A haphazard lean-to made from plywood, bricks, a tin sheet and some tarpaulin stood in place of the structure 35-year-old Sahejuddin used to call home only a few days ago. Last week, Sahejuddin and more than 1,000 others were left homeless as more than 300 shanties were demolished in a slum cluster in Kishangarh village in south Delhi’s Mehrauli area. Residents of the slum allege that they were given no notice of the drive and no time to prepare. As a result, they said they have been left out in the cold – quite literally – without a roof over their heads.

“I was at a construction site when the demolition drive began,” said Sahejjudin, a migrant labourer from West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district. “We did not know this was going to happen. By the time I received the news and rushed here, my home was razed to the ground.”

Inside Sahejjudin’s hut lay all that his wife could save – a suitcase with some clothes and cash savings, a small gas cylinder and two mattresses. Like Sahejjudin, most residents of the slum are staying in makeshift tents at the site, with no idea of what they will do next.

Sahejuddin (left), his wife Ayesha, brother-in-law Hassan Ali and a relative outside Sahejuddin's hut. Photo: Abhishek Dey

Officials from the South Delhi Municipal Corporation said that the demolition was carried out on a Delhi High Court order. The plot was owned by the Delhi Development Authority and allegedly illegally occupied by a builder, who constructed shanties there and rented them out to construction workers and their families.

“It was a joint operation by the Delhi Development Authority and the South Delhi Municipal Corporation and it was done in adherence to the court order,” said Mukesh Yadav, Director (Press and Information) in South Delhi Municipal Corporation. “Help was taken from Delhi Police too.”

As a small consolation, tents were set up by the district administration, under the Delhi government, next to the site of the demolition, to temporarily accommodate the displaced – but residents said they were told these will be dismantled any day.

“Initially, we shifted to those tents as we had no other option but on Wednesday, we were told that will be taken away in a day,” said Sahejuddin’s brother-in-law Hassan Ali. “So we evacuated the tents immediately and started building our own huts with whatever we could find.”

Tents set up by the district administration vacated by the residents of the slum. Photo: Abhishek Dey

Full circle

In the national capital, things have come full circle almost exactly a year after a demolition drive at a slum cluster near the railway tracks at Shakur Basti in December 2015 left more than 1,000 families homeless as Delhi’s winter was nearing its peak. The demolition, reportedly carried out by the Railways, had triggered a row between the Delhi government and the Centre.

The Delhi High Court had pulled up the Railways for clearing the cluster without making arrangements for rehabilitation of its residents. “What was the tearing hurry to demolish in December?” the bench was quoted as saying. “You really don’t care about the people, you just want to remove them.”

So why did another massive demolition drive take place in the winter, seemingly without prior intimation and without making arrangements to rehabilitate the slum dwellers? “It is not that the demolitions happen more at any specific time of the year,” said Yadav. “Around 3,300 demolition drives had taken place in South Delhi last year, of which 30%-40% pertained to slum areas, not necessarily large-scale demolitions. But this is a round-the-year process and done mostly under court orders.”

Photo: Abhishek Dey

No intimation

The families of the Kishangarh slum, who have been living here for about four years now, said they were not told about the dispute over the land or given an evacuation notice.

Typically, intimation of demolition is sent by the court to the alleged encroacher (for instance, the builder who has wrongfully occupied the land), but there are no clear guidelines on the evacuation notice to be given to inhabitants. After the Shakur Basti demolition, the High Court had ordered the Delhi police, Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board to come up with a protocol for future demolitions.

In keeping with this, a draft policy for removal of jhuggis and slums was drawn up in June 2016. Among other things, it said that residents of a contentious plot should be given prior notice that their land would be surveyed to check which residents are eligible for rehabilitation and eviction or removal notices should be pasted at the slum. Announcements should also be made at the site.

But residents of the Kishangarh slum claimed that they did not know about the demolition till officials turned up with bulldozers on Monday. As a result, they said, many of them were at work at construction sites during the drive and could not even save their belongings.

“Only my children were home – what could they have done?” asked 33-year-old Abu Taher, who migrated here from Malda in West Bengal.

Pulling out a blanket from his makeshift hut, Taher said, “This was given to us to beat the cold on Monday night. How is it possible to spend a night under the open sky in such biting cold with such thin blankets to cover us?”

Abu Taher at the demolition site. Photo Abhishek Dey

Dalia Begum, 45, a native of Assam’s Karimganj district, said she and her son were both at construction sites and her daughter in college during the demolition. “When I rushed back after getting news [of the drive] from another construction labourer, the policemen guarding the area did not even let us go inside,” she said. “I saw my house crumble brick by brick.”

Dalia Begum was among the ones who could not save anything at all. Photo: Abhishek Dey