The Trauma Of Kharak Satbari: How Home Demolitions Without Due Process Wrecked Lives In India’s Capital

21 Dec 2022 16 min read  Share

The latest in a string of demolitions of working people’s homes unfolded on 21 October when 27 homes were razed in a South Delhi neighbourhood, tearing apart lives that were already on the edge. The way in which the demolitions were conducted—without hearings, notices or translocation opportunities—violated a series of court judgements and the city’s own laws. The demolition came after the Delhi Development Authority lost litigation over the land, but the residents and homes were never taken into account.

Anjum Malik stands amid the rubble of her house in the south Delhi neighbourhood of Kharak Satbari./ PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALIZA NOOR

New Delhi: Anjum Malik was hoping to put some money into extending her home now that she had a two-month-old son. 

On 21 October 2022, she lost both—her baby and her home. That day, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and Delhi police arrived in her locality, the Kharak Satbari area of Chhatarpur in South Delhi, and demolished 27 homes, an echo of similar demolitions in many northern states over the last two years, seemingly in violation of various court rulings and laws. 

With a 70% Muslim population, Kharak Satbari is a warren of two-storey and three-storey homes, finished with plaster or cheap tiles, stuck together along narrow streets. 

The homes are occupied by working class families, including street vendors, small businessmen, people engaged in domestic or construction work, some self-employed. Some have lived here for up to 30 years.  

Over a month since the demolition drive, residents were still poking through the rubble to look for belongings, barely making ends meet after losing homes built over decades. Most continued to live in what was left of their houses, surrounded by rubble.

Malik, 32, her eyes swollen and wearing a haggard look, said her baby boy suffered from a heart condition. He had seemed to be recovering from a fever on the day of the demolition.  

“I don’t know if he caught a cold or if it was the shock, or both, but he did not stop crying,” Malik told Article 14. They rushed to a nearby hospital. “He was put on a ventilator and then, just like that, he passed away.”

According to the DDA, the homes in Kharak Satbari were demolished after the agency lost a land dispute with a private construction company. 

Mirroring similar recent actions in India’s capital city, the demolition was undertaken in violation of Supreme Court orders and New Delhi’s own municipal statutes. 

The demolitions came despite the Delhi High Court’s remarks in September 2022 that no property may be demolished on the ground of being an unauthorised construction without giving the owner an opportunity for a hearing

Harsh Mander, former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, human rights worker and writer, said “not even a pretence” of due process had been followed in the Kharak Satbari demolition, while the divided jurisdiction of land in the capital city among the DDA, the local government and municipal bodies complicated the process of seeking justice. 

“The act of demolition here seemingly boils down to a parallel of three things: anti-poor laws and bias where the system has not supported the poor with proper housing, pro-builder and business lobby and the communal bias,” said Mander. “These combined form a toxic mixture that only ends up affecting the vulnerable and the poor.” 

Malik spoke of her deep trauma. “Sometimes, I feel like I want to kill myself,” she told Article 14.

A Violation Of Delhi’s Laws

Section 247 of the New Delhi Municipal Council Act, 1994 says no order of demolition shall be made unless the person has been given, by means of a notice served, “a reasonable opportunity of showing cause why such order shall not be made”.

Similarly, section 368 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957 states that even if the commissioner orders a demolition, the  building must be vacated within a period specified in the order, “not being less than thirty days from the date of the order”. The demolition must be undertaken “within six weeks after the expiration of that period”.

Even if a building is deemed “unfit for human habitation”, The Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act 1956 prescribes the same norms of a 30-day notice period and a time-bound demolition subsequent to that. 

In Sudama Singh & others vs Government Of Delhi 2010, the Delhi high court held that before any eviction, it was the duty of the State to survey all those facing evictions and to draft a rehabilitation plan in consultation with the “persons at risk”.

There is no evidence that any of these norms and statutes were followed in Kharak Satbari, where there was neither any survey beforehand nor were locals served notices.  

No Notice Of Demolition, As Law Requires

“We asked the police repeatedly to show us the notice for the demolition,” Reshma Parveen, 38, told Article 14. “But they responded by saying that they don’t have it and even if they did, they wouldn’t show it to us.” Other locals confirmed that no notice was served.  

Still teary-eyed, many women said they had lost clothes, medicines, documents, money and groceries.  

“Most of the women were locked in some of the houses, so that we could not disturb the demolition,” said Parveen, who has lived in the locality for 10 years. She said policemen and DDA staff also snatched many cellphones, returning them later. “We climbed to the terrace and saw it all happen.”

More than half of the 45 families living in Kharak Satbari protested for hours when the bulldozers arrived around 11 am on 21 October. 

Article 14 also acquired videos that show policemen dragging and beating some local residents with sticks.  

Article 14 sought comment from the station house officer of Maidan Garhi police station on 19 and 21 November via calls and messages. He refused. 

We sent text messages and called the south Delhi deputy commissioner of police on 24 November and 7 December, and once again called and texted on 14 December. There was no response. We will update this story if there is. 

Between 10-16 November and again between 16 and 19 December, Article 14 sought comment from DDA officials through calls and emails. There was no response. We will update this story if there is. 

Land Litigation Led To Demolition of Homes

The demolition was the outcome of a legal battle between Capital Builders Pvt Ltd, a Delhi-based real estate development firm, and the DDA. The Delhi high court ruled in favour of the private builder, leading to the families of Kharak Satbari being rendered homeless.  

N S Dalal, a Delhi-based lawyer who has helped the local people occupying the land to contest the case, said Capital Builders filed a petition against the DDA and Union of India in 2015-16. The petition was allowed by the high court but dismissed by the apex court.

“Capital Builders then filed a petition in 2019 before the Delhi HC that people were trying to take possession of their property, and that the authorities must take action in accordance with the law,” Dalal told Article 14. Most people living in the area had no idea of this development.

In October 2022, local residents filed a petition in the HC seeking a stay on further demolition, but the court reportedly said it had neither renewed an existing order nor passed a new order for demolition. 

Following the demolition by the DDA, Dalal filed a fresh writ petition in the HC on 21 November, against DDA and the police. The petition sought a hearing for the affected residents of Kharak Satbari and compensation for their losses. 

The petition said the petitioners had sought to know on what basis the demolition was sought to be carried out, but had not received any order directing that the houses be demolished. “Till date no order has ever been served to show to the members of the Petitioner Association,” the petition said.

The hearing is scheduled for 13 March 2023.

In May, the Aam Aadmi Party legislator of Chhatarpur, Kartar Singh Tanwar, shared a notice with residents saying his party would not allow such a major demolition to take place in the area. The evening before the demolition, Tanwar had reportedly  assured locals that it was highly unlikely for the demolition to happen, said locals.


Demolitions As Collective Punishment

Whether in New Delhi, Madhya Pradesh (MP) or Gujarat, demolitions of homes and other properties of alleged rioters and others in states either directly administered or otherwise controlled by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are increasingly viewed (here, here and here) as collective punishment.

As in Kharak Satbari, the targets of demolitions in these four states have been primarily Muslim, and the process unlawful, with these actions violating a series of laws and court judgements—although a 2009 Supreme Court judgement arguably justified a breach of due process in the confiscation of property during a protest. 

The wave of demolitions disregards landmark Supreme Court judgements in 1985 and 2017, which ruled that evictions and demolitions must: follow clear rules and procedures; include “meaningful” consultation; be “fair, just and reasonable”; and be “consistent with rights of life and dignity”.

The use of bulldozers has become a part of the BJP’s electoral narrative, deployed successfully in Uttar Pradesh, where chief minister Yogi Adityanath was called “Bulldozer Baba”, as he won a second term in March 2022. 

On 19 November, BJP workers in Morbi, Gujarat, welcomed Adityanath with bulldozers and chants of “bulldozer baba” and “Jai Shree Ram”. 

Governments run by the BJP demolished properties belonging mostly to Muslims following communal riots in four states during 2022, Article 14 reported in April 2022. 

In April 2022 after riots in the town of Khargone in MP, the state’s home minister Narottam Mishra said,  “Jis ghar se patthar aaye hain, us ghar ko pattharon ka hi ghar banayenge (Whichever houses were involved in stone pelting, we will turn into piles of stones).”

Recent Demolitions & The Courts

“Bulldozer politics is a power exercise by the majority community,” said Mander. “Bulldozer justice is like a red line being crossed, as it underlines that the state can attack the rights of the Muslim minority and it is not constrained by either the Constitution or the law.”

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi on 26 August said it had conducted a "massive demolition drive" against unauthorised constructions in its south zone during 2022. In a statement, it said it would "intensify the demolition drive.”

In a hearing on 24 November in Patna High Court, Justice Pradeep Kumar slammed Bihar police and said, “Have bulldozers started running here too? Who is this powerful man who has destroyed his place with a bulldozer? Whom do you represent, the state or some private person? A spectacle has been made that anyone’s house can be demolished with a bulldozer.” 

The court observed that the house in question had been illegally demolished without following due process.

The Allahabad High Court on 30 November questioned the Amethi district administration in Uttar Pradesh for filing several first information reports (FIRs) and demolishing buildings owned by a lawyer of the district bar association. The court said the demolitions and complaints in the span of less than a week showed not only undue haste but also the “lack of good faith” on the part of the district administration. 

In April 2022, a demolition drive was carried out in Jahangirpuri in Northwest Delhi despite a Supreme Court stay order. Communal violence had broken out in Jahangirpuri following a Hanuman Jayanti rally organised by the Bajrang Dal. Mostly, Muslims were arrested. 

Soon after, Delhi BJP chief Adesh Gupta wrote to the North Delhi Municipal Corporation commissioner asking him to bulldoze the illegal constructions and encroachments of the “rioters” and anti-social elements who had thrown stones at the Hanuman Jayanti procession.

In May, bulldozers of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation reached Shaheen Bagh but retreated after facing massive protests on the ground. 

At Shakur Basti in West Delhi on 14 October, 70 shanties were demolished by the Northern Railways. On 18 October, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi carried out a demolition near Batla House in Jamia Nagar


Locals Say Police Manhandled Them During Demolition

Seema Sharma, 34, has lived in Kharak Satbari for 15 years. She said the women were crying and shouting during the demolition, and that those who tried to ask  the police questions were manhandled.

The roads were blocked. Most men had gone to work and when some returned, they were stopped outside. Children returning from school also had their school buses and tempos stopped outside.


Talking about police hostility, Nargis, 35, who does not use a surname, said they requested the policemen to allow them to take some clothes out before the bulldozers moved in, as the winters are here. “… they did not budge or pay any heed.”

One of Nargis’s relatives was beaten, she said, and taken to Maidan Garhi police station before being let off at night. The station house officer of Maidan Garhi refused to comment. 

The colony, which has been in existence since around 2001, has water supply, electricity, and even CCTV cameras installed by the state government. 

The citizens’ writ petition stated that as the authorities had taken a decision to provide these amenities, “it becomes incumbent” upon them not to demolish the structures. The residents’ possession of the structures on this land had been recorded in revenue records too, the petition said.  

A regularisation plan for the area, also known as JJ Basti Kharak Riwara, was submitted to the office of the National Capital Territory,  Delhi, Department of Urban Development, in 2012. 

Dalal said whether disputed or otherwise, the residents had to be informed beforehand about an impending demolition. 

Speaking to Article 14, an official from South Delhi DCP’s office who did not want to be named, said giving notice to the locals is the responsibility of the municipality or the DDA. 

“The Delhi police only goes with the authorities for protection, otherwise they don't have any role in the demolition,” said the officer. 


Medicines Lost, Health Concerns Rise

Malik said she suffers from hyperthyroidism. “My medicine was also lost in the rubble along with all my clothes and things,” she said. She feels dizzy and weak without her medication, she said. 

The Supreme Court has previously held that evictions and demolitions by governments must consider the right to life. 

In Shantistar Builders vs Narayan Khimalal Totame in 1990, the apex court ruled  that the right to life would include other rights. "The right to life would take within its sweep the right to food, the right to clothing, the right to a decent environment and a reasonable accommodation to live in,” it said. 

Meanwhile, one of the Sharma’s two daughters suffers from a periodical fever and  an epileptic seizure every now and then. 

“My eight-year-old daughter gets a fit sometimes and now all her medical documents are buried under the rubble,” said Sharma. “She sees the police and asks me if they are going to come and demolish homes again.”

Reshma Parveen also noted that many women were sick with a cough, cold or fever due to Delhi's air. The demolition had aggravated their illness, she said.

In the case of Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation the Supreme Court in 1985 held that the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution also included a person’s right to live with dignity, housing and livelihood.

Sharma, herself a diabetic, has Hepatitis C. “I fainted on the day of the demolition,” she said. “I was on insulin. I was screaming that I need my medicines and all of them will get destroyed too but the police were not listening to me.”


‘Buried Her Baby, Returned To No Home’

Another woman named Parveen, 28, puts up roadside stalls to sell cosmetics and bangles. Her family hails from Firozabad in western UP. The family of seven, which includes her four children, husband and father-in-law, have been living in Kharak Satbari for 20 years.

“On the morning of the demolition, I had gone to bury my daughter who was less than two months old and had been in hospital,” Parveen told Article 14. “When I came back, I saw my house being razed to the ground. I was in shock.” Hers was reportedly the first house to be demolished  that day.


The locals have since come to each other’s rescue. Parveen added, “The neighbours and the whole locality who have helped me with food and other necessities. They have supported me despite facing their own losses.” Her utensils, money and jewellery are all untraceable.  


Asked how they were living in the rubble without bathrooms, the women said they relied on those whose houses were not completely demolished or had been spared. They arranged for sanitary napkins for one another through relatives who visit.

The home of Saiman, 70, was entirely demolished with not a single wall still standing. Saiman, who uses only her first name, has lived here for 30 years with her daughter-in-law, her five daughters and their children.

“The families made these houses into homes, from kaccha to pucca, with their income over the years,” Saiman said.  

She said it was challenging to continue living in the rubble as the winter set in. “All our woollen clothes are destroyed,” said Saiman. “How can you do this to us when we have not done anything wrong?” 


Next to her now demolished house stood Shehzadi, 17, who had lived here for seven years with her parents, her brother, his wife and their baby. Her father is a gardener in a farmhouse in Chhatarpur, a rich neighbourhood. The family belongs to Sultanpur in east-central UP.

Shehzadi told Article 14 she had just come back from school when her house was being demolished. “I tried telling them to stop but they did not listen to me.” Her school books and clothes were all lost under the rubble.


‘Never Faced Any Land Dispute Here Before’

Anjum Mailk’s husband Shahid, 35, works in a private job, as an accountant. His family has lived in Kharak Satbari since 2012.

Talking about the land, he told Article 14 there had never been any dispute earlier.   “All this has happened because of a case between Capital and DDA, but neither of them ever visited to ask us details or questions about our houses,” he said.

There is no law anywhere in the world, said Mander, that allows authorities to demolish the home of a person “even if he has committed a crime”.

Local residents said most households had not yet located their cooking gas cylinders. Najim Saifi, a class 12-student, had tried to save some belongings including their refrigerator, but the bulldozer had crushed it before he could drag it away to safety. 

Saifi’s father, a carpenter, has lived in Kharak Satbari since he was 15 years old himself.


Meanwhile, Kamruddin Saifi, 45, who has also lived in Kharak Satbari since 2012 and works at an interior design and construction firm, said there were 12 or 13 khasra numbers or plots in the area that used to be farming land years ago. “There are no jhuggis (shanties) here. The ‘pucca’ houses came around 2011,” he said.  

He said the court had, until now, looked at this case only from the perspective of two parties, Capital Builders and the DDA.  Now that the locals have filed a writ petition, they would be heard, Saifi hoped.

“If they wanted to remove anything from here, they should have sent us a notice legally,” said Saifi. “They just came here in 'dabang-giri' (heroics.)”  

Get exclusive access to new databases, expert analyses, weekly newsletters, book excerpts and new ideas on democracy, law and society in India. Subscribe to Article 14.

(Aliza Noor is a journalist from Lucknow. She covers human rights, social justice and gender issues.)