On April 20, CPM leader Brinda Karat stood in front of a moving bulldozer in a bid to stop the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) from razing the illegal structures in Delhi's Jahangirpuri.
Just four days ago, on April 16 the region had witnessed a communal flare-up during a shobha yatra for Hanuman Jayanti. Eight police personnel and a local resident were injured, stone-pelting, arson and torching of vehicles were reported.
Soon after the incident, several people were taken into custody and five key accused were booked under the stringent National Security Act.
Demolishing encroachments is nothing out of the ordinary in a densely populated country like India. What was out of the ordinary was the stealthy, hurried manner in which the demolition was done, just days after a communal clash in the same area.
Incidentally, the anti-encroachment drive took place soon after the Delhi BJP president Adesh Gupta had written to the North MCD Mayor, demanding identification and demolition of "illegal encroachment" and construction by those arrested in the Jahangirpuri violence.
No prior notice
"Serving a notice at least five to fifteen days before the demolition is standard operating procedure before any anti-encroachment drive," says Supreme Court lawyer Advocate Pramod Puzhankara.
"Demolition can take place without prior notice only in the case of non-permanent structures," he added.
“The NDMC says that the Jahangirpuri demolition was authorised by Sections 321 and Section 322 of Delhi Municipal Corporation Act of 1957. But the truth is, the corporation demolished or intended to demolish brick-and-mortar structures and pakka structures which fall outside the purview of these sections,” Adv Pramod says.
Section 320 and 321 deals with the prohibition of structures or fixtures which cause obstruction in streets and prohibition of deposit of things in streets. Section 322 empowers the Commissioner to remove anything deposited or exposed for sale in contravention of this Act without prior notice.
"Section 334 and 343 is relevant in case of permanent structures. The owner requires a notice of five to 15 days," he added.
If not for the prompt Supreme Court intervention in Jahangirpuri on the same day, many more would have lost their homes and livelihood last week.
The apex court directed maintenance of the status quo on the razing of buildings and said it would take a "serious view" of the demolition that was carried out even after its order was communicated to the NDMC mayor.
The court issued a notice to the Centre and others on the plea filed by the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind that claimed that buildings of Muslim riots accused were razed.
The hearing saw CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat also moving the top court complaining that the demolition drive was not stopped despite an order to maintain the status quo.
Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave cited article 343 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957 and said that demolition without prior notice was not apt for a democracy.
“There are 731 unauthorised colonies in Delhi with 50 lakh people,” the Senior Advocate said.
The Supreme Court had ruled in 1985, and upheld in subsequent cases, that not serving notice to affected parties violates “the principles of natural justice”, and any departure from the due process of law results in an unjust decision.
“They never did anything like this in 1984 and 2002 then why now. Delhi has an Act of 2011 which protected every illegal encroachment till December 2023. A particular section of society is being targeted,” Dave said.
“This is not confined to Jahangirpuri and affects the social fabric of the country. If we allow this, there will be no rule of law or democracy left.”
“If you want to act against unauthorised constructions, you go to Sainik Farms. Come to Golf Links, where I stay and where every second home is an encroachment. You don't want to touch them, but target the poor people.”
Barring the few neat streets built by Lutyens in Central Delhi, almost the entire capital and NCR screams of illegal encroachment. According to the Economic Survey of Delhi 2008-09, more than three out of four live in unplanned or authorised settlements in Delhi.
Besides Sainik Farms, some of the posh colonies of Delhi such as Freedom Fighters Enclave, Vasant Kunj Enclave, Saidul Ajaib Extension, and Chhattarpur Enclave come under the 1000 plus unauthorised colonies in Delhi.
Provision for rehabilitation
If the government decides to strengthen its anti-encroachment drives, it is also responsible for rehabilitating them in a way that does not affect their livelihood.
The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) was established under the Delhi Slum and JJ Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy-2015 specifically for this purpose. As per the policy, DUSIB shall provide an alternative accommodation to the residents of jhuggis and JJ Bastis in Delhi if they are removed. The alternative accommodation should be on the same land or within a 5 kilometre radius.
The 2015 Policy rightly recognises the critical economic activities performed by those living in these jhuggis- like drivers, vegetable vendors, domestic servants etc. The in-situ development undertaken for the rehabilitation of colony dwellers of Kathputli Colony is quoted in the policy for reference.
“In 2020, the SC ordered 48,000 jhuggis to be removed from the Delhi-NCR region. Though it came under criticism for the order, the Supreme Court stated that the process cannot be undertaken without deciding on the rehabilitation of the dwellers here,” says Adv Pramod while adding that the apex court has recognised 'Right to Shelter' as a fundamental right.
If bulldozers target homes and livelihoods of the poor, downtrodden minorities with the objective of delivering an alternate or vigilante justice, the common man will be forced to stray away from the rule of law.
It is therefore, crucial that the State adheres to the rule of law for the overall development and progress of civil society.
Slums and 'unauthorised' colonies like Jahagirpuri form the underbelly of India's capital. The city derives its energy from the thousands of informal workers living in these colonies. It is high time the State recognizes their value and rights.