Nazariya: Eviction, Environment & Caste

The Housing and Land Rights Network’s 2019 report on forced eviction describes the practice in India as an “unrelenting national crisis”. Almost 6 lakh people have been evicted from their homes since 2017, out of which at least 54,000 people were evicted during the COVID-19 pandemic between March and October 2020. The latest of these evictions is concerned with the Khori Gaon settlement in Haryana which is slated to be razed down by July 2021 as per Supreme Court orders since it encroaches upon the Aravalli Forest area. A rehabilitation and resettlement plan for those living in the basti is yet to be developed. The demolishing of 6500 homes and the displacement of the Khori village residents, especially under the distressing conditions of COVID-19, is a human rights violation. 

As is the case with Khori Gaon and several other evictions, the most affected are historically marginalized and discriminated peoples. The residents of these settlements are working-class people, many of them belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Outside of the urban context, the communities, who live in and on the fringes of forests, have also been displaced and their claims to forest land, routinely challenged. The people, in both urban and forest settlements, face issues of sanitation, access to water, and health risks, all of which should be understood as environmental concerns. The issue of evictions is deeply intertwined with a complicated history of denial of resources and land to Dalits. 

The logic of evictions is informed by several ideas working together: the colonial, paternalistic attitudes of the state, neoliberal development politics, and the discourse of “illegal”, “encroacher” and green aesthetics. The process of eviction and resettlement then shapes notions of belonging and citizenship, as well as rights to space. 

Urban spaces in India continue to operate on logic and practices from our colonial past. Improvement of cities and the undercurrent of “civilizing a space” that ran through it decided how cities were built and structured before independence. These furthered segregations along the lines of race and caste. Discrimination in today’s cities means gatekeeping of areas such as suburbs with sanitation and water infrastructure, both by upper-caste residents and landlords and by the high cost of buying and renting houses. The informal slum settlements that form is a result of this segregation. The land upon which they are created are legally ambivalent or have been captured and sold by the land mafia who exploit the ambivalence. Sometimes the settlements may also fall on ecologically sensitive areas such as stormwater drains or riverbeds. 

Slum settlements are created over many years, for instance, the Dharavi settlement was formed in 1884, dating back to pre-independence India. The claims made by the residents are often dismissed by either deeming them “encroachers”, by using reasons of environmental protectionism, or both. The settlements which are burdened by lack of electricity, open sewage, cramped and small housing with poor hygiene and sanitation, are branded as “infectious” and as causing “damage to the health environment” by middle- and upper-class residents and by the state apparatus, including the judicial systems. This is not far from colonial spatial policies motivated by segregationist ideas, such as the cordon sanitaire. The citizens of the slums are also pitted against the rest of the city when they are considered a “nuisance” to those who have bought land and live in the adjacent areas. 

Nuisance, in the public sphere, is the “substantial and unreasonable interference with the use or enjoyment of land”. In the early 2000s, the legal understanding of nuisance broadened to “offense to the sense of sight, smell, or hearing”, driven by aesthetic and visual desirability. Public interest litigations, often from middle- and upper-class RWAs (resident welfare associations), use this logic to advocate for slum clearances. The litigations contained photographs of slums to reiterate the notion that they are dirty, unclean, and a nuisance. The state, by operating on this idea and eventually clearing out slums, then, conveniently removes the blame from itself. The state evades its responsibility to ensure clean housing, with facilities equaling richer suburbs and localities, for slum residents. 

The other aspect of the nuisance argument is the environmental justification. The framing of environmentalism has come to be associated with a green aesthetic. This is a contradictory logic, but it is the basis for the hypocrisy of the state. The state would sanction building projects such as malls and flyovers, even if they violated environmental laws, as long as they conformed to the “green and clean” urban landscape. Asher Ghertner, in Green Evictions, uses the case of the Pushta settlement eviction to discuss the government’s double standards. In 2004, the Pushta settlement, located on the Yamuna River banks, was demolished on the grounds that it contributed to the pollution of the river and that it had “destroyed the natural beauty and ecology of the river”. However, the Pushta slum had caused less than 0.5% of the pollution and in fact, open drains carrying untreated sewage from middle-class residential societies were the primary cause for the pollution. The visibility of the slum was used to associate the slum residents with the tag “polluters”. Ironically, the Akshardham temple and the stadium for the 2010 Commonwealth Games are built on the Yamuna floodplain and riverbanks respectively. Another example of green aesthetics from Chennai is that of the restoration of the Cooum river, where the plan is to create walkways, roads, or parks, once those living in the slums have been evicted. Such measures serve the purposes of beautification and meet the desires of the middle and upper classes. These very spaces will go on to be exclusionary and classist. The government prioritizes the creation of an image of Indian cities based on aesthetics and selective environmentalism and does so by violently erasing the spaces where poor, working-class citizens live and relocating them to the peripheries of the city. 

The background to the land issue in urban spaces is the neoliberal model focusing on “development” adopted by governments. This has meant that the state works with private actors such as investors, industrial and commercial developers, and often transfers welfare functions to these private institutions. The consequence has been a concentration of power and wealth as opposed to social equity. 

The case of the 2013 Ejipura evictions in Bangalore is one example of state and corporate collusions. The settlement was built on land in the economically weaker section (EWS) area of Koramangala. This land was specifically allocated for “public purpose” i.e., the interests of the EWS residents. However, the land came under the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) between the local Bangalore government body (BBMP) and a private company Maverick Holdings. According to the agreement between the state and the company, half of the land would be left up to Maverick Holdings for commercial purposes and in the other half, they would construct 1640 flats for the EWS residents. Even though the residents had the right to claim this area, the local authority ignored and dismissed these claims in favour of the construction company. This eviction grossly violated the right to adequate housing which is a fundamental right as part of one’s right to life. Caste, which has been an unrecognized marker of evictions, can be gleaned from this instance. A majority of the EWS residents were Dalits, many of whom were homeless, and religious and linguistic minorities converted from Dalit communities. The eviction, which was carried out without a resettlement plan, and the violence of the process, both flouted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. During the eviction, the residents were not given any time to gather their belongings and excessive police force was used on those who protested. They were left to live on the pavements, exposed to worse conditions that affected their health and safety, especially the women and girls. The residents also lost their livelihoods, many women who did domestic work in nearby areas could not continue their work. Children were particularly affected as their books and stationery were destroyed and their education came to a standstill. 

The violence of displacement does not end even if a person has been provided resettlement. The areas that they are relegated to are usually sub-standard and at the periphery of the city. They cannot commute to their previous jobs and schools as well. Even the percentage of those who can get new homes (or tokens for plots of land) is low compared to those displaced. 

Malini Ranganathan argues that caste and caste-based discrimination persists through the Indian cities, in both material and discursive realms. This is especially evident in the practice of eviction. The language of “illegal” and “encroacher” are ascribed to a particular type of Indian citizen, those who have been marginalized by the caste system and by capitalistic development entrenched in our cities. The ideal of “slum-free cities” hinges upon the ideas of purity and segregation, almost borrowing from the foundations of caste hierarchies. Environmentalism is couched in an anti-poor and anti-working-class rationale and is contradictory on multiple levels. Those who build the city, its metros, and its fancy high-rises, are considered a “nuisance”, the irony of denying them the right to city spaces should not be lost on us. Very similarly, Adivasis and Dalit communities who share close relationships with forests are being evicted and persecuted for resisting industries that will cause ecological damage. 

To learn more about forced evictions in India 

  1. The Missing Basti Project – an archive documenting eviction in Delhi – https://missingbasti.com/ 
  2. Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) – Land rights research and advocacy organisation – https://www.hlrn.org.in/ 

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