Before the demolition drive in south Delhi’s Mehrauli was halted by the Delhi High Court, anxious residents would wake up each day and ask themselves: “Who’s next?” “Who has got a stay?”
The stay only came on Tuesday, with a single judge bench ordering a status quo, and the Delhi Development Authority stopping the operation on the orders of VK Saxena, the Lieutenant Governor and DDA chairman. But not before the DDA had razed down 25 “illegal” houses over five days in a bid to reclaim land in Mehrauli Archaeological Park – an “encroachment” stretching over 2 km and involving 4,000 families.
While the drive has become another point of contention between the AAP-led Delhi government and the Centre-appointed LG, it has also brought into focus a December 2021 report which the DDA said formed the basis of the demolitions.
However, a high court-appointed panel had suggested that this report was incomplete, according to the minutes of its meetings held in September last year. The panel includes officials from DDA, South MCD, Archaeological Survey of India, Delhi Jal Board and a heritage conservation advocacy group.
The demarcation, also termed as total station survey, was carried out by the revenue department under the Delhi government in presence of DDA officials, using advanced technology.
But why was this report needed?
The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) filed a petition in 2015 to protect 124 heritage monuments, including 60 in the Mehrauli archaeological park, from encroachment and defacement. The park is spread over 200 acres. Since then, various orders related to demarcation and prevention of encroachment have been passed. In the course of hearing, the HC formed the committee chaired by the Archaeological Survey of India.
In its last order on December 2 last year, the court directed: “It is needless to state that the DDA, Archaeological Department, GNCTD, and the petitioner shall also take all possible steps to implement the recommendations made by the Committee in its meetings dated 14.09.2022 and 16.09.2022.” Ten days later, the DDA pasted notices outside houses in the alleged encroached area of the park.
The minutes of the two meetings held on September 14 and 16 reveal that the total station survey of the Mehrauli Archaeological Park was yet to be completed. “The committee decided: DDA should complete the total station survey of the entire park with a total area of 199 acres, including Ghosia Colony. Proper demarcation of the colony has to be carried out with revenue department,” read the minutes of the meetings.
The committee also noted that fencing and demarcation in many areas have not been completed. “There is lack of information on many significant aspects like total area, encroachment, ownership of the land, listing of monuments, demarcation etc. Hence the report prepared by the DDA can only be treated as preliminary report,” according to the minutes.
“DDA representatives apprised the committee that many areas are densely populated due to which physical demarcation is not possible. In the given scenario, geo fencing was suggested as an alternative. The work of geo-fencing is in progress by DDA,” according to the minutes.
Manisha Singh, a lawyer representing Intach, said the high court orders are for protection of heritage monuments. Of the 60 monuments in the park, five “are with ASI”, 17 with the Delhi government and the ownership of the rest is not clear. The rest are either with the Waqf Board or DDA, showed the minutes of the meeting.
Singh said the total station survey was ordered by the high court in 2015 and “it has not been completed yet”.
Zeba Khair, representing Waqf Board in the case, questioned the timing of demolition when the total station survey was yet to be completed by the DDA.
Newslaundry sent questions to DDA on the status of geo-fencing and the decision to carry out the drive despite alleged gaps in the demarcation exercise. This report will be updated if a response is received.
DDA vs Delhi government
The bulldozers first rolled into Ladha Sarai on February 10, tearing down the walls of a five-storey, unoccupied building and three shanties. Around 3pm, it was halted after a few flat owners got relief from the Delhi High Court.
The following day, Revenue Minister Kailash Gahlot ordered south Delhi district magistrate Monica Priyadarshini to set aside the 2021 demarcation report, calling it “illegal”. He asked her to carry out a fresh demarcation.
Notwithstanding Gahlot’s order, DDA continued with its demolition drive. Some of the affected houses had house registrations dating back to 1950s and were rehabilitated near Mehrauli bus stop after the Partition.
Somnath Bharti, DDA member and AAP MLA from Malviya Nagar, shot a letter to L-G Saxena on February 13. He alleged that the revenue department was misused by the district magistrate office for the 2021 demarcation. “Revenue office was misused and the demarcation was forced to be undertaken by the office of DM (south). DM (south) was used as a post office to get the work done through an agency which could have been very well been engaged directly,” he wrote to the L-G.
On February 14, Gahlot again pulled up Priyadarshini for not complying with his order of fresh demarcation and informing DDA about it. “I am informed that none of the directions have been complied with. In the face of large-scale demolition by DDA, such non-compliance by DM (south) with regard to demarcation exercise which is the basis for carrying out demolition activities makes the DM (south) complicit in the whole affair. DM (south) is once again directed to comply with the directions contained in my order with immediate effect under intimation to my office,” read the order.
The separation of powers between the Delhi government and L-G is complex. While land, and law and order come within the purview of the L-G office, the rest of the subjects, including revenue, are under the Delhi government. The question on which of the two controls the services is sub-judice in the Supreme Court.
The revenue department is the nodal agency to demarcate land. This is implemented by the district magistrate and sub-divisional magistrate concerned.
AAP’s Mehrauli MLA Naresh Yadav told Newslaundry that there were shortcomings on behalf of the government too. “But do you think that IAS officers listen to us? The government was not kept in the loop during demarcation.”
Despair on ground and G-20
Rehana, a mother of three, was distraught to see her shanty with two rooms being torn down. Standing over the rubble with eyes welled up, she said: “My family has been living here for 50 years. They could have left at least one room. I can’t afford even a rented room,” she said, worried about her children’s examination.
Ishaq, who was left homeless, said only the poor are targeted and questioned the timing of the drive. “The notices came just four days after the BJP lost MCD elections and the ward from here.”
A little farther from Ishaq’s house stood Ramakant’s flat in a multi-storey building. His lane is lined with multi-storey buildings that came up over the last five or six years. “What should I do? Should I end my life? I have put my life savings to buy the two-BHK flat for Rs 37 lakh. We have got the flat registered, paid house taxes and taken loans from banks. Everything was verified. How is the common man responsible for the mess?” asked the I-T professional, who lives with his wife and two children.
Residents also asked why their flats were registered by the SDM office if they were illegal. They alleged that builders, revenue officials, Delhi police and civic officials colluded to cheat home buyers.
After residents’ outrage, L-G Saxena has ordered action against officials who allowed encroachments in the Mehrauli Archaeological Park.
Meanwhile, two km away, a woman, the walls of whose house were torn down, appealed for help and asked how many could be rendered homeless for the sake of G-20. “For G-20, you are wrecking people’s lives. On the one hand, you are sending help to other countries (Turkey and Syria). Here, why would you wreck your own India?” she told .
A G-20 meeting is scheduled to be held in the archaeological park next month.
The Delhi High Court on Thursday will hear residents’ plea against the demolition drive.