Dehradun (Uttarakhand): Ashok Kumar Chaurasia lives in a two-room brick house that is part of a slum on the banks of the Bindal river, currently little more than a drain, carrying with it the detritus of Uttarakhand’s exploding capital.
“We’ve been living here for generations, pay our electricity and water bills regularly, and we pay house tax every year too,” said Chaurasia, 48, a plumber. “But when it comes to housing security, we are second class citizens.”
Chaurasia, who has lived in his home since his birth, is one of many families who despite living here for “decades”, in a part of what was once the lush Doon Valley, fear eviction if the municipal corporation, or Nagar Nigam, uses a 31 August 2022 Uttarakhand High Court to clear their home to build an elevated road through the Johri gaon basti or slum where he lives.
The threat to Chaurasia’s home comes after a wave of illegal evictions, eviction notices and home demolitions after the Uttarakhand High Court order, which ordered the city administration to “immediately” remove encroachments on the beds of Doon Valley rivers.
These evictions are illegal, said legal experts, because they go against a 2018 state government law protecting those in slums without homes and without following the due process, as laid down by the Supreme Court, which requires local authorities to provide adequate notice to the affected parties and an opportunity to be heard.
“Obviously, such activities [encroachment] cannot happen without the tacit approval of the authorities on the ground,” said the Court, which made no reference to punitive action against such authorities.
The actions of the Dehradun administration are the latest of many “anti-encroachment” drives evident in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi, overwhelmingly focussed on working-class families leaving many homeless, with no provision for rehabilitation.
Citing the Uttarakhand High Court order, the Nagar Nigam Dehradun, on 6 October 2022, served a 48-hour notice—a departure from the minimum legal requirement of seven days—to at least 10 families in Tarla Nagal, a riverbank neighbourhood approximately 10 km from the city centre, ordering them to remove their “encroachments”.
“That notice was only for temporary encroachments, such as bamboo structures placed on public land,” said Dehradun municipal commissioner Manuj Goyal.
“We aren’t entitled to remove permanent constructions without giving the affected parties a hearing and providing rehabilitation,” said Goyal. “But we aren’t clear how to go about implementing the high court’s order, so we have approached it for a clarification.”
Eviction Notices: Insufficient Or Missing
Like many Indian cities, Dehradun has faced unplanned growth, with no housing for the working class and the poor.
As per the 2011 census, the population of Dehradun was over half a million, with an approximate growth rate of 4% over the previous decade. Recent data indicate that at least a fifth of the city lives in slums.
While ordering the removal of encroachments, the court acknowledged the Doon Valley’s status as an “eco-sensitive zone (ESZ)” and directed the union environment ministry to monitor the area and “take necessary action”.
But riverbank bastis aren’t the only illegal development in the Doon Valley since it was declared an ESZ by the government of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1989: Satellite imagery shows the scale of infrastructural expansion in the city over the past three decades, with much illegal construction.
No action has been taken since the eviction notice was served on the bastis. But the relevant central act, the Public Premises (Removal of Unauthorised Occupants) Act 1971, does not provide for any notice to be served for removal of movable encroachments, such as tables and chairs, or bamboo structures. That makes it unclear which encroachments the two-day notice was served for.
Those on whom the notices were served dispute the municipal commissioner’s assertion that only “temporary” structures were the subject of the evictions.
“In October , four or five people claiming that they were from Nagar Nigam arrived at our home all of a sudden, handed us a notice and told us it was for demolition of our homes,” said Mukesh Choudhary, a resident of Tarla Nagal. “We were asked to vacate our homes within 48 hours or face demolition.”
Devender Kumar, a member of Uttarakhand’s Nav Nirman Mazdoor Union, a state-level union of unorganised sector workers, said 19 families in Tarla Nagal received eviction notices in October 2022 after the high court order.
When the affected families sought help from the Union, they shared 10 such notices with him. “All the families I spoke to had been told that the eviction notice was for demolition of their homes,” said Kumar.
But the court case, when it began in 2019, was never meant to evict the working class and the poor.
‘I Never Meant For Slums To Be Removed’
The woman whose petition in the high court led to the Uttarakhand government’s eviction expressed her dismay about what the government was now doing.
“I had filed the petition because the authorities had repeatedly failed to take action against a canal near my home in Rajpur being illegally taken over by businesses,” said Urmila Thapa, 38. “I never meant for malin bastis (slums) to be removed.”
Other Dehradun residents confirmed that many hotels and commercial establishments had illegally come up on city land over the years.
Thapa herself had filed a number of such complaints before the local authorities in 2022. But despite a 2018 state law specifically protecting bastis from demolition, they appear to be facing the brunt of it.
“The subject matter of our petition was encroachments on one particular canal in Rajpur,” said advocate Abhijay Negi, who argued the case on behalf of Thapa. “It was not at all concerning slums. The high court through a 2019 order itself increased the ambit of the matter.”
A month after eviction notices were issued to the Tarla Nagal families, the 2022 high court order in Urmila Thapa apparently led to the Nagar Nigam taking another illegal step.
“People who said they were from Nagar Nigam arrived and began demolishing a portion of our house, and said it was in compliance with the high court’s order,” said Yodhraj Tyagi, a local politician and former leader of the Parivartan Party, a state-level political outfit.
Tyagi’s family lived in another Dehradun locality, Azad Nagar, about a kilometre from the banks of the Bindal.
“When I asked the contractor to show me a notice,” said Tyagi, “he told me to stop restraining him from carrying out government work, and proceeded to tear it down.”
Tyagi filed a complaint with the police, but no first information report (FIR) was registered or any other action taken. It was only Tyagi’s house that was targeted for eviction in the Azad Nagar neighbourhood.
Word of the notices issued to Tarla Nagal’s residents and the demolition at Tyagi’s home got around. Those living in Dehradun’s riverbank slums fear it would now happen to them.
More Development, More Homes Lost
The high court order isn’t the only development that poses a threat to Dehradun’s riverside families.
One morning in April 2022, Dehradun’s residents woke up to announcements of two new elevated roads over the dying Rispana and Bindal rivers splashed across the newspapers.
Much of the city centre lies between the two rivers flowing through the capital city. The proposed project, touted to “ease traffic congestion” and “free the riverbed areas of encroachment”, is estimated to cost over ₹9,000 crore.
Ten months later, residents of Dehradun’s riverbank bastis, some of whom said they had been living here for up to 50 years, are living in fear of sudden eviction, harassment and homelessness.
Consider Tarla Aamwala, a centrally located settlement near the banks of the Rispana. At least 30 Dalit families were evicted and their pucca (permanent) homes demolished in July 2022. No notices were served, as Article 14 had reported.
“Homes aren’t built in a day,” one of the people evicted told Land Conflict Watch on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal. “We had borrowed money from moneylenders to settle our homes and now we are sinking in debt. We’ve been left with nothing.”
They described their demolished home as a permanent construction having two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom, complete with a tiled floor.
“I had borrowed Rs 270,000 just to buy the land on which I built my family’s home,” said one of those whose home was demolished in Tarla Aamwala. “But four days before our griha pravesh (housewarming ceremony) was scheduled in July last year, it was demolished.”
Those Who Lost Homes, Accused Of Breaching Peace
Seven of those whose homes were demolished were sent summons from the office of the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) for an alleged “breach of peace” under the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973, an allegation they said they knew nothing about.
“Someone from the Mayur Vihar police station came and found seven of us sitting together and made us sign on a letter-pad, telling us it was part of an inquiry,” one of them told Land Conflict Watch.
“We later came to know that we had been summoned by the SDM,” said the person accused of disturbing the peace. “We were shocked to hear this, but are complying with the proceedings. But it’s been seven months that we’ve been regularly coming to the SDM’s office. We are yet to be heard.”
Land Conflict Watch has filed right-to-information (RTI) applications with Nagar Nigam, Dehradun, and the office of SDM Sadar, Dehradun, enquiring about the Tarla Nagal notices, maps of the proposed roads and project-affected areas, the resulting displacement, and its track record on regularisation of bastis.
According to the SDM, in an RTI response to us on 20 February 2023, it was unknown what the land affected by elevated roads would be because the final design of the project had not yet been approved.
On 27 February, we also sought responses for these questions from the Nagar Nigam and the SDM. There was no response until the day this story was published. We will update this story if they respond.
The Laws & Judgements That Protect The Poor
In August 2016, Uttarakhand’s state legislature passed the Uttarakhand Reforms, Regularisation, Rehabilitation and Resettlement and Prevention of Encroachment of the Slums located in the Urban Local Bodies of the State Act.
This act outlawed any settlement made after 11 March 2016 but granted the state government the power to make rules—as the name of the act suggests—to regularise, rehabilitate and resettle slums established before that date.
Even after six years, the government has not framed a single rule that might bring the law into effect.
Then in 2018 came the Uttarakhand Special Provisions for Urban Bodies and Authorities Act. It suspended all demolitions and displacement of individuals—defined in the act as “punitive action”—for three years, a suspension that was extended till 2024 by a 2021 amendment.
The recent demolitions and eviction orders in Dehradun clearly violate this ban.
But even if there wasn’t a bar on demolitions and evictions, if an eviction from government land were to take place in Uttarakhand, it would be governed by the Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorized Occupants) Act 1971.
Under this law, the estate officer is required to serve a minimum seven day notice requiring the occupant to either remove the alleged illegal occupation, or show cause as to why they should not be removed.
In 1985, in the case of Olga Tellis and Ors. v. Bombay Municipal Corporation and Ors., the Supreme Court ruled that failing to serve sufficient notice would violate the principles of natural justice, which lay down that both sides must be heard before demolitions.
The Supreme Court also established that evictions and demolitions of homes and businesses could lead to a deprivation of one’s right to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution.
In 2017, the Supreme Court also upheld a 2010 decision of the Delhi High Court which relied on the UN Special Rapporteur’s Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement. These guidelines require government authorities to show that an eviction is unavoidable. They emphasised that evictions should not result in individuals being rendered homeless.
“An extra-legal eviction without following the due process of law is a clear crime,” said advocate Gangadhar Nautiyal, who has been working on the issue of evictions for decades. “The manner in which evictions are being carried out by the Dehradun authorities constitute mischief causing damage under section 427 of the Indian Penal Code 1860.”
“When the rule of law is ignored in this way, it creates an atmosphere of terror amongst citizens where they fear they may be harassed or left homeless at any time,” said Nautiyal.
The Unkept Promises Of Housing
According to 2018 data published by the union ministry of housing and urban affairs, there are 128 recognised slums in Dehradun, housing over 164,000 people, with a September 2022 report suggesting that number could be half a million.
The issue of secure housing has featured in many election promises: the Uttarakhand Reforms, Regularisation, Rehabilitation and Resettlement and Prevention of Encroachment of the Slums located in the Urban Local Bodies of the State Act that promised rules for regularisation and resettlement of slums was passed in the months leading up to the 2017 assembly election; and the mayor of Dehradun during his 2018 election campaign called regularisation of slums a “priority”.
These promises have made no difference to those evicted or threatened with eviction.
“The sword of eviction was hanging over our head, then came the 2016 Act, but that sword is still hanging over our heads today,” said Chaurasia, the plumber from Johri gaon basti.
In addition to payments for utilities and taxes, studies also show that the land on which these settlements are built is, more often than not, purchased—sometimes for large sums of money—not simply occupied.
The working families in Tarla Aamwala, for example, claimed they collectively spent lakhs of rupees for the land.
“Cities are built by the labour of the poor—we do all the dirty work,” said Sunita, 47, a resident of Happy Enclave basti by the banks of the Rispana, who goes by her first name.
Sunita’s family lived in a jhuggi (hut) in Happy Enclave until two years ago, when they finally built a permanent three-room brick home. Born in Dehradun, Sunita was a manual labourer until the pandemic hit, after which she transitioned to domestic work in the neighbouring buildings.
Sunita said her home has been demolished three times in the past. “They keep trying to get rid of us,” she said. “But will they be able to survive without us?”
“If they go ahead and build the roads, we have clear demands from the government,” said Sunita. “We should receive sufficient and dignified rehabilitation. The resettlement site should be nearby, because our lives and livelihoods are all here. But even if the roads aren’t built, we must receive formal rights over our current homes.”
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(Mukta Joshi is a lawyer working with Land Conflict Watch, a network of researchers studying land and natural resource governance in India.)