The Supreme Court on Thursday stayed an order of the Uttarakhand High Court to evict thousands of residents from their homes allegedly built illegally on railway land in the state’s Haldwani district, Live Law reported.

On December 20, the Uttarakhand High Court had directed the railway authorities to remove allegedly unauthorised structures from the land after giving a week’s notice to the occupants. The residents, however, claim that the land does not belong to the Indian Railways.

Several petitions have been filed against the High Court order.

On Thursday, a Supreme Court bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Abhay Oka observed that “there cannot be uprooting of 50,000 people in seven days”.

Justice Oka noted that some of the families have been living in the area for 50 years.

“What is troubling us that, how do you deal with the scenario of people who have purchased the land in auction,” he said. “You may acquire the land and utilise. Other is people have lived there for 50-60 years, some rehabilitation scheme has to be done, even assuming it is railway land.”

The judge added that the High Court had passed the order without hearing all the affected parties in the case.

The judges asked the Uttarakhand government and Indian Railways to respond to the petitions and posted the matter for next hearing on February 7. The directions passed by the High Court will be on stay till then, the judges said.

“We have not stayed the proceedings and only the directions of the High Court has been stayed,” the judges said, adding that further construction and development on the land should not be allowed.

Following the order, advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing a group of petitioners, expressed gratitude to the Supreme Court for staying the eviction.

“The legal rights of all these people and in any case, their rehabilitation will have to be determined,” he added.

Congress leader and former Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat said that the Supreme Court’s judgement will protect human rights, ANI reported. “We all were worried about demolition rendering 52,000 people homeless,” he said.

Rawat said that when his government was in power in 2016, it had taken steps for rehabilitating the residents.

The petitions

The pleas in the Supreme Court had said that over 20,000 persons live in more than 4,000 homes that have been directed to be demolished. The petitioners also said that they have been paying house tax for years and have Aadhaar cards mentioning the locality as their address.

The locality also has five government schools, one hospital and two overhead water tanks, said the petitions. The families have been living in the locality for generations, some of them since before Independence, the pleas added.

The legal dispute began in 2013 with a petition against illegal sand mining in the Gaula river alongside the Haldwani railway station. During the hearing, the scope of the case was widened to include the alleged encroachments along the railway station.