After the demoliton of an illegal settlement along railway tracks in Delhi, HT talks to angry residents who lost their homes.
“The bandobast (arrangements) was truly impressive,” recounts Lalu Khan, 41, a rickshaw puller and a resident of Shakur Basti in north-west Delhi.
The last time Khan saw so many khaki-clad men and bulldozers was two years ago. “That was when my jhuggi, along with others, was decimated the last time, dispite our resistance.”
This time though, the massive show of strength was enough to deflate all their resistance plans, if any. Within hours, everything that stood between these slum dwellers and the railway bulldozers was levelled to the ground. For the residents of Shakur Basti, a usual Saturday morning turned into a long ordeal.
“I knew I had to start rebuilding my life all over again,” says Lalu. “Everything had finished. All my belongings, my lifelong investment in my small jhuggi, all vanished in front of my eyes.”
On December 12, Northern Railways razed down the jhuggis as part of a drive to free encroached railway land. In the chaos of the demolition, a 6-month-old girl died after a pile of clothes fell on her.
The row over the infant’s death became a political flashpoint between the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government and the Railways department which comes under the central government. In a sharply-worded statement, the Delhi High Court rapped Railways for demolishing the jhuggi clusters in the month of December, leaving residents stranded in the biting cold.
This is not the first time that Shakur Basti has faced a demolition drive. The settlement is one of the many that sit in the safety zone next to railway tracks, posing a safety hazard to the railways as well as the encroachers. In Delhi, track length of nearly 70 km is affected due to illegal encroachments on both sides.
Between 2003 and 2005, Railways paid Rs 11.25 crore to the Delhi government for removal of 4,410 encroaching settlements or slum dwellers from its land in the capital. But till date, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) has been able to remove only 297 of these.
Across the country, Railways is grappling with illegal encroachments in its safety zones, even getting fined by the National Green Tribunal for failing to remove these settlements. Official data available with the railway ministry shows that in the last three years, it has been able to retrieve only 112 hectares across the country.
In the court, the Railways counsel argued that the demolition was conducted to ensure the safety of the slum residents. The bench, comprising justice S Muralidhar and Vibhu Bakhru, rubbished the argument.
“Are they safe now?” asked the bench. “You have forced them to suffer and shiver in the cold. Every minute that they spend out in the cold counts.”
Shakur Basti is a sprawling settlement, spread over 34,800 sqm of railway land. It is home to 775 households, huddled across several clusters with large open spaces in between. Most of the basti today, however, is covered in the rubble of demolished jhuggis.
A group of residents discuss how to use the saffron tarpaulin sheets provided by some NGO, in the aftermath of the demolition. In their midst, stands 10-year-old Nazima Khatun, who has just returned from school. Her black velcro shoes are covered with a thick film of cement dust. “All her school books and other stationary got buried under the rubble,” says her mother Suma Khatun, as Nazima stands silent.
When the demolition drive started in the early hours of December 12, Nazima was preparing to go to school. Loud thuds and shrieks in the neighborhood drew her out. “I saw policemen charging in with sticks and accompanying them were the bulldozers. Then they reached our house and in one swing, they turned it to rubble. I didn’t even get time to get out my school bag and books,” says Nazima.
When her father tried to intervene, he was beaten up by the policemen, she adds.
A few meters away from Nazima’s house was the jhuggi occupied by Bibi Firoza, 65, who has lived in the slum for the past 30 years. Originally from Bihar, Firoza’s sons left her few years ago. Since then Firoza has been living in her small jhuggi, which she says was built by her neighbors. After the demolition, Firoza spend almost a week sleeping outside without any shelter or proper food.
I saw policemen charging in with sticks and accompanying them were the bulldozers. Then they reached our house and in one swing, they turned it to rubble.
- Nazima Khatoon
Firoza sits in the remnants of her jhuggi, trying to stitch together a few rags to make a makeshift curtain. All that remains of her belongings are a set of utensils, which hang from the ceiling.
“The only thing I had was this small jhuggi where I used to spend my time all alone. They took away that too. Now I have nowhere to go,” says Firoza.
They may have lost their homes, but not a single resident of Shakur Basti will deny that on that Saturday morning, none of them lost more than their neighbours Safeena Khatoon and Mohammad Anwar.
THE GRIEVING PARENTS
"Run!" That was the last thing Safeena heard her husband scream, before she saw her jhuggi fall to the ground. Their second jhuggi next to it, where she had laid down her six-month-old daughter Rukkaiya to sleep while she did her morning chores, was next in line.
“The policemen began knocking on the doors and asking us to leave at 10 am,” says Anwar. In the mad rush that followed, a pile of clothes fell on Rukkaiya and by the time Safeena went in to check for her daughter, Rukkaiya had stopped breathing.
Safeena hasn’t talked much since the tragedy. After their marriage five years ago, the couple had dreamt of starting a new life. One of their dreams was to send Rukkaiya to a good English-medium school. “I wish I could have saved her,” Safeena says to Anwar, every time they have a conversation.
Anwar, along with few neighbours, rushed Rukaiyya to the nearby Mahaveer Hospital. “She was declared dead,” he says.
They have not taken just my child away from me. They have taken away my reason to live.
- Mohammad Anwar
The news of Rukkaiya’s death spread like wildfire. When he returned to Shakur Basti with his daughter’s dead body, Anwar was stopped at the entrance by a group of policemen.
“I insisted that I need to go back for the burial of my daughter but the policemen told me [that] they want to take her to a better hospital,” says Anwar. “It was a cruel joke. She was dead and taking her to another hospital made no sense. But the policemen took us to the Sanjay Gandhi Hospital anyway, where she was declared brought dead again,” said Anwar.
According to Anwar, the police did this only to ensure the demolition drive went on, because letting them back into the settlement with the child's body would have caused an uproar. The doctors then ordered for a postmortem of the child.
“I was angry. How can somebody perform a postmortem on a six-month-old child? But I could do nothing,” says Anwar.
On a visit to the area, AAP MLA from the constituency, Satyendra Jain called the demolition “a planned conspiracy”. He has also announced a temporary relief of R 1 lakh to the infant's family and also assured an inquiry into the chain of events which led to her death.
For the family members, there is no consolation.
“They have not taken just my child away from me. They have taken away my reason to live,” said Anwar.
COINCIDENCE OR A PLANNED ACT?
Ten days after the demolition, the fissures are all too apparent.
Speculation is rife in the slum that the demolition was a way to settle political scores. “We heard some of the officials and policemen taunt us for voting for Aam Admi Party, claiming that our dwellings were being demolished because we voted for them,” said one of the residents, Abdul Kareem.
According to the residents, they received no prior notice for the demolition and posters warning of the drive were only pasted a day before. Railways, however, insists that they sent out notices in March and September.
Residents are also angry about the demolition of a make-shift mosque, which stood at the entrance of a basti.
Touseef Raja, 22, a part-time electrician, took HT to the place where the mosque used to be. Nothing much remains there, other than a huge pile of rubble where the destroyed loudspeakers rest. Stacks of carpet, on which people used to pray, lie against a corner.
“This is where we used to pray,” pointed Touseef, pointing towards a crater in the middle. “The bulldozers have dug up this place.”
The only thing I had was this small jhuggi where I used to spend my time all alone. They took away that too. Now I have nowhere to go.
- Bibi Firoza
Railway officials argue that the mosque has been brought down in earlier demolition drives as well, in 2005, 2008 and 2011 respectively. But residents have alleged that a temple, which stands a mere 100 meters away from the mosque, was left intact.
Says Mohammad Mateen, 65, who has been giving the call to prayer at the mosque for the past 30 years, “We do understand that the mosque was built on illegal land which was not owned by us, but what we are asking is [that] why wasn't the temple touched?”.
From last week, since the demolition, a circus seems to have descended upon the settlement. As the cement dust hung heavy in the air, cars of NGOs, media persons, and politicians have been a common sight. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi visited the basti on December 14, offering support.
For Bihari Lal, 40, this sudden rush of politicians and NGOs means nothing unless his family is rehabilitated. In his 20 years at the settlement, he has seen the police come, demolish the settlement and go. “But this time,” Bihari says, “the policemen and the railway officials came for the final blow.”
Fear of another demolition drive hangs heavy in Shakur Basti. Wary residents want a reassurance from the government that their jhuggis will not be razed again without rehabilitating them. Amid all this, the settlement is slowly returning to life.
It’s time to start our lives all over again. Nothing should stop us from living.
- Mohammad Rahim
Eight days after the demolition, Razid Ali, 28, rode on a load carrier truck from Kanauj, Uttar Pradesh to Shakur Basti along with four of his friends, and some family members. By the time this grand baarat (wedding procession) reached the makeshift tent at the slum, the whole locality had gathered to get a glimpse of the to-be-groom.
“Qubool hai,” Razid nodded in affirmation when asked if he wants to marry Najma Khatun.
Najma’s father Mohammad Rahim, a resident of the settlement, looked at the couple and said, “It’s time to start our lives all over again.
Nothing should stop us from living.”
Developer: Sheikh Saaliq
Video: Sidrah Ahmad