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SC order to raze Khori Gaon is a jarring example of coercive environmentalism

Manju Menon, Kanchi Kohli write: This is return to an era of green imperialism, wherein forests around the country are routinely handed over for capitalist profiteering while the landless poor are displaced in the name of restoring ecologies.

Structures being razed at Khori village. (Express Photo by Gajendra Yadav)

On July 23, the Supreme Court heard five petitions on the evictions of Khori Gaon, a large informal workers’ settlement at the foothills of the Aravallis on the Delhi-Haryana border. Four petitions arose after the SC ordered the petitioner in the lead case, the Municipal Corporation of Faridabad (MCF), to evict the basti in the middle of the pandemic in 2020. Following these orders, nearly a lakh people have been pushed into the throes of suffering as most of them have lost their only home in this world.

This judicial action has also been extended to “all unauthorised structures” in Haryana. This is demonstrative of the return to an era of green imperialism, wherein using “rule of law”, well-maintained forests around the country are routinely handed over for capitalist profiteering through private mines, dams and real estate development while the landless poor are displaced from public lands in the name of restoring ecologies.

The razing of Khori Gaon is a jarring example of forest conservation models that frame forests versus people. While our environmental institutions keep reestablishing this framing, projects done by ecologists and social activists have tried to break down the hard boundaries between these constituencies. The Forest Rights Act was enacted to restore the dignity and place-based rights of Adivasi communities and forest workers. Policies for the relocation of people even from protected areas and tiger reserves now eschew forced evictions and encourage voluntary rehabilitation. Yet, this middle ground of humane approaches to conservation keeps getting hijacked by top-down, coercive models the state is used to.

Through the MCF’s case, the Haryana state government and judiciary are aiming to create a tabula rasa by violently erasing a large settlement and restoring forest cover in the Aravallis using the colonial Punjab Land Presentation Act of 1900. The MCF has the ignominious success of vacating 150 acres of urban land with the most dense habitation of affordable homes of the working poor. The basti residents have been repeatedly vilified as “forest encroachers” even though most of them have some documentation to show that they were sold small plots of land. But no government agency has bothered to check the documents and trace under whose patronage an entire settlement of nearly 10,000 houses came up on public land. Such an investigation would probably point in politically inconvenient directions. This might explain the hurry to tear down the whole basti.

Environmentalists and housing rights activists are aghast that the orders of the highest court have been instrumentalised to unleash the worst form of violence against a community that already has its back to the wall due to the pandemic. The Municipal Corporation shut off electricity and water tankers to the basti in the middle of the summer. When the residents protested, many were beaten and arrested. The demolitions started the day the monsoons arrived in these parts and now many of them are homeless and sick.

The SC has expanded this case to cover all forest violations in Haryana. That is a long list because forest land under the PLPA covers 25 per cent of Haryana. It includes lands that are public and privately owned in rural and urban areas. The SC’s aim is ostensibly to treat all encroachers as equals. But they are all clearly not equal by class, by opportunity, by location or by nature of the violation. Ishita Chatterjee’s scholarly work on Khori Gaon shows that this basti should be seen as restorer of quarry land, because the residents turned these areas that were mined till the SC’s mining ban in 2002, into liveable habitats by using individual and community labour. This is no mean feat when governments around the world struggle to reuse mined areas after the earth has been polluted and exhausted of all its productivity.

Poor and migrant workers in cities have little choice but to make homes on public land because the state simply will not provide for them. The state governments that are ever willing to extract their labour loathe to spend on their housing and welfare. The people of Khori Gaon are acutely aware that they are unwanted by the political and bureaucratic establishment that gave them voter IDs, Aadhaar cards, ration cards and other identification. But it has come as a jolt to them that the Supreme Court of India has abandoned them.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 2, 2021 under the title ‘The green warrant’. The authors are with the Centre for  Policy Research.

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