NEW DELHI: The blaring siren of a railway train arriving might bring excitement and anticipation to the heart of the average citizen, but to the residents of Delhi’s Shakur Basti, the sound symbolises only torment and loss.

Lying behind a railway colony, Shakur Basti, made up of roughly 10,000 jhuggis or huts, lends its name to the local railway station and adjoining areas. Its residents live in abject conditions, under imminent threat of violently being dispossessed by the railway authorities.

In the past few days, according to multiple residents, bulldozers have once again started arriving at the site, threatening to tear down the decades old settlement.

In December 2015 the railway authorities, with the help of riot squads and local police, razed over 500 shacks in the basti, dispossessing approximately 2,500 slum dwellers of the only homes they had ever known, and leading to the immediate death of a 7-month-old infant at the hands of a bulldozer.

That the demolition took place with no prior notice is best highlighted by the fact that an old woman tragically perished of a heart attack while her home, along with all her belongings and documentation, were destroyed in front of her eyes.

According to Kashi Prasad, who has lived in Shakur Basti for close to two decades, the violence unleashed by the authorities has led to the residents’ taking refuge on the adjoining railway tracks. The only relief was provided in the form of scant food and blankets, while the residents’ overwhelming concerns of rehabilitation or relocation received no attention whatsoever.

No compensation or medical attention was provided to the aggrieved. Since then, the jhuggi dwellers have lived under constant threat of dispossession, and have, therefore, largely refrained from rebuilding pucca (permanent) homes and lives.

Trouble has resurfaced in recent weeks, as the residents of Shakur Basti confront a notice dated 25 May 2019, which states an order to vacate the area by the end of the month on account of its being government land.

According to Nur Jahan, a labourer and resident of the slum for eight years, forcibly moving from the old to the new settlement across the railway tracks, following the 2015 demolitions, agents of the authorities initially arrived at the site to carry out measurements, and deliver a notice of eviction to every shanty.

A few days later, on June 1 they returned, this time with bulldozers and workmen, ready to begin the demolition.

“We told them that we were fasting on account of Ramzan, and requested them to come back once we were done fasting,” Nur Jahan told The Citizen. “They left when we made our request and haven’t broken anything down yet, but are due to return soon.”

According to a group of residents, the authorities plan to construct offices, railyards, and a new station over the reclaimed land. “We were told to vacate the land in 3-4 days, and that the railways would not provide us with anything,” said Nur Jahan.

“Last time we rebuilt our shacks on the other side of the tracks after the demolition. This time, when we asked if we asked where to go, we were told to avoid the roadside and look for parks instead,” she added.

Several residents of Shakur Basti believe that the eviction notice delivered to them does not come from a legitimate authority. “The notice has no government stamp or authorised signature. Usually, before demolitions, a proper notice on a government letterhead is put up in the slum,” said Rani Parveen, who has lived in the basti for the past four years.

“We think the notice is shady because this time, they have delivered one to every shanty, as opposed to the single, stamped notices in the past,” she says.

There are speculations within the slums about an offer to keep their homes on payment of Rs.5,000 from each shanty.

The recently delivered eviction notice appears shady, with no proof of government issue, stamp of authority or authorised signature

“A few days ago, a lawyer came and spoke to us. He told us not to empty the slums and to contact him if threatened with eviction,” Nur Jahan’s husband told The Citizen. “We tried calling him when the police came, but his phone was switched off.”

Emphasising the violent nature of the evictions, Nur Jahan says that the residents have no option but to pack up their things and leave in the event that the agents return. “We need to protect and take care of our children, they are young and we cannot risk their lives. Last time the people beat us mercilessly. My mother-in-law was grievously injured and no settlement was ever made for that or other similar cases.

“God forbid they break our children’s bones, we will have to do as they say. When we empty the slum, those with work will stay on and the rest of us will have to return to our villages,” she said.

As reported by some residents, three families in the new basti have already vacated their shacks for fear of violence at official hands. Further, the unpredictable attitudes of the authorities are forcing area residents into a state of helpless despair.

Nurjahan Khatoun, who underwent three operations for various ailments in the recent past, narrates the troubles: “In the last few days, I have had to move all my belongings in and out of my house multiple times despite my physical condition, by order of the authorities.”

Some inhabitants report recent damage done to a small number of shanties as a portrayal of threat and muscle power by the authorities.

Due to recent incidents, threats and the memory of a violent demolition in 2015, many families have vacated their shanties and decided to head back to their native villages

Interestingly, despite the threat to their very homes, the residents of Shakur Basti turned out to vote in overwhelmingly large numbers in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections. They recorded the highest voter turnout in Delhi at 68 percent.

But the interest of political outfits in the slum languishes at an all time low, best represented by the fact that no campaigners came to appeal to voters in the area. According to slum dwellers, the last appearances were made after the 2015 demolitions, when both Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi, MP and president of the Indian National Congress, visited the slum after the 7-month infant girl died during the forceful evictions.

“The Chief Minister had also promised to relocate us, and provide us with new plots of land,” Kashi Prasad remembers.

According to a youth from the slum, not even the local MLA has paid a visit to the area in the last few years. “At least Indira Gandhi lived up to her promise and provided plots to the poor,” complained Prasad from the old basti. “Today, everyone says that they will help, but nobody does anything. They only wish to fill their pockets and stomachs. Nobody cares a whit about labourers like us.”

“Nobody comes to help us, not from the courts or from the government. Nothing has been done to bring justice to those who were beaten up,” said Nur Jahan.

Residents also believe that their troubles have been accentuated by a vast increase in their numbers here. According to Nur Jahan’s husband, there used to be merely 1,300 shacks, but there are now close to 10,000.

“The real issue began when new people moved into the slum: the authorities cannot provide for everybody, and many new inhabitants are undocumented. The old residents have proofs of residence and hence cannot be evicted easily. Cases go to court but they drag on and no solution is ever reached,” Nur Jahan added.

Despite their dedication to exercising their democratic rights, the residents of Shakur Basti have been unable to reap any benefits of the same.

“We have no access to water here. Under the AAP government, two tankers were initially sent for us, but they were only ever accessible in the old basti on the other side of the tracks, and because of the number of people dependent on them, many families would inadvertently be left without any water on most days,” said Savita Yadav, who works as a day attendant and is a de-facto spokesperson for the new basti.

“In the past few months, we are being sent only a single water tanker every alternate day. Despite our best efforts, we have not been provided with borewell water, and we have to walk long distances to fetch water on most days”, Yadav added.

Residents of Shakur Basti discuss their grievances while sheltering from the extreme heat

“There is no provision for electricity, and while we have a tree to provide us some relief from the heatwave, many people have fallen prey to the intense loo. On Sunday, we even had to break our fast because people were falling sick,” said Nur Jahan.

“We are poor people, and to be provided with anything at all is the hope we always go and cast our votes with. We need the ration card – which makes sugar, wheat and gas cylinders significantly cheaper – and therefore we believe that we must vote in any case,” she added, referring to the slum’s ever-positive attitudes towards voting.

It is significant to note, however, that even this optimism is marred by how many inhabitants, such as Rani Parveen, were not able to vote in the recent elections because authorities had struck their names from the electoral rolls.

In such circumstances, the people here are hanging on to hopes of a better future. Almost all children in the basti go to school – although in most cases they must cross multiple railway lines or travel significant distances to do so.

“Children have been enrolled in schools in Punjabi Bagh, Moti Bagh, or in whichever localities their mothers have found employment as domestic help. Those with no alternatives study at the anganwadi,” Kashi Prasad told us.

It is the literate children who read and interpret the eviction notices served to the largely illiterate residents of Shakur Basti, left to their own means.

It is alarming that our democracy should fail to accommodate, in the very heart of the national capital, a community such as this one, which has been trying for decades to attain legitimacy through all possible democratic means possible – legal, electoral and otherwise.

The authorities’ refusal to relocate them fairly points to a bigger problem – the failure of our governments to work for the welfare and habilitation of the poorest among us.