Reena Sharma, 40, has been on a sit-in protest since April 30. She refuses to leave the rubble of her demolished home until her family and their neighbours are rehabilitated. Hers is one of nearly 2,000 families that were left homeless after the Archaeological Survey of India launched an “anti-encroachment” drive at Bengali Camp in Chhuriya Mohalla of Delhi’s Tughlaqabad village late last month.

The drive to remove encroachments from the protected area around the Tughlaqabad Fort, ASI officials said, had been pending for years. They were only able to carry it out on April 30 and May 1, they claimed, because they finally received support from the local administration. However, some residents claim that that the demolitions were part of the drive by a raft of state and central government agencies to give the capital a facelift ahead of G20 summit meetings in September. The drive has rendered homeless an estimated 2,60,000 people who were residing in jhuggis, informal settlements and independent homes in Tughlagabad, Mehrauli, Dhaula Kuan, Moolchand Basti, and the Yamuna floodplains.

In Tughlaqabad alone, more than 10,000 people have been affected. Some, like Reena Sharma’s parents, had been living there since 1997. In that time, they had slowly transformed their homes from shanties to brick-and-tin structures.

Reena Sharma watches an old video of her house. Credit: Sneha

Now, they are scavenging for the buried remains of their belongings from under the rubble of their homes. Pooja, a Class 9 student at the nearby Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, was picking out shattered bricks from where her clothes and books would be. Her neighbours were loading bricks and broken furniture into a vehicle – to sell for scrap. The majority of Bengali Camp’s residents, who work for daily wages in the informal sector, have been unable to go back to work since the demolitions.

Reena Sharma’s husband, Yatender Sharma, drove an e-rickshaw in the area. His income, combined with his wife’s as a domestic worker, had helped them put three of their four children through school. But Yatender Sharma has not driven his rickshaw since April 30.

“We had made provisions to charge the battery of the rickshaw at our home. The home is gone now, so is the means of earning any income,” he said, pointing to the rickshaw that now stores the belongings they managed to save during the demolitions such as a tablet provided to her son by the online learning platform Byju’s. The rickshaw’s battery is kept under a tree.

“We are getting calls every day from Byju’s to pay the next instalment for our son’s classes,” Yatender Sharma said. “How can we think about that when we are not sure of even getting our next meal?”

Pooja searches for her clothes and books under the rubble. Credit: Sneha

On top of the concern for lost school days is the fear for the safety of young girls. Suman, Reena Sharma’s neighbour of 10 years, said that she could not even think about leaving her 14-year-old daughter alone to go to work. She made a living as a domestic worker until her home was destroyed.

“Earlier, we used to tell our kids to lock the door so that they could protect themselves from prying eyes. What do we do now?” Suman said. “We have made makeshift tents and are camping here to demand shelter, but our daughters aren’t safe here.”

Suman has been actively participating in a series of protests held by Chhuriya Mohalla’s women in Tughlaqabad and at Jantar Mantar.

Speaking during one of the protests at Jantar Mantar, she invoked the slogan of “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to protect and educate India’s girls. “Our prime minister often chants this slogan,” she said. “But how do we save our daughters and how do we even think about educating them now?”

Their situation has been made worse by soaring rents in and around Tughlaqabad. Those looking for houses to move their families are coming back disappointed as rooms that would have earlier cost Rs 2,000 a month are going for Rs 6,000 and more.

Anjali Gupta, who provides at-home salon services, built her house in Chhuriya Mohalla nearly three years ago. She is a single parent of a 16-year-old boy. After the demolitions, she managed to rent a single room in the neighbourhood. “But half of that room is occupied by knick-knacks of the owner,” she said. “The reason I was able to get the room on rent is that we are a two-member household. We settled for what was available.”

Suman speaks during a protest at Jantar Mantar. Credit: Sneha

Illegal constructions

Gupta was on her way to Mussoorie for a work trip when her home was demolished. Her son could barely save some important documents, like a diary where she maintained records of the instalments she had paid the “dealer” that she bought the land from, and the money she had given to local police and even Archaeological Survey officials to let her build her home.

Almost every family whose house was demolished possesses similar records. Those who had paid in full have a memory of it and, now, of the naked-brick structures they used to call home.

The residents said they were confident that they would not lose their illegally constructed houses because they had Aadhaar cards and voter IDs tying them to the land. What is more, the “dealers” from whom they had bought the land were reportedly protected by local leaders, as a Newslaundry investigation revealed last year.

The Archaeological Survey, however, claimed that it was doing all it could to prevent encroachments earlier as well. “We are not the implementing body,” Vasant Swaranakar, the Archaeological Survey spokesperson. “We can only send notices and appeal to the local administration to take action. So, we have been sending notices to the encroachers since 1997.”

About the allegation that local Archaeological Survey officials were involved in letting the encroachments proliferate, he said, “It is easy to raise accusations. Why did they build their houses on land that did not legally belong to them? If you violate the law, you are bound to be punished for it.”

Swarnakar pointed out that nearly half of the Archaeological Survey-protected area in Tughlaqabad had been encroached on.

The local MP and legislator could not be reached for comment.

Reena, Anjali and Suman at the sit-in protest in Tughlaqabad. Credit: Sneha

Rehabilitation appeals

Left with nowhere to go, Chhuriya Mohalla’s residents said their only demand was rehabilitation. “We are ready to leave, forget about all our losses, if you show us where to go,” said Suman.

Abdul Shakeel, the convener of Basti Suraksha Manch, claimed that this was one of the most heartless demolitions he had seen in Delhi in 15 years. They are now urging the Delhi government to allot houses built under the Rajiv Ratan Awas Yojan in 2007-’10 to those affected by the “G20 demolitions”.

According to reports, as many as 35,000 such houses built under the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Rehabilitation Mission are lying vacant in northwest Delhi.

The road to rehabilitation is not straightforward, however.

The Delhi High Court has held that it is the state’s duty to survey all those facing evictions and to draft a rehabilitation plan for them. The Delhi Slum and JJ Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy prohibits the demolition of jhuggis or shanties built in “jhuggi-jhopdi bastis” before 2015. But Chhuriya Mohalla and surrounding settlements do not feature on the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board’s list of 675 jhuggi-johpdi bastis. “We aren’t responsible for their rehabilitation, especially since they were on ASI land, and not Delhi government’s,” said an official at the board who did not want to be identified.

Anuprada Singh, the lawyer who is representing Chhuriya Mohalla’s residents, said the settlement not being on the Shelter Improvement Board’s list was a major challenge. “It is wrong if DUSIB officials say that they won’t take responsibility for the rehabilitation of these residents because they were on central government land,” she said. “However, what is making this matter tricky is the absence of the settlement from the list. The list is outdated. It was made in the early 1990s, and that too for the food distribution scheme, not by any land-owning authority. We are trying to bring forward this point when the matter is heard next.”