At Delhi’s Tughlaqabad, residents of a jhuggi have been served notices by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to evict their houses, leaving everyone in fear.

Sushma, 60, who works as a domestic worker and is a resident of Bengali Colony in Tughlaqabad cannot stop crying. Speaking to The Citizen, she said that they were served notices from the court on January 11, demanding they leave the premises as the whole area will be demolished. “They gave us the time till January 26, just 15 days to leave behind our whole life,” she said with tears rolling down her cheeks.

Like Sushma, all the residents broke down while narrating their ordeal. “I have lived here for more than 20 years,” said 28-year-old Noor.

Working as a daily wage worker, Noor told The Citizen that they have nowhere else to go. “This is our home and now they suddenly want to demolish it,” she said adding, “we built our homes together here. All of us. Bit by bit, we saved and built these homes.”

Sushma, meanwhile questioned why their Aadhaar as well as voting cards were made if the colony was unauthorised. “Why do these politicians come to ask for votes then? We have given votes from this area and we have aadhar as well as voter IDs to prove that,” she said.

Located near the historical Tughlaqabad Fort, which was built in the 14th Century and now lies in ruin, the Bangali colony houses people who have migrated mostly from West Bengal and Bihar. The area has a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims. According to the people, more than 2,000 houses are under threat which will affect close to 20,000 people.

“Where will our children go?” demanded Seema, a 40-year-old resident. Most of the women work as domestic workers, and Seema said she only earns Rs. 6000 a month. “Our children are suffering the most here. They have exams but due to all this they can not study. Many of them have also not been able to go to school. Is this the sort of development this government has promised us?” she told The Citizen.

On the other hand, 17-year-old Muskan, who has examinations in the coming days, said she is stressed. “None of us are able to study because we are so scared,” she said. With tears in her eyes, she requested the government to do something about it. “No one is listening to us. I request the government to please not demolish our houses and spare us,” she added.

The matter came to light when an applicant named S.N. Bharadwaj filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in March 2001, stating that the ASI has failed to “protect, maintain and preserve the historic Tughlakabad Fort”. According to him, various illegal occupants have since entered the fort premises and constructed their houses with a view to grab the Government land for dwelling purposes

“The Fort has its national importance. It has been declared a protected monument. Therefore, it is the legal as well as ethical obligation of the concerned authorities to protect this heritage site and to properly maintain it. Notwithstanding, over a period of time, the place is encroached upon and rampant illegal construction carried out by many people,” the Supreme Court had observed in its order in 2016.

The apex court also observed that when the said writ petition came up for hearing, the High Court disposed of the same with the observations that the ASI need to look into the grievances in proper perspective and take necessary action as is warranted in law.

“Though the petition is not very specific as regards the alleged unauthorised construction we think it would be appropriate if the concerned authorities look into the grievances in the proper perspective and take necessary action as is warranted in law. We make it clear that we have not expressed any opinion as regards acceptability of the petitioner's stand,” the High Court had said at the time.

However, the petitioner, not satisfied with the manner of disposal, approached the apex court. “The High Court should have taken up the matter itself rather than leaving it to the ASI,” the petitioner Bharadwaj had told the court.

However, even after notice, when the matter came up for hearing on December 9, 2002, Supreme Court was informed that the alleged encroachment could not be removed even when the authorities were trying to do the same on account of certain interim orders passed by the High Court.

On March 3, 2003, the apex court passed interim orders directing that no construction, of any nature whatsoever, be allowed in the said area by anybody.

It was also directed that all the agencies, including Delhi Development Authority (DDA), Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the Police must assist the ASI in ensuring that no construction activity takes place in this area.

However, none of the authorities followed up on that, which has created anger among the residents, who after many years are bearing the brunt. “This was sheer ignorance on the part of the authorities,” Lakshman Singh, a resident of the colony, told The Citizen.

Meanwhile, few residents in the said area who were also dubbed as unauthorised encroachers by the petitioner, had moved applications for intervention from time to time, which were allowed.

However, on 29th November, 2011, the apex court turned down the stay on the matter by the Delhi High Court said that “there is no stay order in the matter and the concerned authorities are directed to take appropriate steps in accordance with law”.

They also gave ASI eight-week time. An order was also given by the court where it directed the ASI to file an affidavit indicating that on the basis of the aerial survey conducted in the year 1993, how many people were living in the protected monument of Tughlaqabad Fort.

For this, a committee was formed in 2017, to oversee the task of surveying the structure to determine which of them existed in 1993.

In the 2016 order, the Delhi High Court was given the authority to pass appropriate orders and to ensure that apex court’s orders were being followed. The Registry is directed to transmit the records of the cases to the High Court.

In November 2022, the Delhi High Court had granted ASI six weeks as the “last indulgence” to remove encroachments in and around the Tughlaqabad Fort.

A Bench of Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma and Justice Subramonium Prasad made it clear that non-compliance with its order will lead to strict action by the court and that it will call for appearance of members of a committee which was formed in 2017 to oversee the task of surveying the structure to determine which of them existed in 1993.

Speaking to The Citizen, Singh, who also received notice and has become a local leader for the people, asked why the authorities decided to take the action suddenly.

“The authorities said that houses after 1993 should be demolished, but why has it taken so many years for the government to take action? What about those who have been here before 1993? If the authorities could have done the survey as instructed by the court earlier, we would not have been in this position,” he said. Meanwhile, the Bench had also asked power utility BSES to cooperate as the electricity supply at the site needed to be disconnected before removing encroachments, and directed all authorities concerned and the committee members to file their status reports.

However, people have claimed that they have been filing the bills for more than Rs. 6000, many of whom are still getting the bill. “They sent me the bill of Rs. 7000 just last month. They themselves gave us an electricity connection and now they are saying we are encroachers,” Shabnam, who has been a resident at the colony for 20 years, said.

Singh said that most of the people got electricity metres from the government in 2017.

In 2017, the high court had formed a committee, saying it was of the view that the issue of survey of the structures to determine which of them existed in 1993, as indicated by the judgement of the Supreme Court, will be better subserved if a committee oversaw the task.

Speaking to The Citizen, Nirmal Gorana, Convener at Mazdur Awas Sangharsh Samiti, who is also overlooking the matter said that this is being done as India is organising G-20. “This is the government's last desperate attempt to clean areas as much as possible,” he said.

He added that while the Central government has the authority to acquire the land as ASI comes under it, the rehabilitation of the people should be the priority.

The writ petition also said that the Fort and the area measuring 2661 bighas within the fortification wall was transferred to the ASI by the Delhi Government with the objective of protection, preservation and development of the entire opening area abutting the monument within the Fort wall.

The petition also mentioned that 4435 bighas were transferred to Delhi Development Authority (DDA) for care and maintenance. “The Government land was allowed to be encroached by all the respondents and construction work was carried out with the active collusion of the Government officials as per reports in the Press,” the apex court in 2016 had observed.

Meanwhile, Gorona said, “We need to understand that people have been living here for decades. We need to acknowledge and do something about helping these people. This is a grave human right violation and the court needs to also acknowledge that”. He added that the government is also working against the rehabilitation policy of 2021 in this regard.

According to the Draft Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy 2021, the government must ensure that slum dwellers are treated fairly and humanely when they are resettled from objectionable poramboke lands including water courses in a dignified manner. “Poramboke Lands” means the lands which are not assessed to revenue records.

The resettlement policy includes three phases: Pre- Resettlement activities, Resettlement activities and Rehabilitation, none of which have been followed.

Meanwhile, the residents also said that in 2019, they got their houses registered under Prime Minister’s Unauthorised Colonies in Delhi Awas Adhikar Yojana or PM Uday.

It was enacted by the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha of Parliament in order to assist in the regulation of the colonies and the transfer of ownership rights (Free Hold) of the properties to the inhabitants.

The PM-Uday plan also grants property ownership rights to residents of Delhi’s 1731 unauthorised colonies. “This is an important factor that needs to be considered and the government should take action on this accordingly,” Gorana said.

Most of the residents also claimed that they bought the land for a fee of Rs. 5000 years back but have no documentation. “We had no idea about all this and now we are suffering. But even then, why has our voter card been made from this area?” demanded the residents.

They also said that government dispensaries and schools till class 9 are also functioning in the area. “Our prime minister promised jahan jhuggi wahan makaan, what happened to that? Why were schools established here if this was an unauthorised colony? Does the government not want us to live in peace? We are daily wage workers and most of us have small kids with us. Where do these people expect us to go from here,” Suman, resident at Bangali Colony said.

“This is our home and we are not going anywhere. It is our request to the government to not let us leave our house. Either give us a respectable place to stay or let us live like this,” Sushma added.

The distressed residents have said if the rehabilitation does not happen, they are not going to move as they have nowhere to go.

“We are not going to go anywhere. If they want to bulldoze our houses, they can do that but we will not move from here,” Sushma added.

Meanwhile, taking suo-motu cognisance of ASI's Delhi Circle notice, on January 11, the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights on Wednesday issued a notice, advising it to suspend the drive.

The commission has expressed its concern on how within 15 days of issue of a notice, all actions including demolition or eviction under law will be taken against the said residents, without any relief or rehabilitation measures for children of the area. It has called for suspension of the drive till rehabilitation of all children is ensured.

“It is pertinent to mention that the order suffers from several infirmities. It speaks of no attempt or provision of rehabilitation of children. Taking away shelter from these families is nothing short of cruelty in such extreme weathers of Delhi.

“Further, the children have their education which will suffer on account of this removal drive. It is tragic that the Archaeological Survey is not concerned about the well-being of the children,” the notice to ASI, Delhi Circle, read. It added that this is against Section 75 of Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015.

As per Section 75 of Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015, any abuse, exposure or willful neglect of the child which may cause mental or physical suffering to the child is a punishable offence with a imprisonment of 3 years or fine of Rs 1 lakh or both.

“In lieu of the same, the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) in exercise of its powers under Section 130 and Section 14 of the Commissions for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005 issues the present notice advising for suspension of the said demolition pending the rehabilitation of children,” the notice read.

According to DCPCR Chairperson Anurag Kundu, “Eviction of young children without proper rehabilitation measures is a violation of basic human rights. We urge the ASI to take necessary steps to ensure children's welfare. We will continue to monitor the situation closely."

The DCPCR has also directed the ASI to submit its correspondences to different authorities enabling them measures for rehabilitation of children.

The matter, which is still going on after the PIL was filed, was heard in the Delhi High Court on 16 January 2023 and the next date has been given 24 April, 2023.

For now, there seems to be no relief for the residents, who are still fearful of what is going to come next. “We are not able to sleep at night,” cried Pooja, who has been living here for more than 30 years.

At the behest of the residents, All India Students Association (AISA) and All India Central Council of Trade Union (AICCTU) have called for a protest on January 20.

All Photographs Nikita Jain