In March 2020, about 600 migrant workers lost their humble accommodations in Bengaluru. They had been living on government land in a settlement in Kacharakanahalli for the past 20 years. They had gone to their villages in the Kalaburagi district for a festival before the Covid-19-induced lockdown was announced. When they returned after some ease in the lockdown, they found their houses razed.
In June, taking a suo motu cognizance on a plea filed by an advocate, the Karnataka High Court ordered the state government to identify those who had lost their houses and provide adequate compensation and rehabilitate them. As per a recent development, the state government has decided to give a compensation of Rs 14,100 to each affected family after the Court had asked the government to reconsider the earlier announced amount of Rs 6,100 for being “unreasonably low”. The court has further asked the state government to submit a report on the status of the investigation carried out in the incident.
The Karnataka High Court had stated that the destruction of the houses is a violation of the fundamental rights under Article 21 of the Constitution and the affected families must get adequate compensation. Meanwhile, a few families have reconstructed their houses on the same site. They lost some of their valuable documents when their houses were burnt.
Amid the pandemic and multiple vagaries these migrant workers have been facing, this case of fire and destruction of homes depicts a culture of dispossession in cities these people have been facing in the absence of adequate state policy of housing for migrant workers which is safe and affordable. Triggered by one factor, the situation of migrants gets flared up in multiple dimensions ranging from housing to livelihoods to security, privacy, and access to city resources.
The pandemic has further shown the vulnerability of migrant workers in Indian cities, among other issues the country has been grappling with now. The loss of homes in a fire in this case when they were away is just an instance.
The question looms large here is how they have lost their homes?
It has been alleged that taking the advantage of the situation of empty homes when migrants were away, some miscreants set them on fire for the benefit of the expansion of a function hall whose owner wanted the land vacated for parking and other purposes. This incident reflects the suspected case of arson as a means to vacate the land and destruction of dwellings of poor families.
There have been several reported cases of fire incidents in informal settlements in the country. In most of the cases, the reason often attributed is an accident. They are hardly investigated. The compensation doled out to families is often not adequate and in rare cases, they get any sort of rehabilitation.
According to a recent report by Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) Forced Evictions in India in 2019: An Unrelenting National Crisis, over 27,000 people lost their houses in 2018 and 2019 as a direct consequence of fire incidents in their settlements. The report highlights that not all cases are of accidents, but there are suspected cases of arson too as an insidious means to vacate the land. The report has highlighted a few cases of such incidents were families have lost their homes and didn’t receive adequate compensations and rehabilitation.
As per the report, in Bihar’s Begusarai district houses of about 100 ‘low-caste’ families were set on fire allegedly by local goons contracted by influential people. In Katihar district of Bihar, 25 Dalit families lost their houses when miscreants burnt their houses allegedly to grab their land. In Meerut, a fire incident during a drive to remove encroachment in the Bhusa Mandi area resulted in about 150 Muslim families losing their houses. In Amritsar, Punjab, about 100 families lost their houses due to fire. The affected families suspected a foul play to evict them. In Delhi, police officials set on firehouses of families in Lajpat Nagar to evict them from the place they had been living. Similarly, in Mumbai police set on fire the belongings of families living near the Amar Mahal Flyover to vacate the place.
During such fire incidents, families not just lose their houses they built incrementally by their hard-earned money, but also their further means of identity and livelihood as a result of the burning of their valuable documents and identity papers.
This has been the issue in almost all cases of eviction drive, which the HLRN’s report talks about in detail, as the families hardly get adequate notice and time to remove their belongings. The report says in most of the cases the reason is often attributed to accidents owing to cylinder blast, stove blast, and short circuit, and in most cases, it remains unascertained. The report also brings to the fore the suspected case of arson in such cases to evict people and grab their land.
It calls for proper investigation in such cases to examine if there are ulterior motives behind and ensure social justice to the affected families. Moreover, the report has highlighted cases of evictions during 2017-2019 in which over half a million people lost their houses, resulting in the 22 people losing their homes every hour. Even during the pandemic, the report finds out, about 20,000 people had been forcibly evicted for various reasons when they are supposed to stay at home as per international and national directives and guidelines.
The report has highlighted a glaring figure of 15 million people facing the prospect of eviction.
Recently, the Supreme Court of India in the case of MC Mehta v Union of India (W.P. Civil No. 13029/1985) ordered to remove 48,000 jhuggies (shanties) along railway tracks in Delhi within three months. The apex court has also stayed orders by any court to prevent the removal drive, besides no any political or otherwise interference. After a civil society outcry over the order which would evict and render people homeless without adequate rehabilitation, the government has announced that a solution would be identified within four weeks and no eviction will be carried out till then.
A ruling of such a nature from the SC at a time when everyone is reeling under the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is ironic. The recent order of the SC is also seen as a marked departure from its judgement in the case of Olga Tellis v Bombay Municipal Corporation, 1985, and rulings of several high courts for example the High Court of Delhi in Ajay Maken v Union of India¸2015, and the above mentioned Karnataka High Court order where directions were issued for the prevention of arbitrary evictions, and for the protection of the fundamental right livelihood and housing read under Article 21 of the Constitution.
In the current situation unleashed by the pandemic, there is an urgent need of prohibition on any sort of arbitrary evictions of low-income families. Rather adequate policy measures in tune with international human rights law and the United Nations guidelines shall be taken to provide housing to the homeless, and protect the housing right of all sections of people. Enactment of laws on the human rights to adequate housing and land, homestead right, and affordable rental housing policy for the protection of human rights including the right to shelter is the need of the hour.