It will be illogical to assume that the demolition drive carried out on 12 December 2015 in Delhi’s Shakur Basti area was an impromptu action on part of the railway authorities. The squatters in question were occupying the land illegally for nearly two decades and it will be hard to believe that no earlier notices were served on them for eviction. In fact the railway authorities have confirmed that notices were served in March, September and December this year. The unfortunate death of one child, reportedly because of the demolition drive and the resulting chaos, is what has caused the issue to be blown in to a full fledged political war between the AAP government and the centre. The fact that no rehabilitation process was put in motion for years by any Delhi government seems to have been forgotten and suddenly the Railway authorities (and central government) are the villains of the piece while AAP and Congress seem to have suddenly found some lost love for the people affected by the demolition drive.
There are a few questions that have been occupying media space and inviting a lot of discussion. Were the authorities right in ordering demolitions? The answer to this is certainly in the affirmative since encroachment is a malice in all our urban areas and government land is the prime target. Next, were the squatters served any eviction notice? There is no doubt that the authorities take the drastic recourse to demolition only after repeated notices are served and squatters refuse to move out. In this case too notices were served at least on three occasions in last nine months as per reports. An important question that is doing the rounds is whether the timing was right, considering it is winters and the poor people had nowhere to go. If viewed dispassionately, one cannot hold this against the authorities. If winters is not a good time for eviction, then so is the rainy season. Again it may not be right to take such action in March/ April when schools have examinations, assuming many children would be studying in schools even from these slums. Some critics may even question the timing if the eviction takes place in extreme summer months of May or June. Therefore in principle no time of the year is the right time for eviction. Frankly the question on timing of the raid is more or less redundant since any eviction will always be painful, whatever be the period of the year when it is done.
It is also being asked as to why Delhi government was not informed in advance about the proposed raid. Delhi police was certainly informed since they provided the police protection for the raiding party. Given the strained relations between the Delhi Police and State Government it is not surprising that in all likelihood no information about the proposed demolition drive was exchanged between them at the appropriate levels. However there is also no doubt that the Delhi government was aware of this problem since it was not a new development. It is also a given certainty that had the AAP government known about the demolition plan in advance, they would have done their utmost to resist the same and make political capital out of it, thereby preventing authorities from executing court orders. In light of this no help could be expected from AAP government and therefore not informing them may not have been a very serious omission.
There can be no two opinions that land encroachment, comprising of squatters on government land and Jhuggi Jhopri (JJ) colonies, is a major issue in all metros. Primarily this can be attributed to the continuous migration that takes place to these cities from other states. Despite migration being a major issue, we still do not have any suitable policies in place to address the issue. In absence of any policy, there are no effective measures that the authorities undertake to rehabilitate the migrants except for some knee jerk actions based on political expediencies. In view of the large numbers involved, such clusters become important vote banks and therefore thrive on misplaced political patronage. It may not be wrong to say that political leaders, with connivance of administration, purposely continue to keep these people in such unauthorised areas for selfish motives instead of rehabilitating them. Reactions from two prominent political leaders sums up the approach and short sightedness of the politicians to this ever increasing problem.
First it was Rahul Gandhi who after his visit to the site of the demolition publically announced that “Whenever a slum is about to be demolished, call Rahul Gandhi. He won’t allow this to happen. As you know we are not the government, it is AAP’s and BJP’s government. But we will protect you and fight your battle”. Will somebody please tell the Gandhi scion that it was his party that has ruled both Delhi and the nation for over 50 years since independence in 1947, yet they failed to formulate any effective policies in this regard? These people had been living on railway land illegally for nearly two decades but nothing was done. In fact Mr Ajay Maken, a senior Congress leader, had the audacity to boast that Congress government did nothing to remove them while they were in power from 1998 to 2013. Frankly some of the past leaders should be held responsible and taken to task for this tragedy since they failed in their duty to rehabilitate the affected people for years. The other reaction was from the ‘ever ready for a confrontation’ Chief Minister of Delhi, Mr Kejriwal. After meeting the Union Railway Minister in the aftermath of the demolition drive he stated “It has been decided that from now on no slums will be demolished anywhere in Delhi. First people will be rehabilitated and then vacant land transferred to Railways”. One wonders why this rule was not followed in the present case when railways had been asking for this land for years and had also paid Rs 11 Crore for rehabilitation of the people to the Slum Board in advance. What Mr Kejriwal also did not elaborate was why 5000 flat available with the Slum Board were lying vacant instead of being used to rehabilitate the squatters. Therefore it does appear that Railway authorities had been working on getting their land vacated for a long time but the present and past Delhi governments failed to initiate suitable action at their end.
In the final analysis it is the city’s environment, infrastructure and people who suffer while the elected representatives and most bureaucrats continue to live in their Lutyens bungalows set in pristine environment away from the adverse effects of the mess that they help to create. The irony of the whole thing is that they continue to enjoy such exalted privileges despite having failed in their duty towards the nation and the people they are supposed to serve. Mahatma Gandhi had once said “A man can give up his right, but he may not give up his duty without being guilty of grave dereliction”. May be in the present environment we need to reword it as “A politician or bureaucrat will never give up his rights, but he is ever ready to give up his duties since today he does not feel guilty of grave dereliction in doing so”.