Field Notes: Fear & Fury In Delhi’s Demolition Sites


As Delhi’s authorities intensify preparations for the G20 summit scheduled in September, large-scale demolitions and displacement have rocked the city, mainly targeting working-class neighbourhoods and slums. These demolitions directly result from scattered court cases and executive orders, coupled with the higher judiciary’s refusal to intervene. 

At the receiving end of these political decisions and confusing paperwork are people the city still needs to provide adequate housing, an extension of the right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Over a month, we visited the localities of Mehrauli, Dhaula Kuan, Yamuna khadar, Tughlakabad and Moolchand basti. In Tughlakabad, where over 2,50,000 have reportedly been left homeless, dozens of people sat helplessly on mountains of rubble—the remains of their homes, many without so much as a tarpaulin shelter.

At the demolished site in Moolchand basti on the Yamuna floodplains, of the 735 families whose temporary homes were destroyed there, about 50 families now live under the nearby Geeta colony flyover, while others could manage rented houses.  

“I was born in this basti. Officials forcefully destroyed our houses. Now they are warning us to move from the roads where we are living. We don’t know where to migrate,” said Ruman Singh, a 50-year-old agricultural worker.

The perception is that these people are “encroachers”, piggybacking on the state’s generosity, living in prime localities for free, while the “middle class” dutifully chooses to live in legitimised houses far from their workplaces and suffer the drudgery of the daily commute. 

But the people we met were people who kept the city going. They drive cars, clean the streets and work in homes. They build the houses and the buildings, quite literally, with their own hands.  

Nor have they lived here for free. Each person we spoke with told us they had paid for the land, often lakhs of rupees, and then made their cramped homes habitable over the years, sometimes decades. Residents in Tughlakabad claim to have paid government officials and policemen between 10,000 to 15,000 rupees per square metre for their land. 

The residents of these localities are not undocumented, which has added to their confusion. Whenever  we were standing in a group, questions were coming at us from all sides: 

“We have our addresses on our Aadhaar cards. Our electricity bills come to these addresses. Then how can we suddenly be declared illegal?” 

“If our homes were illegal, how were we allowed to get registered?”

We had no answer to give them. 

Map by Land Conflict Watch

On 28 April, two days before demolitions began in Tughlakabad, we visited the home of Suman, a 34-year-old domestic worker, who was organising her neighbours to stop the proposed demolition there. 

What struck us through our interactions with the families, both threatened and directly affected by demolition, was how their anger was directed at their governments.

“Officials are claiming that we are illegal encroachers. Why doesn’t the BJP government ask the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] and ED [Enforcement Directorate] to probe the illegalities committed by the officials who allowed us to build our home here?” asked Suman.

“The prime minister says, beti bachao, beti padhao [save the daughter, educate the daughter]. Now where will my daughters live, and how will they go to school in these conditions?” asked a furious young domestic worker who refused to identify herself, possibly fearing repercussions. 

“The BJP said jahan jhuggi, wahan makan [buildings in place of slums] during the elections, and now they have left us with nothing,” said a distressed resident of Tughlakabad.

Governments and ruling parties perhaps have not realised that catchy slogans are a double-edged sword—people don’t forget them. 

You can read Mukta Joshi & Prudhviraj Rupavath’s full story here.

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