On May 12, as the mercury soared to 40 degrees celsius in Delhi, Suman, 37, made her way back from work to her one-room home in Churiya Mohalla of Tughlaqabad village. She was hoping the air cooler would provide some respite, but that afternoon, it refused to work.

“Another thing that I need to get fixed,” she said. Only a few days ago, she had gotten her television repaired after it was damaged when her home was demolished in 2023 as part of an “anti-encroachment” drive around the Tughlaqabad Fort by the Archaeological Survey of India.

The drive, carried out on April 30 and May 1 last year, had rendered homeless at least 2.5 lakh residents of the Bengali Camp in Tughlaqabad village, according to a fact-finding report by the research and advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network. Some of the residents had been living in the area for nearly three decades and had slowly transformed their homes from shanties to brick-and-tin structures.

The area is part of the South Delhi parliamentary constituency which goes to the polls on May 25.

A year since the demolition and with no prospects of rehabilitation in sight, residents say they have lost faith in the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre. When Delhi votes on Saturday in the sixth phase of the Lok Sabha elections, residents say they will press the “None Of The Above”, or NOTA, button.

“These elections have come a year after we were brought to the roads,” said Suman, who is enrolled at the same polling station where she has voted for the last 10 years. “I do want to exercise my right and let the authorities know I continue to exist here,” she said. “But why should we support any party when they cannot support us?”

The barricaded wall in Tughlaqabad village. The demolished Bengali Camp was on the other side.

Left in the lurch

That was not always the case.

In January 2023, when the Archaeological Survey of India first served demolition notices to the residents of Bengali Camp, the Aam Aadmi Party had mobilised protests.

Residents accompanied by Aam Aadmi Party legislators Atishi, Madan Lal, Katar Singh Tanwar and Sahiram Pahalwan had protested outside the official home of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ramesh Bidhuri.

Bidhuri currently represents the South Delhi constituency in the Lok Sabha. Several residents have alleged that his family home in Tughlaqabad village also stands on the encroached area around the fort but has remained untouched because of his political background.

“We used to call him our neighbour,” said Renu, 38, a former resident of Bengali Camp who moved to a rented house in Churiya Mohalla after the demolition. “But he remained mum on the whole situation.”

Renu alleged that the only time Bidhuri spoke to them was to threaten them when they were protesting.

In May 2023, when Bengali Camp was demolished, some residents reached out to Pahalwan of the Aam Aadmi Party for support. However, Pahalwan rebuffed them, saying that “he had never come begging for votes at our doorstep”, alleged Renu.

Pahalwan, who represents Tughlaqabad in the Delhi Legislative Assembly, is the Aam Aadmi Party’s Lok Sabha candidate from South Delhi.

Poll promises

In 2023, demolitions were carried out in 48 places across the national capital. Apart from the 2.5 lakh residents displaced after the demolitions in Tughlaqabad, between 30,000 to 35,000 others were evicted from areas such as Mehrauli, Bela Estate, Punjabi Bagh and Sundar Nursery, said the Housing and Land Rights Network report.

The Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP are aware that the large-scale demolitions in the national capital could affect their electoral prospects. Both parties have campaigned in slum clusters that have not yet faced demolition, promising rehabilitation and housing. Ahead of the elections, both parties have also blamed the other for the demolitions.

The BJP said the Aam Aadmi Party was responsible for the condition of displaced slum residents as it had not allowed them to benefit from the Centre’s subsidised housing scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.

In January, the Aam Aadmi Party launched a campaign, “Ghar Bachao, BJP Hatao” (save home, vote out the BJP), alleging that the BJP-led Central government intends to demolish all slum clusters in Delhi.

As part of the campaign, party leaders conducted public meetings in several clusters. During one such meeting on January 14, Delhi cabinet minister Saurabh Bharadwaj alleged that the Central government-controlled Delhi Development Authority, the railways, the Archaeological Survey of India and the Delhi Police had demolished slums in violation of laws and court orders.

That same day, senior Aam Aadmi Party leader Atishi met the residents of BR Camp, a slum 300 metres away from the official residence of the prime minister on Lok Kalyan Marg. She promised the residents that the Aam Aadmi Party would ensure their houses are not demolished until they are rehabilitated.

Residents of the slum cluster near Sundar Nursery, sitting on the rubble of their homes.

Delhi BJP General Secretary Harsh Malhotra, in response, said the campaign was a ploy to “divert attention” from the corruption allegations against the Aam Aadmi Party. He alleged that the Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi government had not allocated any houses to slum dwellers in the nine years that it had been in power.

Malhotra is the BJP’s candidate from the East Delhi seat. To the slum dwellers in his constituency, he has promised to redevelop clusters under the Jahan Jhuggi, Wahan Makaan scheme.

The scheme envisages building houses for residents in place of the slums. This has been a recurring poll promise of both the Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP – as Suman pointed out.

Everything that the BJP and Aam Aadmi Party leaders have said in other slum clusters ahead of the elections are repetitions of what they have told us before, she said. “So, their poll promises mean nothing to us,” she said. “Before believing them, the residents of other clusters should once meet us and listen to our plight.”

‘Cannot support any party’

Residents of Moolchand Basti in Bela Estate, which falls under the East Delhi parliamentary constituency, echo Suman’s opinions.

Located on the western bank of the Yamuna, the slum cluster has seen repeated demolitions since 2006. The most recent demolitions, in March last year, were for the Delhi Development Authority’s plans to build a biodiversity park and lake in the area, which falls under the first phase of the Yamuna Riverfront Development Project.

Residents have neither been rehabilitated nor offered compensation so far. With nowhere to go, after every eviction drive, they return to the cluster and erect temporary structures. Some of the makeshift structures they now call home have been built using discarded BJP hoardings that residents say they picked from roadsides.

Rekha, 44, who has been at the forefront of organising protests against the forced evictions, said nearly 200 voters from the area are planning to choose NOTA this time.

“The last straw was when during the demolitions last year, the police started desecrating our temple,” she said. “They [the BJP] are asking for votes in the name of Ayodhya’s Ram temple across the nation. Is it only that temple where the god resides?”

We will choose NOTA because we want to let them know we have not gone anywhere, said Rekha. “But we cannot, in good faith, support any party.”

Rekha from Moolchand Basti displays a poster calling on residents to boycott all parties in the election.

Call for change

For 54-year-old Nayim Khan, however, this election is about change and NOTA will not help. Even if the NOTA option receives the highest number of votes, the candidate with the second-most votes is declared the winner.

Khan was a resident of a slum cluster near Sundar Nursery in the Nizamuddin area in the East Delhi parliamentary constituency. Over 300 homes in the cluster were demolished on November 23, 2023, on the Delhi High Court’s directions to the Land and Development Department.

During the hearing on the matter, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board had opposed the Centre’s contention that the cluster had to be demolished in compliance with a 2019 order of the High Court.

It said that the residents needed to be rehabilitated since the cluster was covered under the slum rehabilitation policy of the Delhi government.

“The demolition still happened, abruptly,” alleged Khan.

“Now, we are not even allowed to construct makeshift structures on the rubble of our houses,” said Khan. “If somebody dares to do that, the police come to demolish those structures as well.”

But after these elections, he is hoping for change. Although he has not heard much about welfare schemes for slum dwellers in the election speeches of political leaders, he says: “Kuchh parivartan to aayega.” Some change will come.

“And I can only hope with that change, our lives change for the better too,” said Khan.

All photographs by Sneha.