At around 12 in the afternoon, on December 5, four bulldozers appeared in Mehrauli’s Gadhwal colony, on a patch of land next to the shamshan ghat. One part of the higgledy-piggledy constructed area was demolished. Whatever was left standing, was razed to the ground on Tuesday. The demolition was carried out jointly by the horticulture departments of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) and Delhi Development Authority (DDA).
“They told us to take our children and leave our homes,” said Jamirul Bibi, sitting atop the rubble that was once her house. Most people didn’t have time enough to grab their belongings before the machines rolled in. There was no notice warning the residents of the impending demolition or its reasons. The Delhi Development Authority says there’s a simple reason for this: that part of Gadhwal colony wasn’t a registered jhuggi jhopri cluster.
The only ones who could make room for the 250 odd families left homeless as a result of the demolition in Gadhwal colony, on December 5 and 6, were the dead of the nearby cremation ground.
Temporary shelter provided by sub-divisional magistrate on the shamshan ghatland. Image by Ishan Kukreti
Between December 5 and December 9, Delhi witnessed three of the coldest nights of the year, with the mercury dipping to as low as nine degrees Celsius. The newly-homeless residents spent these nights in tents provided by the office sub-divisional magistrate of Mehrauli on humanitarian grounds. The tents were also temporary. Earlier in the week, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had tweeted that authorities should “continue with tents n food (sic).” But this wouldn’t last long. “We have to remove the tents because it is forest land,” secretary of Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Jhuggi Jhopri Cell, Sandeep Narwani told Newslaundry. The tents were set up on December 5 around midnight. They would remain for just a few more days, Narwani said.
Bureaucratic apathy has made things worse. When asked why the demolition had to be carried out at the peak of winter, section officer of Horticulture, DDA, Sahi Bishnoi told Newslaundry, “The movement of files took time. They went from one department to another and finally reached us now,”
Local MLA, Naresh Yadav, came to ground zero on December 8. “I couldn’t come earlier as I wasn’t here, but our AAP volunteers have been taking care of the people here,” he said. But one journalist, who has been in Gadhwal colony since the demolition began, told this reporter a different story. “Some woman AAP volunteers were here. But they were clicking selfies and eating ice creams,” he said, requesting anonymity.
By the end of December 6, in that area of Gadhwal colony, not a single brick wall stood. It was just rubble. On the edge of what had been a settlement until last week, a family cooked a meal under the sun. Broken cupboards and furniture lay scattered around them. Their new (temporary) home was a tin sheet somehow balanced on the skeletal remains of a Maruti Santro.
Safeeruddin Sheikh’s house, made of an old car and tarpaulin. Image by Ishan Kukreti
“We were told to leave the tents last night. We needed a roof on our heads. It’s very cold at night,” Sarbeena Bibi said, while she cleaned a pot with greyish water. She works as domestic help in Vasant Kunj, like most women who lived in Gadhwal colony. Her husband, Safeeruddin Sheikh, was busy nursing a toddler. He collects garbage from nearby houses.
The family had migrated to Delhi from Cooch Behar, West Bengal 15 years ago. The Rs100-150 daily wage they earned during six months of agricultural labour was less than what rag picking and domestic work in the national capital brought them. “If I work all day long, I manage to make Rs 4,000 every month. Plus, the women can also work here. Back home they can’t,” said Sheikh Zaheeruddin, another resident who had made a temporary shed for himself with a horizontal tin sheet delicately balanced on three vertical ones. “All we had to do to live here was pay Rs 2,000 as rent and the rest of the earning was ours to spend,” he said.
What remained of the area after December 6. Image by Ishan Kukreti
The man who took rent from the residents is Sripal Singh, a resident of Mehrauli. Singh claims that the land belonged to him and 36 other people – all from his family When Newslaundry was at the demolition site, Singh was there too, wrapped in an off-white shawl, sitting on a large, weathered, single-seater sofa, with a few locals sitting on the ground around him.
Singh claimed the unauthorised colony had been a fixture. “These people have been living here for decades,” he claimed, and the people in his presence corroborated this. However, Singh’s timeline appears to be off the mark. Google Earth images show signs of occupation on the land only after 2011. Many of the current residents, who are presently homeless, said they moved here after a nearby slum in Kishangarh was demolished. Sheikh Zaheeruddin, for example, lived in Kishangarh and before that, in Harijan basti near Palam in South West Delhi.
And for people like Singh, these urban nomads are a consistent source of revenue.
Because of no prior notice, the people not only lost their homes, but belongings too. Image by Ishan Kukreti
However, the ownership of the land in Gadhwal colony is not a straightforward case. “There is an on-going case in the High Court over this land,” Singh admitted when prodded. “My brother Narendra Kumar is handling it.”
Kumar told Newslaundry that the land was owned by him and 36 “shareholders.” This is not entirely accurate. By his own admission, Kumar does not own any papers proving his claim and the DDA has filed an First Information Report against him for encroaching on government land. “When we went to demolish the colony back in 2012, Kumar got a stay order from the court,” Bishnoi told Newslaundry. According to Bishnoi, since Kumar lost the case, he has not only delayed the process by filling appeals in the court, but also brought in more people to live in the area, to make evicting them difficult.
In February 2016, Kumar fought and lost a case in Saket District Court against DDA and Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), in which he was claiming ownership of the land.
According to Kumar, he “allows” people like Sarbeena Bibi to live there as a “social service”. “We don’t charge money to stay here,” Kumar told Newslaundry. Explaining the Rs 2000 that residents claimed was rent, Kumar said, “They [the residents] just have to pay for the electricity. We have created this for the benefit of the poor.” For homes with few high energy consuming devices, an electricity bill of Rs 2,000 is not particularly cheap.
Kumar filed an appeal challenging the demolition on December 6. The hearing on December 9 led to a status quo on the issue till December 15 (the lawyer representing DDA and SMCD failed to show up).
Meanwhile, the people are facing Delhi’s winter under tarpaulin roofs, clutching their belongings and faced with uncertainty. Whether the government will help rehabilitate them is unclear. For too many of area’s former residents, these disruptions are part of a crushing pattern of survival in urban India. “I’ll find a new place to live,” said Safeeruddin Sheikh. “I’ll have to start all over again, but what else can I do?”