In a stinging criticism of the bulldozer-happy ways of law enforcing agencies, the Patna High Court has faulted police officers of a thana in the city for exceeding their remit. While responding to a petition in a local land dispute, Justice Sandeep Kumar asked: “Has the police station also been given power to sort out matters of land dispute? If someone has an issue, he will go to the police station, pay a bribe and get someone’s house demolished. Why don’t you close the court, civil court?” In times when government agencies — in UP, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Delhi — are showing a distressing tendency to raze houses with scant regard for the constitutional and procedural safeguards against such highhandedness, these words carry resonance beyond Bihar’s capital.
In Olga Tellis v the Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985), a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled that housing is an essential part of the Right to Life. It underlined that demolitions should be a last resort, only after the adversely affected people have been given a fair hearing. Since then, a substantial body of jurisprudence has strengthened the rights to notice, hearing and rehabilitation. In Chameli Singh vs. State Of UP (1995), the SC recognised the “right to shelter” as a component of the right to life under Article 21 and freedom of movement under Article 19(1)(e). In Sudama vs Government of Delhi (2010) — affirmed twice by the SC — the Delhi High Court ruled that before evicting people, the state must find ways to rehabilitate people. Governments have, however, continued to weaponise municipal laws to target people accused of being trespassers. Worryingly in recent months, what was essentially an urban housing problem to begin with, has intertwined with communal politics — in several parts of the country “Illegal encroachment” has become the ruse for administration to punish protestors or those accused of being “rioters,” who belong overwhelmingly to one community.
Be it in Jahangirpuri in Delhi or UP and now Patna, the judiciary has had to step in to reestablish the sanctity of due process. Before the Patna HC, the Gauhati High Court last month, in a case related to the razing of a house belonging to an accused in an arson case in Nagaon, had warned that police cannot, “under the guise of investigation”, bulldoze anyone’s house without permission, and if such practices continue then “nobody is safe in this country”. This pushback from the courts at a time of an overweening executive is welcome. Hopefully, politicians, especially those in high office, would take the cue from the judiciary and stop extolling the virtues of police highhandedness.