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A Slum Demolition In Delhi Has Left Many Homeless In Winter. But There’s A Bigger Problem

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By Avikal Somvanshi

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.

The railways’ eviction and demolition drive in Delhi’s Shakur Basti, along with the death of a six-month-old infant, has triggered a political slugfest between the state government and the Centre. It is not the first time, however, that a drive of this kind has left hundreds of slum-dwellers without a roof, especially in Delhi’s dipping temperatures.

The railways has had a long history of forced evictions and demolition drives, both of which are ill-advised and anti-poor. Eviction of slums without notice and without providing an alternate housing arrangement is illegal according to Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act, 1956.

The Centre claims that many notices had been served by the railways in the latest case. But Delhi Public Works Department Minister Satyender Jain told the media on Sunday, “Even if we were informed, what was the emergency to raze the jhuggis in this cold weather? We were told that only a few hutments that had come up recently would be removed. But they bulldozed through an entire field.”

Railways as a public service provider should have social responsibility towards the underprivileged of our society, but it has regularly indulged in destroying their homes. This calls for a thorough review of the railways’ mandate, politics of urban land and housing of urban poor.

It is estimated that the railways is India’s single largest land owning agency with a substantial surplus of land. The railways has of late started viewing land under its possession as an asset which can be commercially exploited. In 2006, a dedicated authority—Railway Land Development Authority (RLDA)—was set up to prevent encroachments on and generate revenue from unutilised railway land.

Public records state that less than 0.5 percent of railway land was encroached upon in 2006. But this land is of utmost importance to RLDA since most of it is in and around urban centres and has high commercial value. For instance, there are nearly 70 km of railway tracks in and around Delhi, of which 22 km are encroached upon, as per records submitted to the NGT.

Before Shakur Basti There Was Pul Mithai

Urban land is in short supply and highly contested. In fact, half of Delhi’s population lives in jhuggis and unauthorised settlements. According to the sixty-ninth Round of National Sample Survey, 28 percent of about 6,343 slums in Delhi are on railway land. Though the land belongs to the railways, many residents have legal leases for their structures from different state authorities. Some jhuggis along railway lines in Delhi have been in existence for more than 30 years.

Pul Mithai in old Delhi is one of the city’s most known slums on railway land. The railways first demolished this settlement in the 1990s and subsequently, in 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010. During the last demolition drive, the authorities were supposed to demolish only vacant quarters, but they ended up demolishing up to 500 houses, not all of which were vacant. People returned and revived the slum as the location was critical to their occupation.

Pul Mithai is adjacent to one of the biggest wholesale grain markets of the city, and the main occupation of slum’s residents is to sell segregated grain chaff in the market on Sundays. The market and slum are interdependent and no resettlement can work if their symbiotic relationship is not accounted and provided for. In short, the most workable solution for Pul Mithai can only be in-situ redevelopment. But will railways let go of this prime property and pay for its equitable redevelopment?

Railways’ Social Responsibility

The railways does not take responsibility for the rehabilitation of those evicted from its land. It does not have an existing resettlement and rehabilitation policy. It treats housing as a state subject. This means that the responsibility of rehabilitating the evicted lies with the particular state government, under whose jurisdiction the jhuggi is located.

But as per the Railway Board guideline, the encroached railway land, if not required by railways can be leased out to the state government for 35 years by charging 99 percent of the market value. But this pricing is not affordable for even a city like Delhi, especially when the land is to be used for low-income subsidised housing projects.

In some instances, however, the railways has been made to undertake rehabilitation. In Mumbai, railway authorities were made to provide housing to those evicted from land close to the Dahisar and Andheri railway tracks. These households were given houses of 270 sq feet near the original land. This became possible because the Maharashtra government had been strict about implementing its Slum Redevelopment and Resettlement Act, 1971. The Act states that any slum household that has been in existence before the year 2000, and is project-affected, will be rehabilitated without fail. The only eligibility criterion is that the household must have members listed on the voters’ list.

Delhi’s Slum Relocation History

Till recently, the Government of Delhi’s Rehabilitation and Resettlement policy stated that the cost of relocation of slums, existing on railway land in the National Capital Territory prior to 1998, is to be borne by the railways. Under this policy, DUSIB took Rs 11.25 crore from the railways in 2003-04 to demolish 4,410 houses in jhuggis located near the railway track in Sanjay Camp and Wazirpur area and resettled those affected. This policy didn’t require the railways to undertake the relocation of people or to provide land for resettlement.

Since Delhi government itself doesn’t own much land in the city-state (most of Delhi’s land is owned by Delhi Development Authority, which is controlled by the Union government), the cost of purchasing land in Delhi at market rates for such a large-scale relocation required more than Rs 11.25 crore. In fact, the latest official cost estimate for construction of a basic 250 sq feet unit is Rs 3.34 lakh, which takes the cost of 4,410 units to over Rs 147 crore.

It was an arrangement that was doomed to fail. And it did. Recently the NGT ordered Delhi government to deliver on this highly flawed scheme to improve the environment of railway tracks.

The experience with slum relocation has also not been encouraging. Resettlement colonies of Savda Ghevra and Bawana in northern Delhi were in many ways worse than the slums. The quality of housing was poor and basic amenities and infrastructure were missing. There was no connectivity with the city’s public transport network which deeply severed the livelihood access of these households.

The resettlement colony at Bhalsawa in northwest Delhi, on the other hand, has better quality housing and connectivity. But it is located on a reclaimed landfill with highly polluted water and land. Further, the maintenance cost of the high rise apartments in these resettlement colonies places extra burden on already poverty-stricken families. Naturally, many choose to leave these colonies and return to slums where they at least had jobs, if not a legal status. Thus, the question arises—is resettlement enough?

New Policies For Affordable Housing

Delhi’s AAP government recently approved a new slum policy which addresses the fundamental issues with relocation by mandating in-situ rehabilitation. The policy stipulates a cut-off date—February 14, 2015—to be eligible for rehabilitation and relocation. After this date, relocation will be done only if there is a court order or the concerned cluster has encroached upon a street, road, footpath, park or the encroached land is required by the land owning agency for a specific public project. The Delhi government is also contemplating introducing a clause to restrict the distance of the relocation site from the original location.

But who will provide or pay for the land where it is needed is a question that remains unanswered.

DUSIB plans to free up 197.23 hectares of land encroached upon by slums and sell it to finance its ambitious slum-free city scheme. Under this scheme, it plans to construct almost 150,000 flats. This sale is likely to fetch a price of Rs 14,526 crore, which will cover a part of the total project cost of Rs 37,235 crore. Similarly, the NDA government’s Pradhan Mantari Awas Yojana (PMAY) seeks to solve the problem of rehabilitation cost with the participation of private developers.

But these schemes see slum land as a commodity which can be cashed. This model envisages the development of land occupied by slums by shifting the residents into compact high-rise towers and freeing up most of the land for private commercial interest. There would have been nothing wrong with this approach had slums occupied large tracts of land. In Delhi, less than three percent of the land is under slums which house 30 per cent of all Delhi households. Shifting the residents into more cramped accommodation would hardly qualify as good policy.

Housing And Land Paradox

India requires more than 18 million housing units to house its citizens even as 11 million houses lie vacant in the middle and higher income group. The irony is that the poor cannot afford what is vacant and what it can afford, needs to be vacated. NDA government’s PMAY aims at housing for all by 2022 mission, but the rate at which informal housing is being destroyed far exceeds the rate at which formal housing is being constructed.

Increasingly, governments across the globe have come to recognise the right of people to occupy unutilised land for housing as their livelihood is intrinsically linked with where they live. The right to occupy unused land is guaranteed in Brazil’s constitution.

But in India, citizens don’t have such rights. In fact, we have the Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorized Occupants) Act, 1971, which prohibits the general public from occupying any public premises. And this year, the Parliament amended the Act, providing even more power to government authorities for the speedy eviction of unauthorised occupants from public premises. The railways has interpreted this act to consider even its unused land as public premise and has been forcing evictions.

Empower People To Build Better

As governments and the judiciary struggle to resolve the complex issues of urban land availability and housing needs of the poor, it is important that they consider that houses of the poor are not destroyed before formal housing, deemed suitable for human habitation with proper access to livelihood opportunities, is provided to them.

An estimate by Mumbai-based Institute of Urbanology shows that between 1997 and 2002, the government and builders built 500,000 houses in urban India. During the same period, people built 8.5 million units in informal settlements. If every informal house had access to professional design and engineering services not constrained by planning restrictions and cost, the slum story of urban India would have been very different.

As per the National Sample Survey, about 90 percent of Delhi slums were built on public land, owned mostly by local bodies (46 per cent), railways (28 percent) and state government (16 percent), and only about two percent of the slums are on private land. The onus is on the government and its agencies including railways to find land for the poor inside cities, and this needs to be done by optimising the use of unused and under-used land pools. And government agencies have to empower people by facilitating civic infrastructure, including sanitation, wherever they are, so that these places can improve in-situ and not remain slums.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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