For the last two years, Amreen, who goes by a single name, has lived with the anxiety that the walls of her house may collapse on her any time.

Eleven members of her family live in a narrow building that has four rooms stacked one upon the other in Shiv Vihar in North East Delhi. When communal violence broke out in the area in February 2020, the building was damaged by gas cylinder blasts caused by fires lit by rampaging mobs.

Now, plaster, mud, even bricks keep falling off from the walls. “These walls are unstable and if they collapse – if something happens to someone – it will be entirely the government’s fault,” the 22-year-old nursing student said.

On their part, the family had borrowed money from relatives and spent as much as they could to renovate parts of the building. “Especially the stairs that connect the lower floors to those above,” Amreen said. But they need a minimum of Rs 2 lakh to strengthen the top floors that are now the weakest, she added.

For two years, the family has been waiting for the financial compensation that the Delhi government promised to riot-hit families. Several times, officials from the claims commission appointed by the Delhi High Court have visited their home to assess their property losses.

But Amreen’s family is nowhere closer to getting the money they desperately need.

They aren’t alone. All 2,659 families in North East Delhi that have filed claims for compensation must wait longer for the compensation. Former Justice Sunil Gaur, who heads the North East Delhi Riots Claims Commission, told that the process of assessing the claims is likely to be completed only by December 2022.

“I do feel bad that it is taking time, but all efforts are being made,” Gaur said.

Of the 2,569 claims, 1,425 have been examined, while work on the remaining 1,234 is still to begin. Once the commission makes its recommendations, the Delhi High Court will examine them before the actual fund disbursement begins.

This long-drawn out compensation process has tested the patience of riot victims, many of whom have no choice but to return to unsafe homes. Several have given up hope of getting any help from the government.

Amreen shares a photo of her father standing by the stairs of their home that had been damaged during the February 2020 Delhi violence. Photo: Aishwarya Iyer

From government to court

The February 2020 violence, triggered by a backlash to protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, left 53 people dead and hundreds injured. Many others suffered losses as their homes and business establishments were set alight and looted.

In the weeks after the rioting, the Delhi government began to assess the damage to property and provide financial compensation to those who had. Over Rs 26 crore was disbursed among more than 2,221 claimants, the government said, claiming that the process had been monitored directly by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

But in April 2020, the Delhi government approached the Delhi High Court and asked for the appointment of a claims commission. It cited the 2009 Supreme Court guidelines which state that when there is large scale destruction of property, the court may appoint a judge to estimate damages and investigate liability.

This resulted in the appointment of former Delhi High Court judge Sunil Gaur as the North East Delhi Riots Claims Commissioner. Gaur said the one-man commission has only been asked to assess claims and not investigate liability of the damages yet.

All claims that were pending before the Delhi government have also been forwarded to the commission. It is also entertaining new requests.

While the commission was appointed in April 2020 for a period of six months “subject to further extension, if found necessary”, its work only began seven months later in November 2020.

The initial seven-month delay was because Gaur had asked for a office-cum-residence that the Delhi government was not keen to provide. “They were already giving me House Rent Allowance so I could not insist on a residence. So, I asked for an office only which they gave but the renovation of the office took time,” he said, adding that due to Covid most officials were busy with other responsibilities.

After the office was inaugurated, Gaur said that for one year the commission could not do much because it did not have loss assessors, vehicles, internet and other facilities. The government made these provisions, but until December 2021, did not share vital information on the claimants who had already received compensation.

The term of the commission has now been extended to December 2022. So far, it hasn’t made a single recommendation for compensation.

A supporter of CAA hurls a brick during clashes with those protesting against the law. Photo: Reuters

Lost in error

Many of the compensation claims have been held up due to clerical confusions and errors.

In the initial weeks after the riots, Amreen’s family, for instance, faced trouble over the fact that a man who lived three streets away from them had the same name as her father, Mohammed Yasin.

He, too, had suffered losses in the riots: his house had been burnt. When officials arrived in the area to assess damages, the identical names created confusion. The other Yasin went on to receive compensation from the government, but her family did not, Amreen said.

She tried explaining to government officials that her father was not to be mixed up with the other Yasin. “Both have different Aadhaar cards, residential addresses and father’s names,” Amreen said. But no one listened. She now hopes to be heard by the court-appointed commission.

But it isn’t just the government that has rejected claims for what residents say are flimsy reasons.

When the commission put out newspaper advertisements asking people to apply for compensation, Mohammad Sadiq, an 18-year-old with an interest in pursuing journalism, felt renewed hope. His family had fled Shiv Vihar in the midst of the riots. When they returned, they found their house had been broken into and looted. Apart from jewellery, he said, “Rs 1.5 lakh cash that we had kept for my sister’s wedding and my sister-in-law’s pregnancy was stolen, machines that my father uses as he is a carpenter were stolen.”

A photograph of the almirah in Mohammad Sadiq's home, where the family's jewellery was looted from, in the aftermath of the violence. Photo provided by Sadiq.

They approached the Delhi government for compensation, but their claim was rejected. “I asked them again and again but they said the loot was not significant or some such. Eventually, with one lockdown after another, we gave up,” he said.

When Sadiq got to know about the commission, he decided to try again. This time he took charge and wrote to the commission, which asked him to submit a list of things the family had lost, along with bills. “I told them we did not have any pakka [formal] bills and whatever we did was burnt or looted,” he said. “We buy things second hand, you do not get bills for all this anyway.”

His family had claimed losses of Rs 6 lakh, but the commission’s loss assessor assessed them at Rs 1.65 lakh. It is unclear how the commission arrived at this assessment.

When asked about Sadiq’s case, Gaur said that while he cannot comment on specific cases, the amount of compensation is decided based on a subjective investigation of each case.

Explaining the process adopted by the commission, he said it takes into account evidence in the form of videos and photos to establish that a property was attacked by rioters. While assessing compensation for damage to houses, it looks at the market price of land in the area and assesses the quality of construction, among other things. For damaged or looted goods, it estimates the price based on actual bills, when available, and if not, then based on market trends.

“For jewellery, we have interviews and try to find out based on ground assessment if the claims are true,” Gaur said, adding that if he is not convinced with a report, he would ask the loss assessor to re-evaluate the claim.

New system, same problems

The Delhi government distributed compensation in the weeks after the riots within fixed limits: Rs 10 lakh for families of those who were killed, Rs 5 lakh for serious damage to residential and commercial premises, Rs 2 lakh for a serious injury, Rs 50,000 for damage to e-rickshaw, Rs 5,000 for damage related to an animal, among other categories.

But many who received the compensation say the actual amounts were on the lower end of the spectrum – they believe they are entitled to more.

Hemant Manocha, a 38-year-old taxi driver in Khajuri Khas, received a compensation of Rs 75,000 for the damage to his house, but he claims the losses he suffered were of Rs 10 lakh at least. During the riots, the ground floor of a neighbouring building had been set on fire. The instability led to its top floor falling on his house. “All the pillars are damaged, the roof is damaged, the front side of the house is also damaged,” he said. “We should not live here, but we have nowhere else to go.”

The pillars in Manocha's home are unstable, he said, adding that this was because the floors of the adjacent home had fallen on his roof. Photo: Aishwarya Iyer

Manocha approached the commission for a re-evaluation of his claim, and submitted photos, videos, electricity bills, a copy of the police first information report, as asked. He is yet to hear back from the commission.

Mishika Singh, 31, founder of the Neev Foundation for Legal Aid, said both the Delhi government as well as the claims commission have adopted opaque procedures for determining and disbursing compensation.

Singh, who has been providing legal aid to several claimants, said they were being given an informal estimate of the compensation that would be recommended in their case and being asked to either take it or leave it. “All of this is also being done over a call where the commission is not disclosing how they arrived at the compensation amount,” she said. “If someone accepts it, then you are taking away his right for further scrutiny and appeal.”

Criticising the procedure adopted by the commission, Singh said, “You are basically giving hope to people but resorting to a process that continues to be shoddy and badly managed.”

Gaur denied this. “It can never be like this. First of all, the final amount has not been offered yet, scrutiny is on. So the assessor might have said something but it may not be final,” he said.

Giving up hope

Many riot victims have given up on the compensation process entirely.

Thirty-eight-year-old Guddi’s husband died of injuries sustained during the violence. He had left on the night of February 24 to go to his sister’s place and never returned. The next day, the police escorted Guddi to the GTB hospital where she saw her husband bruised from head to toe. A social worker said his legs and ribs had been broken.

“For a month he was kept there but because of Covid he was moved back home,” she said.

At home, her husband would have bad dreams, she said. “He would wake up and scream ‘belt se mat maro’ – don’t hit me with a belt.”

Guddi’s husband got Rs 20,000 as compensation, while he was still at the GTB hospital – not the Rs 2 lakh that the government had announced for those with serious injuries.

But she does not see any value in chasing more compensation.

“See, it has been two years,” she said. “Everyone knows my husband died. He never recovered from the wounds of the riots. If in two years nothing has happened for me, what do I expect will change now?”

Guddi’s 20-year-old son works in a small computer shop and his 15-year-old daughter is paralysed. ““I have to look forward to the future of my children and not look back,” she said.” “I do not have time to beg the authorities for money.”