The decision of the Haryana government to break 10,000 jhuggis without rehabilitation is an act of enormous cruelty. Having settled in the area for two decades and having nowhere to go, an indigent jhuggi owner and construction labourer, Ganeshilal, 70, hanged himself from a tree — on hearing that his house, on which he had spent Rs 2 lakh for renovation, was to be demolished.
The state of Haryana says that the demolition is necessary because the houses are in a “forest area”. If that is the sole reason, how does the state explain the existence of high-end apartments which have been allowed to stand untouched for decades now? The Taj Vivanta Hotel, the Sarovar Portico Hotel, the Pinnacle Business Tower and the Radha Soami Satsang Centre, along with numerous farmhouses, are also said to be within the same forest area.
The right to rehabilitation of destitute jhuggi-dwellers who are currently in occupation of public land is well-settled. The recent judgment of the Delhi High Court in Sudama Singh’s case held that “the denial of the benefits of the rehabilitation… violates their right to shelter guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. In these circumstances, removal of their jhuggis without ensuring their relocation would amount to gross violation of their Fundamental Rights”. In the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation case, the Supreme Court held that “…it would be the duty of the state to provide right to shelter for the poor and indigent”. In the Shantistar Builders case, the Supreme Court held “…the right to life takes within its sweep reasonable accommodation to live in”.
The United Nations Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights asserts that urban settlements of the poor come up due to displacement, poverty, disasters and development projects. In General Comment 4 of the Resolution Against Forced Evictions, the UN said “…shelter should be seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity. The Right to Housing should be ensured to all persons irrespective of income”. India has ratified the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and, therefore, this covenant has to be read into Article 21 and is enforceable in Indian courts.
In Ajay Maken’s case involving jhuggis alongside the railway tracks, the Delhi High Court directed that rehabilitation of the jhuggi-dwellers be done prior to their removal. This would involve “conducting a detailed survey prior to the eviction, drawing up a rehabilitation plan and ensuring that upon eviction the dwellers are immediately rehabilitated. Forced evictions, unannounced and without compliance with these steps, would be contrary to law”.
The Indian state with the most progressive housing policy for the poor is Delhi. In 2010, it enacted the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board Act providing for a survey, removal and resettlement plan. Removal would only be done if the land was required for a public purpose; otherwise, the jhuggis would be upgraded and improved in-situ. The cut-off date for entitlement for alternative housing is that the family should have been on the site as of 2015.
A look at Haryana’s rehabilitation policy gives a clue as to why the present tragedy is unfolding on such a massive scale. In 2010, the Haryana Urban Development Authority fixed the cut-off date for entitlement for rehabilitation as 2003. This may have been reasonable then. No updating of the cut-off date took place as was done throughout India. With large in-migration taking place, particularly after the closure of the Haryana mines, the cut-off date remained at 2003, leaving out all those who settled in the 18 years since then. Thousands of those settling prior to the cut-off date have no documents. Thus, 90 per cent of the 10,000 houses of the settlement of Khori Gaon will be denied rehabilitation.
A comparison of this cut-off date of the year 2003 with other states shows how arbitrary Haryana has been. Gujarat has a cut-off date of 2010, Jharkhand, Punjab and Odisha update their cut-off dates from time to time through notifications. Telangana, Kerala and West Bengal do not have a cut-off date, while Rajasthan and Bihar use 2009, and Karnataka requires just a one-year stay.
In the meantime, the central government continues with its double-faced approach, enacting schemes that are never implemented. The Indira Awas Yojana 1985, the National Slum Development Programme 1996, the Valmiki Ambedkar Awas Yojana 2001, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission 2005, the Rajiv Awas Yojana 2011, and now the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana 2015, are all empty promises to the urban poor, just as the Supreme Court judgments declaring housing to be a fundamental right remained on paper.
If the Haryana government does not immediately provide alternative land and facilities to those facing eviction, India will see a brutal violation of human rights. That, too, during an unprecedented and deadly pandemic, endangering the health and lives of tens of thousands.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 18, 2021 under the title ‘Against law, in letter and spirit’. The writers are lawyers who appeared on behalf of the jhuggi-dwellers in the Supreme Court.