NCMP subversion: Capital Case: Dispossession in Lal Khet (Ridge)

(this dignified dispossession merits chronicling not only because the difference that sets it apart might not survive the aftermath but also because such oxymoron merits reflection.)

Six clusters housing thousand families tucked away in forest in Lal Khet, quarried since '70s, meant since 1990 to be Vasant Kunj Phase-2 and lately designated 'biodiversity park', were demolished on 29 July 2004. The demolition looked a lot like Pushta demolitions of earlier this year, but the war-bubble was burst by people who decided the previous night to 'co-operate' to prevent forcible eviction – a volte-face from decision to protest, precipitated by startling demolition without notice of a school elsewhere in the area on evening of 27 July.

Decision to protest, 27 July 2004

What citizens in Lal Khet and others in the area and elsewhere had decided on 27 July to protest in Lal Khet was growing willfulness in development in disregard of Delhi Master Plan (DMP) – willful dispossession (with or without willful resettlement) for willful schemes – driving the city to comprehensive bankruptcy, continuing despite clear convergence between DMP and National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) commitments and sustained efforts since adoption of NCMP against inertial subversions.

Willful scheming for Biodiversity Park and Malls, etc, calling for Lal Khet demolitions, usurps DMP residential land without DMP modification by due process and involves illegal boring in a duly notified ground water critical area. In September 2002 High Court had ordered the 56 Ha Sultangarhi scheme in the vicinity, involving identical illegalities, stopped and found it fit case for inquiry by DDA Chairman. That scheme had also involved in 2000 demolition in an old settlement getting in its way. In response to Public Notice precipitated by the PIL, 1700 families in old communities in the area objected to the scheme in October 2002 and to non-compliance at hearing in January 2003 and in June 2003 in representations invited by Standing Parliamentary Committee pursuant to the DDA scam. In December 2003, a PIL against similar unplanned schemes (including Malls and Park scheme) in the area was filed on basis of unanswered representations on grounds of them jeopardizing DMP entitlements of old communities. In January 2004 Sultangarhi scheme was reportedly approved. After a demolition threat in Lal Khet application was made, under statutory provisions about control of DDA, to MoUD on 5 July to investigate legality and propriety. On 21 July a request was made to DDA chairman for Sultangarhi inquiry as per court order of 2002 and for stopping Mall and Park scheme meanwhile. Complaints were also lodged against illegal boring in general on 2 July in context of plan to demolish Lal Khet, on 12 and 23 July with pictures of borings for Malls, and on 28 July to ask these be sealed before Lal Khet demolition.

Willful resettlement that some in Lal Khet were offered in Bawana (where several, including children, lately resettled from Pushta have died) is illegal in terms of DMP. Such resettlement is challenged in matters filed by citizens in erstwhile Arjun Camp, ‘slum’ in the area, in 2002 to seek housing according to DMP. In November 2002, in other PIL in which parties did not refer to DMP provisions, High Court quashed resettlement for having no basis in law, leaving it to government to come out with an alternative. Citizens’ groups in pursuit of DMP solutions sought policy as per DMP. NGOs demanded SLP against High Court order, which Central Government filed. Supreme Court allowed resettlement subject to outcome of SLP and under the garb of this ‘stay’ illegal resettlement resumed. DDA ‘offer-cum-demand’ letters do not mention that the offer is subject to outcome of SLP or that Supreme Court has held (in matter of industries) that an illegality would not become legality with connivance of government. A committee has lately been appointed to prepare some ‘slum free Master Plan’ (regardless of Supreme Court’s scathing comment on ‘Master Plan guidelines’ similarly unconnected to DMP provisions and processes). Resettlement, currently, has no basis even in policy even as public resources are wasted on it to curiously justify willful dispossession.

Willful dispossession of the poor in the area is in pursuit of scam-ridden profiteering on public land meant for their housing. This fact stands veritably admitted in the Arjun Camp cases, with DDA conceding and order of November 2003 noting that mandatory housing for the poor has not been developed. (The site meant for this closest to Arjun Camp is under Sahara Restaurant-Bar of DDA scam fame, still functioning while Arjun Camp was demolished shortly after the scam blew). This is even though integration of old communities in new development and of the poor in all housing is priority imperative of planning law, especially powers over land under it, in Delhi. Accordingly, from 2 June citizens in Lal Khet have been writing to DDA to ask for legal alternative consistent with DMP and NCMP since its ‘offer’ of resettlement in Bawana is illegal, assuring full cooperation in legal relocation. Without bothering to reply, DDA informed them of plan to demolish on 2 July, postponed at the last minute. Citizens groups in 20 slums in the area, housing about 5000 families, then wrote a joint demand for a scheme either in residential land being usurped by ‘Aravalli biodiversity park’ or in Sultangarhi scheme in area meant for regional ridge park, etc.

It was in the context of all this (and other engagements in pursuit of DMP solutions for school education, informal sector, industries, conservation and renewal, etc, that directly or indirectly connect to the site to make a clear case of comprehensive subversion of NCMP in the Capital in two months since its adoption) that citizens in the area decided on 27 July to protest the demolition proposed on 29 July.

Decision not to protest, 28 July 2004

On the evening of 27 July a primary school teaching the non-rich was singled out for demolition without notice in an up-coming unauthorized colony around Sultangarhi scheme.

Two bulldozers attacked the small building – on a plot in the middle of a row of plots – from front and back. DDA staff declined to show identification or demolition order. Police declined to order the bulldozer to wait till clarification / time to remove contents of the building. By the time the principal could be contacted and reached, demolition was underway and she was taken to the police station to prevent interference.

On morning of 28 July, children arrived as usual and found their school broken. Parents from old settlements in the vicinity (by whose efforts Sultangarhi scheme had been stopped and who were spearheading protracted efforts in pursuit of DMP right to equal access schooling in the area and against its infringement by DMP violations by ‘posh’ schools, lately in context of NCMP and PIL filed in December 2003) also arrived. A complaint was lodged in DCP office against the demolition (also since Police is party in the citizens’ PIL), also asking for Mall borings to be sealed before Lal Khet demolition (involving also infringement of right to education). Parents and children from Lal Khet also arrived.

With a letter signed by all students present in the school, a support letter from the forum of parents and students including a letter with pictures of the school demolition and an earlier one about school education of children facing eviction from Lal Khet as well as complaint made to DCP, children from the demolished school and from Lal Khet went in the school bus to seek intervention from offices of NAC Chairperson, Prime Minister and President.

By evening of 28 July the feeling was that all-round indifference to a school demolition made any other protest against bulldozing or NCMP subversion pointless. Residents went to inform SHO that they would not be protesting and to, furthermore, offer cooperation to be spared indignity of war-like deployment of force, also to avoid breach of NCMP promise against forcible demolition. But Police seems not to understand cooperation except in form of extra-Constitutional partnerships through chosen bhagidars and thekedars in Delhi ‘model’ of great governance. It came around at night to pick up potential ‘troublemakers’, after which all in four of six clusters and several in one more decided to dismantle their homes through the night to make them bulldozer-ready. The sixth, a little removed, started in the morning.

Lal Khet demolition, 29 July 2004

By about 8 AM four camps were bulldozer-ready, the fifth (at south entrance to the site) was being made so and the sixth (at north entrance) needed a couple of hours. Someone went to the police station to report status and to ask again that war-like force not be deployed. At 9 AM a PCR drove north to south through the settlement. At 6 AM also police had come around to announce demolition warnings on mega phones. They would have surely noticed the status of bulldozer-readiness in various camps.

After 9 AM bus and truckloads of police-men and police-women, JCBs and a bulldozer with tank-like contraption for wheels, fire control vehicles, etc, drove in from Nelson Mandela Marg, turning west between CNG station adjoining Grand Hotel and plots auctioned for never-before 1100 crores for Malls where earthwork machines and illegal boring is in readiness for construction, past heaps of earth being excavated for months for roadwork (some of which DDA contractors have been selling on the sly) and high walls with designer boards for Aravalli Biodiversity Park being developed by DDA and Delhi University with community participation of RWAs and school children and for which 4 MPs including 3 ministers and LG laid foundation stone in February. There was armed and (horse) mounted force as well.

At 9:30 AM the three JCBs rolled in to Lal Khet from the south, through ‘biodiversity park’ gate, while the troops fell in outside the gate, filling the more than half kilometer stretch of wide road amidst institutional plots on which fancy buildings are under construction for more greater common good (about allotments for which a scam had blown in 2002).

DDA staff walked in and took charge of the JCBs. They measured gate width and, like the men on the tarmac on runways, carefully guided their tank-bulldozer in. The force trooped in. The biggest (in size) DDA man ordered start of demolition – from the settlements at the ends. Two JCBs and tank-bulldozer rolled past bulldozer-ready camps to the cluster at north end that was least bulldozer-ready, as did SHO’s jeep. One JCB was deployed in the camp at south entrance, less bulldozer-ready than the other four.

People suffered considerable losses on the north side camp and were recovering what they could through the day in the hot sun, while vendors and kabadis did brisk business and DDA staff offered free trucks for anywhere. No one from this cluster had availed the ‘offer’ of plots in Bawana and DDA staff openly said that start of demolition from this end was to teach them a lesson. In the south side camp, material loss was less as people could keep pace with the solitary JCB, but people lost more because it was here that most ‘offers’ were accepted and ‘trouble-makers’ list ‘leaked’ to the police. After brisk brick recovering, kabadi selling and free truck taking many left the debris of their settlement of forty years and all that a settlement of forty years means, irrespective of what minions of the state presume to call it.

In the four camps that really did burst the war-bubble the demolition looked very different. There were no vendors or truckers or touts. There was no whining and no foraging. While waiting their turn with the bulldozer there was amongst the people almost reckless gaiety, with talk about bulldozer being bridegroom and khakhi the color of baraat. Children played in ghost-town streets with some bewilderment, women asked for pictures to be taken of the homes they were about to lose, men told about where and how they had got bricks and stone a few at a time to build in this stone-less clay mining area and made light of how many places the bulldozer could pass over in short stretches. As the bulldozers started, the chatter ended. Through each demolition there was only disquieting quiet bulldozer-gazing. It was ‘dignified dispossession’, oxymoron becoming perhaps the only course open to citizens who value dignity, and its silence was searing.

By about 3 PM the demolition was done.

Afterwards, evening of 29 July 2004 onwards

DDA staff went around telling all to leave by evening and magnanimously offering free trucks to anyplace, regardless of the fact that most had no place to go. In all less than a fifth of the thousand families had been found ‘eligible’ for ‘offer’ of plots in Bawana, two thirds of them in just one camp, and about half of these, nearly all from that one camp, had paid up. These were told they must take their plots there by evening. Some others were invited to DDA office to have their cases considered. The touts, against whom complaints had been made, were around through and after the demolition. Most declined all these offers and explained to those making them what had happened and why.

Late evening, when they were settling down to a night with no roof, they were talking with pride about the day. They were also talking with sadness about themselves and those who had gone and others who would and about having been alone through the day.

On the morning of 30 July, the ravaged place looked like no ravaged place. There was about it the air of camp after first night in the forest, with makeshift kitchenettes and makeshift breakfast amidst paraphernalia. I was presented the poem (ending Master Plan Jindabad – Jai Hind) that someone had artistically written on soft-board and hung up on his dismantled house for demolition-walas to read that I had badly wanted saved and asked for if he decided to remove it before the bulldozer came or if it survived the bulldozing. The children had signed a letter to take to NAC chairperson, whom the school children they had accompanied on 28 July were planning to go and meet again, especially since outside her office they had met media persons and a TV crew had come to their school. There were also ideas of writing to institutions constructing buildings in the vicinity to allow temporary accommodation on their plots and talk of how to press for a meeting to discuss legal options with DDA after having cooperated even on the demolition.

By afternoon, however, they realized their water had been cut off and DJB office had MLA instructions not to send them any tankers. Touts were offering to buy ‘offer-cum-demand-letters’ for Rs.6000/- and offering commission to pradhans on the purchases. One of the camps, workers with their contractor for their pradhan, left en-masse to another slum where the contractor promised jhuggis and had built his own. But police came and demolished even his. DDA security staff was also ‘persuading’ people to leave. The school children that they were to go with had gone on their own since their teachers thought they were getting late. (They were not able to meet NAC chairperson either). No one from politics or media had come around. Pieces of broken spirits were, in any case, strewn far beyond the debris in Lal Khet. Like the silence of the bulldozer-gazing, a silence hung in every conversation I tried to start with any of those who till 27 July were rearing to go to war in Lal Khet to save what they have been fighting to save for four years. A few went over, only to return quieter. The rumour that I, the only outsider in all this, had taken money to help the eviction was also doing the rounds. And in the night it rained.

By morning of 31 July pride, fragile feeling nowadays, had fallen to anxiety. Bricks were piling and people readying to leave. In the afternoon DDA, whose land management staff had asked people to come to office on Friday 6 July, took a walk in the persons of its engineering staff (or those, same as in assorted fracas in Arjun Camp and Sultangarhi, claiming to so be on a DDA holiday), who called on cell phones for a JCB to push whatever remained on site into the ditches. People reacted with threats of doing things to their JCB in that case. DDA withdrew, to return in form of persons of its security staff (must be new department) to take or pretend to take pictures of those still on site and to warn that gates would be closed and no stuff allowed to leave after Sunday. None of the big people purportedly minding the poor and NCMP were reachable on phone. The wise men and women in NAC must have met today to discuss their wise policy formulations for implementing NCMP. Those engaging on NCMP and its subversion in the Capital ever since it was adopted have left and are leaving, unheard.

Walking amidst quarried ditches that they left alone and others are filling for Park-work (including, perhaps, with pieces of their homes toppled in by JCBs summoned on cell phones), losing to their sad amusement my way in their pahaar even more than before with landmark of this or that house gone, gazing from atop the ridge between their west-side with forest into which I had to peer to spot their camps even when the homes were there with glossy institutional buildings beyond and at the Malls’ east-side with boring rigs standing tall and clear and busy traffic and JNU beyond, I feel like I did in my Pushta wanderings.

But Lal Khet demolition was significantly, albeit subtly, different from Pushta demolitions. The difference might not survive the indifference and the wilderness and the minions of the state that hound and harass. But difference there was and chronicled it is.