Last month, the Supreme Court refused to interfere with the Delhi High Court judgment in Manoj Kumar v Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board from February that declined to extend the benefit of rehabilitation to dwellers of Janta Colony, Naveen Shahdara, a slum in Northeast Delhi that had been demolished by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation in September.

The Delhi High Court decision was the latest in a series of similar decisions by the High Court since last year that have refused to provide summarily evicted slum residents with any significant relief.

This trend started with a Delhi High Court judgment delivered in April last year. The order interpreted the slum dwellers rehabilitation policy operating in Delhi in an arbitrary, exclusionary manner, according to experts that Scroll spoke with, leading to a spate of slum evictions across the city.

Legal framework for slum residents in Delhi

To track the evolution of the present governance framework for slums in Delhi, we would need to go back to a 2010 judgment of the Delhi High Court, which had directed the various land owning agencies in Delhi to, upon demolition of unauthorised shanties on their land, rehabilitate and relocate the persons residing in such shanties to a suitable place by providing them alternative land with ownership rights. The court also ordered the Delhi government to come up with rehabilitation and relocation policy for slum dwellers.

The Delhi government, in response, passed the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board Act, 2010, setting up the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board as the nodal agency for the rehabilitation and relocation of slum dwellers residing in Delhi. Under the Act, the Delhi Slum & JJ Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy, 2015 was notified.

Under the Act and the Policy, the following three criteria must be fulfilled by a slum to be eligible for rehabilitation and relocation:

  1. The slum must have come up before January 1, 2006.·         ·         
  2. Individual settlements in such a slum must have been built before January 1, 2015.
  3. The slum must have at least 50 households. 

The policy provides a list of twelve documents, of which a slum resident must possess any one to be eligible for rehabilitation.

Additionally, it also set up an appellate authority to take up grievances of those slum residents who may wish to challenge an order regarding their eligibility for qualifying for rehabilitation under the policy.

The policy also states that no new shanty would be allowed to come up in Delhi after January 1, 2015. Any shanty that comes up after this deadline would be removed without providing any alternate housing to its residents.

Further, a landmark Delhi High Court judgment in 2019 in Ajay Makan v. Union of India provided slum residents with constitutional protections from forced and unannounced evictions. It held that slum dwellers could not be evicted without a survey first being conducted by an authority and consulting the residents sought to be evicted. Further, it directed the establishment of a draft protocol for carrying out evictions after a survey, so that no one eligible for rehabilitation is evicted before being provided with rehabilitation.

Equally importantly, the High Court admonished state authorities for treating slum residents as encroachers, and encouraged them to be seen as participants in the growth of Delhi, forced to live in slums due to the state’s failure to provide them with adequate housing.

Delhi High Court judgment that upended this framework

Why has Delhi seen a spate of mass demolitions of slums in the last year or so, without the above framework being complied with?

According to advocate Anupradha Singh, co-founder of the Nyay Neeti Foundation, a non-profit organisation that provides free legal aid to marginalised and vulnerable communities, there are two reasons for this.

Singh has represented slum residents who have suffered summary evictions in several matters before the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court, including in the Ajay Maken and Manoj Kumar cases.

The first, she says, is the upcoming G20 summit in Delhi, which has led to a beautification drive through the city.

The second, she explains, is a judgment of the Delhi High Court from April last year. In this judgment, Singh said, the court held that only residents of a list of 675 slums furnished by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board are eligible for rehabilitation under the 2015 policy.

“This list was prepared in the 1990s by the Delhi government’s Food and Supplies department, and has not even been notified yet,” she explained. “This list is not mentioned either in the 2015 policy or its parent Act.”

For context, the 69th National Sample Survey Office Survey report revealed that there were 6,343 slums in 2012 in Delhi, containing 10.2 lakh households.

A challenge to this judgment by the High Court is pending for adjudication before the Supreme Court. Yet, the judgment has been relied on by the High Court in multiple judgments thereon to reject the rehabilitation claims of slum residents who otherwise fulfil the three conditions laid for rehabilitation under Delhi’s scheme.

“Welfare legislation must be interpreted in a liberal, inclusionary manner,” Singh said. “However, the Delhi High Court judgment in the Manoj Kumar case, which was upheld by the Supreme Court last month, is based on apprehension and exclusion.”

The apprehension she refers to is the notion of slum dwellers being illegal encroachers of public land – the very thing that the Delhi High Court’s 2019 judgment in the Ajay Maken case had warned against.

Consequently, courts, instead of dealing with violations of principles of natural justice inherent in summary demolitions of shanties, have chosen to focus only on whether the slum residents are eligible for rehabilitation or not.

“It is easy for courts to presume that slum dwellers are illegal, and order for their shanties to be demolished, but where will these people go?” asked Aishwarya Ayushmaan, a lawyer and Programme Lead at the Housing and Land Rights Network, a non-profit organisation working on the promotion, protection and recognition of the right to housing. “They will obviously create some other living arrangement that may be outside the purview of the law. These people cannot be wished away.”

A file photo of a woman watches a bulldozer remove the rubble of her demolished house, allegedly erected illegally, in New Delhi.|MananVatsyayana/ AFP

Quality of rehabilitation for beneficiaries

Ayushmaan disclosed that even those who are eligible to get rehabilitated under the artificially restricted eligibility criteria of the Board, that has secured the High Court’s sanction, do not get alternate housing.

“They have to deposit a sum of over one lakh rupees to get a house allocated,” he said. “This is a huge sum to arrange for them. Even after the deposit, they are not allotted houses immediately.”

He cited the example of a woman that the Housing and Land Rights Network has been working with who has been waiting for her house allotment since 2017, in spite of having made the payment and completed all procedural requirements.

“There is constant litigation by the land-owning agencies over the allotment of houses to the evictees,” he noted. “As a result, there are almost no new house allotments being done under the resettlement scheme.”

“Beneficiaries of rehabilitation are shifted to transit camps, which have terrible conditions,” Singh pointed out. “Afterwards, they are shifted to housing in the outskirts of the city.”

This, in spite of the 2015 policy stipulating that except in “exceptional circumstances”, alternate accommodation must be provided to beneficiaries either on the same land or within a radius of five kilometres of their previous dwelling.

The conditions in these resettlement colonies are terrible, she said, since there are no schools or shops nearby, and the houses are often small and of poor quality.

Ayushmaan spoke about another “cheap shortcut” that the state has advanced in courts, and courts have also accepted: the evictees being moved to homeless shelters, instead of being rehabilitated in proper houses. “This is an impractical solution,” he said. “These shelters are small, and packed with people.” There is no space for the evictees to store their belongings, he added.

Survey of slums in Delhi needed

Both Singh and Ayushmaan underscore the need for the Board to conduct a comprehensive survey of all slums in the city, in order to update the eligibility criteria for rehabilitation.

“The Board has complete authority to conduct a survey of all slums in Delhi,” Singh said. “It has not done so yet, citing various flimsy excuses, such as lack of manpower and coordination by other land-owing agencies.”

The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board has been contacted for a comment. This story will be updated once the Board responds.