Forced eviction during the COVID-19 pandemic in India

Forced eviction during the COVID-19 pandemic in India

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Abhijit Guha

Former Professor in Anthropology

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Vidyasagar University

Email: abhijitguhavuanthro@rediffmail.com

Introduction

In 1997, The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights defined forced eviction as: “The permanent or temporary removal against the will of individuals, families or communities from their homes or land, which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection” (quoted in Forced evictions in India in 2019: an unrelenting national crisis, 2020, p.3). Forced eviction by the state authorities is a global phenomenon and in India the magnitude of the problem is huge and horrendous. More interestingly, both the central and state governments in India do not maintain any database on forced eviction of people from their homes for various reasons, like beautification of cities, slum clearance, and implementation of development projects. In most of the cases the affected population belongs to people of lower socio-economic strata, adivasis, dalits and other marginalised groups and majority of them are displaced without proper resettlement. Suffice it to say that in the absence of official data on the magnitude, extent and the nature of forced evictions adequate policy response towards the problem of resettlement and rehabilitation of the evicted populations are rarely addressed in a proper manner.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown in India has revealed the importance and gravity of forced eviction when thousands of migrant workers had to move out from their workplaces to homes, often by walking to cover hundreds of miles to reach their destination. The crucial importance of providing housing for the protection and recovery of people during the pandemic was recognised by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which addressed the States to impose a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic. Several Indian Courts also directed the state authorities not to evict people or demolish their homes during the lockdown. Under this background, I would make an attempt to describe some of the facts around forced eviction in India during the pandemic.

Forced eviction in India during the pandemic

In this article, I have used the data published in a recent report prepared by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) which is registered as an Indian charitable trust and independent organisation working on research, education, and advocacy related to housing and land rights of marginalised communities.[i] The report of HLRN entitled Forced evictions in India in 2019: an unrelenting national crisis is a 109 pages monograph which contains substantial amount of data in the form of maps, graphs, tables, photographs and case studies. In addition, the report has an important section titled Recommendations for remedial and positive actions addressed to the central and state governments as well as national and state level human rights institutions towards the prevention of forced evictions in India.

In the introduction of the report it was categorically mentioned:

Despite the critical importance of adequate housing— both as a means of prevention and for recovery– in dealing with pandemics like COVID-19 the Indian government has not paid attention to reducing the incidence of homelessness or to improving the quality of housing of the urban and rural poor during the pandemic or in its recovery plans. This has resulted in a ‘business as usual’ attitude which sadly caused the forced eviction of over 20,000 people between 16 March and 30 July 2020(HLRN Report 2020, p.4).

In a press release dated 17 June 2020 the HLRN reported that between 16 March to 16 June 2020 at least 22 cases of demolition of homes by the central and state governments  occurred in India which affected 13, 500 persons and the reasons for such demolitions were ‘beautification’ projects, government land clearance, and ‘smart city’ projects. Undoubtedly, these evictions could not be justified during the severe global pandemic and the resulting public health and economic crisis in the country.

What has really happened?

The United Nation Organisation strongly held that forced eviction during the pandemic is a gross violation of human rights because in this critical period people are required to stay at home. So, forcing them to leave their homes during this time would make them more vulnerable to the deadly disease. Moreover, in India, it is the poor and marginalised who suffered most during the lockdown period by losing their income and livelihood both in the rural and urban areas. Despite the UN warnings and the prohibitory orders of the courts, the governments in India continued to evict people by force from their homes. I quote from the HLRN Press release below

HLRN has recorded at least 22 incidents of forced eviction across India during the national lockdown (25 March to 31 May) and after it ended (1 to 16 June). It is likely that many of these evictions were carried out during the lockdown to take advantage of the curfew-like conditions, when movement of affected persons was restricted and they did not have access to legal remedies. For instance, in Siddipet, Telangana, authorities demolished 30 homes of Dalit farmers in the middle of the night, without prior notice. In Odisha, the Kalahandi forest department forcibly demolished homes and destroyed belongings of 32 adivasi/ Kondh tribal families in Sagada Village, also without notice. In Manipur’s Macheng Village, forest officials with the help of the police, evicted families of the Rongmei Naga tribe, early in the morning, on grounds that they were “encroaching” on forest land. Villagers who protested the drive were dispersed by the police, reportedly, with force involving the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. In Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, local authorities demolished 20 houses for the ‘beautification’ of a pond, rendering daily-wage labourers homeless during the lockdown(Press release of HLRN dated 17 June 2020) . 

In the same Press release a table has been provided, which showed the sites of eviction with respective reasons during the lockdown and one month after it as documented by HLRN. The table has been reproduced below 

Documented Sites of Forced Eviction and Reason for Eviction (16 March to 16 June 2020)

SITE OF EVICTION    REASON FOR EVICTION  
Bilaspur, ChhattisgarhChhattisgarh River ‘beautification’ and ‘smart city’ project
Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu‘Smart city’ project for restoration of water bodies
Erode, Tamil NaduLand clearance along a canal for a ‘smart city’ project
Hyderabad, Andhra PradeshRemoval of ‘encroachments’
Hubbali, KarnatakaRoad widening
Jaipur, RajasthanRajasthan Road construction  
Kalahandi, OdishaForest clearance  
Macheng Village,Manipur Forest clearance
Mumbai, MaharashtraRemoval of ‘encroachments’  
Kishtwar, Pulwama, and Srinagar, Jammu and KashmirRemoval of ‘illegal constructions’  
Rewa, Madhya Pradesh‘Beautification’ of a pond  
Siwal, Madhya PradeshVillage land clearance  
DelhiRailway land clearance  
Siddipet, TelanganaReservoir project  
Srinagar, Jammu and KashmirDal Lake restoration project

The above table also revealed the general trend of forced eviction in India, which followed the pattern displayed before the pandemic. Overall, during 2019, about 43 percent of the total number of forced evicted persons rendered homeless due to ‘Slum-clearance/anti-encroachment/city-beautification’ drives. About 24 percent were evicted for infrastructure development projects, like highway expansion, bridge construction and ‘smart city’ projects while 16 percent were evicted for environmental projects, viz. forest protection and wildlife conservation. Disaster management and other causes constituted the rest of the evicted people.

Another important finding of the HLRN survey was that in most of the cases of forced eviction by the state the due processes mentioned in the UN guidelines, that is prior informed consent of the people and socio-economic impact assessments were not carried out. Furthermore, the scenario of resettlement and rehabilitation of the evicted persons and families by the governments was also very much dismal. I quote from the report

Of the 146 incidents of forced eviction documented by HLRN in 2019, information on resettlement is available only for 103 incidents. Of these HLRN found that the state had provided some form of resettlement/alternative housing/plots in only 27 of the affected sites (or 26 per cent) while some compensation was paid in only two of the cases. Thus, in 74 per cent of the cases of eviction in 2019 for which information is available, resettlement was not provided by the state to affected persons (bold letters in the report; HLRN Report 2020, p.32). 

Conclusion

The conclusions, which we can draw from the data presented in the HLRN report and the Press release are obvious. That both the central and state governments in India should immediately issue a moratorium on forced evictions particularly during the global pandemic. In cases of unavoidable evictions under natural disasters and climate change prior informed consent and proper socioeconomic and environmental impact assessments must be done by experts. Finally, proper compensation as well as rehabilitation and resettlement of the already evicted persons and families under force should be given a national priority during the unlockdown period(Guha 2020).


[i] A quote from the Press release of HLRN is relevant here and I reproduce it verbatim below.

Given the precarious living conditions of the urban and rural poor and their heightened risk of infection, including their inability to practice physical distancing and wash hands frequently, HLRN had called on the Government of India on 13 March via a press release and on 18 March via a letter to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs to impose a national moratorium on forced evictions and ensure that no one in the country is rendered homeless. We had also called for measures to improve living conditions of those who are homeless and inadequately housed. The Ministry took heed of HLRN’s letter by forwarding it to all state governments (on 29 April 2020) and asking them to frame policies to protect those without adequate housing. Despite this, both state and central government authorities, such as the Indian Railways, have committed grave violations of human rights by demolishing homes of the urban and rural poor at the height of the pandemic, thereby threatening their lives and worsening the risk of exposure and spread of the corona virus.

Sources

Forced Evictions in India in 2019: An Unrelenting National Crisis, Housing and Land Rights Network, New Delhi, 2020.

Guha, A. 2020. COVID-19 and Forced Eviction. Frontier(online). https://www.frontierweekly.com/articles/vol-53/53-22-25/53-22-25-COVID-19%20and%20Forced%20Eviction.html

Press release of Housing and Land Rights Network, New Delhi, dated 17 June 2020.

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