by BA and Venkatesh Sundaram
The country woke up to the horrific scenes of bulldozers being brought to demolish homes and small shops in the Jahangirpuri area of Delhi in the month of April 2022. The Municipality claimed that it had served notices to the residents of the area that their homes and shops had been built on government land and that they had no right to be there. From time to time, in the country, such events take place, including the recent demolition of many buildings in Varanasi so that there would be a quick ride to the famous Vishwanath Temple and to the ghats from there on.
Human beings require proper housing so that they lead human lives and not sub-human lives – so in fact a basic human right. The governments and local authorities hardly provide housing – but on the other hand such incidents wherein homes and livelihoods are destroyed by these authorities are only too common. In a country with a long history of delegated law, with many parts of the country not having any proper land registration or deeds except until after the arrival of the British, families have lived for generations in homes considered their own as in the case of Varanasi. In the case of neighbourhoods such as Jahangirpuri, over the course of the last several decades, with casual employment being one of the primary sources of income, large populations have moved from neighbouring areas or from other parts of the country to seek employment. Many of them have used their life savings to build homes and small shops. Such a devastation has basically destroyed the lives of these persons. Even in the framework of encroachment and illegal squatting, there are a large number of well-heeled persons in many other colonies of Delhi who have `regularised’ their homes or use their political and other connections to ensure that their homes are not touched. A law that does not apply uniformly cannot be called a law.
The events described above also bring into focus the entire orientation of the Indian economy. Decisions on investment are large scale planning by the Government and deployment of expenditure has led to a lop-sided growth for decades. Development is highly concentrated in a few areas, forcing people from small towns and the countryside to move to larger cities – only to live in shanties and slums there. Small towns lie neglected and depopulated, agriculture being in doldrums has led to the countryside emptying out, wage differentials being acute have led to large scale movement of populations into a few urban centres.
The pressure on land is unbearable on the one hand. On the other hand, there is the extreme skew in housing properties with large mansions of the rich occupied by just a couple of members, while other neighbourhoods turn into squalid areas with large families crammed into smaller units, with practically no modern sewage system, or proper sanitation. Thus, if a city municipality from time to time claims that this or that neighbourhood is illegally occupied or “encroached”, it suggests that the main objective of such drives is something else – it is to snatch land away from the poor and hand it over to the rich.
Political parties of the establishment do not come to the support of people when they face bulldozers destroying their homes and livelihoods. This shows that the ruling circles remain united in their war against the people. It is however, time that housing and livelihood are not only recognised as basic rights but also enforced. All citizens mindful of natural justice and the need to assert human rights and the need to fulfil basic needs must unite to defend the right of all human beings to decent housing and livelihoods.