policy to solve their long pending issues, the SMB said.
The Punjabi community that forms a majority of the residents of the lane has reacted sharply to the notice, seeing it as another bid to oust them. A statement by the Harijan Panchayat Committee of the area invoked a high court order saying the residents should not be disturbed in any way and calls the SMB’s move “unlawful and a deliberate violation”. Punjabi Lane houses about 350 families of Punjab-origin Dalit Sikhs whose ancestors had been brought as scavengers and sweepers to the hill station by the British over a century ago, and is still — including in the SMB notice — referred to by some as ‘Sweeper’s Lane’.
The May 31, 2018, violence, had been triggered by a minor skirmish, bringing forth a long-festering demand to relocate the residents of Punjabi Lane.
Last year, the residents had appealed to the Meghalaya High Court to counter any attempts to relocate them. In his order staying the process of relocation initiated by the HLC and government, Justice S R Sen of the Meghalaya HC said on February 15, “I direct the government and all the other agencies not to disturb the petitioners in any manner and, if at all they want to evict or remove them, they are to approach the civil court.”
In mid-May though, a High-Level Committee (HLC) formed by the Meghalaya government and headed by Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong gave the residents a month to prove they live in the area “legally”. It also instructed the SMB to create “an inventory of properties” belonging to the residents. However, an attempt to conduct the survey had been foiled by residents, leading to the notice.
Says Meghalaya Health and Family Welfare Minister A L Hek, who is also a member of the HLC, “We will be listing how many people with government service stay in Punjabi Lane. Their rehabilitation is our responsibility. We are not going to throw them out.” Gurjeet Singh, president of the Gurdwara Committee of Punjabi Lane and secretary of the Harijan Panchayat Committee, asks what would happen to the others. “The terms of reference of the HLC are themselves wrong. They call it the HLC ‘for relocation’. Should it not be HLC for ‘redevelopment’?”
The demand to relocate residents of Punjabi Lane has grown steadily with time. The area is adjacent to Iewduh or Bara Bazar, the city’s largest traditional market, and stands out with its odd cluster of wooden houses with tin roofs. Many argue that a commercial hub should not have a residential area. Others claim that the locality has become a den for criminals and “illegal” settlers.