the delhi high court on slum dwellers and relocation

Newsletter May – Aug 2003

The approach of the Delhi Assembly elections scheduled for November 2003 has once again made the issue of the contentious Master Plan of Delhi and the future of its slum dwellers an issue of public concern, set to be (mis)used by both the Congress and the BJP to garner votes. In this context, two recent anti-people orders of the High Court of Delhi on the status of slum dwellers in Delhi, urban space, and relocation demand consideration. Neither of these orders has evoked any response from either of these parties, nor has the media taken cognizance of the fact that these orders are poised to deprive slum dwellers of their basic right to housing.

As we all know, Delhi has been witness to a spate of demolition drives over the last many years. In 2000-2001 itself, more than 15,000 jhuggis (shacks), home to about 100,000 people, were destroyed. Thousands were forced to leave the city and countless others lost their livelihoods. Most of the families have not been relocated. And, those who have continue live without basic facilities like water supply, sanitation and even road connections.

The second facet of the assault on the working class and poor population of Delhi, have been a spate of industrial closures in the National Capital Territory that began since 1996. Together they are a combined effort of the state, judiciary, and capital to rid the city of a vast population that occupies only a tiny fraction of its land.

Alongside, have been several attempts to redraw the Master Plan of Delhi that progresively make less provisions for the poor and the working class, in terms of allocation, basic amenities and access to city resources.

The first judgment was delivered by the High Court on 29th November 2002. It was an outcome of petitions filed by the Okhla Factory Owners’ Association vs. the Govt. of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) and the Wazirpur Bartan Nirmata Sangh vs. the Union of India (U0I). Respondents also included the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi), DDA (Delhi Development Authority), the Railways, Delhi Jal Board and others. The ‘problem’ was seemingly that squatters and 'encroachers' on public land could not be removed because of the Delhi Slum Policy, which required that land be provided as a pre-requisite to people being removed from their jhuggis.

The Delhi Slum Policy had also extended the cut-off date for the relocation of slums from 31.1.90 to 31.12.98. The November order quashed this policy and held that the cut-off date be maintained at 31 January 1990, that 'encroachers’ and squatters on public land should be removed expeditiously without provision of any alternative site, and that verification be carried out on allotment of alternative sites within a period of six months.

Needless to say, there were immediate implications of this judgment. The consequent survey in relocation settlements like Bhalsava and Moladbund resulted in the locking up of houses built on land acquired as alternative plots after the demolitions of 2001 and 2003. People who had barely started rebuilding their lives after the relocations of the recent years, were to be displaced once again.

The second judgment was in the matter of the Pitampura Sudhar Samiti vs. the GNCTD again. This was a common judgment on 63 different petitions that seems to have decided the fate of slums and slum dwellers in Delhi. One set of petitions was filed by the middle class community through their resident associations complaining against 'JJ (Jhuggi Jhopdi) Clusters’ in and around their homes. The residents of the JJ Clusters filed another set of petitions challenging the notices of eviction.

The judgment on this case clearly posits the ‘rights’ of the middle class in opposition to those of persons living in slums, and upheld the rights of the former. Clearly, middle class colonies are seen to be severely threatened by surrounding jhuggies, and its residents, deprived of the pleasure of morning walks nor standing in their balconies because basti dwellers use the open space as toilets. This not only pollutes the air but is construed an outrage to public morality. Therefore, the courts considered it an act of justice to accord the Right to Live (Article 21) of residents associations. The judgment states, "...the welfare, health, maintenance of law and order, safety and sanitation of these residents cannot be sacrificed and their right under Article 21 is violated in the name of social justice to the slum dwellers." The judgment further reiterated an earlier court order to demolish and remove jhuggis that have come up after 27 February 1997.

Further, the court maintained that it would not consider the writ petition of the jhuggi dwellers since they are ‘illegal encroachers', while residential associations are free to approach the concerned authorities for redressal.

It is evident that the welfare of the people whose labour has contributed to the prosperity of the city, is of no concern to its elite. The comforts and luxuries of a small minority are being upheld by depriving thousands and thousands of slum dwellers of their housing and livelihood. The need of the hour is to go beyond legal battles. Mobilising public opinion and pressurizing the Delhi government to respond are important.

Delhi Janwadi Adhikaar Manch (of which Saheli is a constituent organization) has been distributing leaflets in various slum settlements and holding discussions with people to pressurise local elected representatives, seeking to woo votes with old rhetoric and countless false promises. This effort of the Manch is limited and needs more energy and input from various democratic sections. The issue of housing for all with an enhanced quality of living, should be made a major concern for the city and its people. Because, the right to shelter is inextricably linked to a life of dignity.