“Diwali is a festival of happiness, but for the people of Khori, it was a time when the government forced them into poverty,” says Vimal bhai, an activist who advocates for the rights of displaced residents of Khori gaon in the outskirts of Delhi.

People here lit diyas in the ruins of their family homes, which have been reduced to rubble. After the court-ordered demolitions of the past few weeks, the displaced gathered to celebrate Diwali in the spirit of fighting for their rights.

Since the demolitions, objected to by the UN, the residents’ lives have changed dramatically for the worse. Former resident SN Khan is the father of two daughters, and says that the eldest should have been in class 6 now, but with the demolition they had to stop her schooling as they were forced to relocate.

“The nearest school is three kilometers from our house. Because there’s no school within walking distance we are unable to send her to school,” Khan explains.

Zeba, who is 12 years old, misses school and being with her friends. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my friends. I only see them when I accompany my father to Khori to check on our belongings. I was overcome with emotion when it was demolished right in front of our eyes.”

While many are still struggling with the shock of the mismanaged pandemic and economy, the brunt of which has hit the working class, another financial need has arisen for the people of Khori.

They have been promised a flat in the Dabua colony, but in order to acquire one each family must pay 3 lakh rupees in installments. Within 15 days of receiving the flat, a lump sum payment of Rs 17,000 must be made, followed by a monthly installment of Rs 2,500 for a period of 15 years.

The government pledged compensation of 2,000 rupees to rent a place to stay while these flats were being prepared, but no one has yet received that sum. They are still living in improvised camps because they have no other choice.

Meanwhile, the site of their former homes is now being cleared of debris, with JCB excavators stationed here every day.

“How would a person who doesn’t have enough money to rent out a decent property arrange such a large sum on such short notice?” asks Arshad, a Khori resident and active member of Team Saathi, a group of activists and attorneys helping the dispossessed residents.

Despite the fact that the government has on paper provided another alternative for living – for a fee – the status of Dabua is appalling. With filth everywhere and animals scavenging through, it is uninhabitable for a decent standard of living.

Yet many people have started living in Dabua out of desperation.

“A three-year-old girl recently fell from the balcony of her newly assigned Dabua residence. She passed. This is the true status of the colony. Furthermore, the government's temporary housing in Radha Swamy Satsang is uninhabitable. Women and men are forced to reside in the same room, with no privacy for pregnant or new mothers. No one wants to live there,” Vimal bhai tells The Citizen.

Those dispossessed by Supreme Court order are also at risk of a variety of scams, on the pretext of assisting with paperwork.

“A lot of people are misled by scammers offering to fill out residents’ forms for a price, because many are uneducated and there is no information desk set up by the government, and many are unaware that the papers can be filled out for free,” says Arshad.

The Supreme Court has acknowledged that fake applications are doing the rounds, but Arshad, who has been working with Team Saathi, has a different viewpoint:

“The online form page is not at all user friendly: it opens many tabs, which only serves to confuse users. There was also an option for the state, and many people who had hometowns in other cities added that to their form, making the application incorrect.”

Working on volunteer efforts, Team Saathi has opened up camps and assistance desks for the displaced, and is attempting to offer accurate information in the form of notes and audio snippets. They have also launched a website to raise awareness among Khori’s neighbours across India.

“We are raising our voices against a number of concerns, the most serious of which are the government’s actions, which have forced people into poverty, and the unethical survey they conducted, which led them to demolish and evict one lakh people by simply counting 10,000 dwellings with drones,” says Vimal bhai.

With a sigh he adds, “They reduced people’s lives to merely an aerial photograph from a drone.”

All images courtesy Khorigaon.in