Is there no Corona for us? Is Corona only for the rich? We are living under a cloth shed, I have three small kids, including a girl. Where will I take them if it rains? Now that they have demolished our house!
Besides the stay-at-home orders often leaving victims of domestic violence trapped with abusive partners, evictions are being held around the world, with the rampant Covid-19 crisis and the monsoon season, putting, as usual, women and their children, in the front lines of the battle against demolitions and evictions, defending the present and the coming lives they carry.
In Khori Gaon, 100,000.000 people, a majority of a colony of settlements in the Aravalli forests, found themselves homeless, thrown in the streets without prior rehabilitation. The demolitions of their houses, ordered by the Supreme Court on 7 June 2021, were directed by the Faridabad Municipal Corporation by using lathi charge, arresting protesters, and demolishing the entire Housing Board Society of Khori Gaon.
A 12-year girl, crying about her home being destroyed in front of her eyes, was requesting them not to demolish it for the sake of her education and future. They ordered her to get out of the house claiming it was illegally built on government land and threatened that they would detain her.
The Indian government, instead of respecting art. 11 and 12 of ICESCR, ratified in 1979, and CEDAW ratified in 1994, have attacked the UN Rapporteurs’ who have called on the Indian government to stop the evictions of nearly 100,000 people including 20,000 children and 5,000 pregnant or breastfeeding women and the demolitions of their houses, according to the report sent to the UN Special Rapporteurs by the Mazdoor Awas Samiti Khori Gaon coordinating local groups' resistance to evictions together with the International Alliance of Inhabitants.
Khori Gaon is an informal settlement (basti) at the border of Delhi and Haryana and the foothills of the Aravallis one of the oldest mountains of the subcontinent, hosting several mineral deposits, and playing a significant role in arresting the onslaught of the deserts from western Rajasthan and beyond, and seen as the “green lungs” of pollution-choked Delhi-NCR apart from preserving the rich cultural heritage. Additionally, the ranges recharge the depleting aquifers of the region creating a picturesque backdrop for flourishing settlements which started developing in the 1950s, on a post-quarry landscape in the 1970s and a Forest Conservation Act which came into force in 1980. The land on which the basti stands displays irregular slopes, inaccessible pockets, vertical rock faces, and deep pits. As a result, access has always been an issue. The range is crucial for groundwater recharge and is seen as the “green lungs” of pollution. It’s also considered the last barrier preventing the western desert from expanding into the Gangetic grain bowl of Uttar Pradesh.
If the government and judiciary are interested in making Khori Gaon available for forest conservation, then it would be very reasonable to offer alternative land to the basti residents, and resist the use of force and coercion.
The area is today surrounded by commercial, hospitality and high-end residential developments, identified as located on the same deemed forest land. Located at the margins of two states, Delhi and Faridabad, the forest and the city. Khori Gaon residents have lived with multiple vulnerabilities for years, enduring the disproportionate impacts of the Covid pandemic. During each election cycle, politicians have promised services, while the Haryana government did not provide electricity to the residents of new parts of Khori Gaon. Instead, the Delhi government provided electricity and built roads. Both sides have even provided official documents in return for votes. As a result, a few residents have documents of Delhi and some of Haryana. In some cases, residents have documents from both states. However, a significant number still remain invisible in official registers. Even though the residents have access to electricity from the Delhi side in most cases, they do not have papers to prove it since this was supplied through informal channels. They relied on private and state tankers for water. The mafia also exploited the residents by extracting money whenever they built a higher floor or added another room. If there was a gap between purchasing the land and constructing the houses, the mafia often sold the land to other buyers.
If this is a forest how the big hotels, resorts, farmhouses and the religious ashrams have come up in the vicinity. Why are they not facing a similar fate like us?
For the Supreme Court and the district administration, the residents are invaders on government land. They have been trying to demolish their buildings for nearly a decade, with no success using the environmentalists' arguments on the possible disappearance of the ranges and loss of not just biodiversity and scenic beauty, severely affecting the water supply in cities that are already facing threats of extreme groundwater depletion.
But the residents plead their legitimacy to stay, giving the documents given to them by those who sold them the land, and accused the police of helping the mafia who set them up. An investigation is under way and the situation in Khori remains tense.
A situation and a reality on the ground, that looks like it was in the path of a storm with the cruelty and violence with which the forced eviction and demolition is being conducted. Removing poor people from their homes in the name of environmental protection pushes generations of their families towards destitution.
Eviction without rehabilitation is a death sentence
The only way to solve this would be the rehabilitation of those who have already been evicted, stop the planned evictions and arrest those who allegedly duped the owners of the houses. Under no circumstances should it be permitted for the state to evict people, especially women in their conditions, from their homes without democratic consultation and due arrangements for them to stay in humane and well equipped, quality alternative housing. Women and children have been surviving without food, water and electricity for the past two months.
Some of the women widows with the pandemic, have lost everything, no way to get their widow pension as so many documents are required, no money to pay the loan taken to build the house that has already been demolished, no money also because so much of their small incomes have gove in giving the officials, and forest department who were extracting their money.
When we people protest against the felling of our houses, authorities scold us, beat us with lathi and in a very bad manner, they ask us to go away. They tell us that our houses are built on public land and therefore illegal even though we people have bought this land by selling our village land and have spent all our earnings to build our house on this land. I along with my three children are forced to sit under a cloth to save ourselves from the scorching heat.
My house has been demolished, I have nowhere to go now. My husband’s one leg is broken and a son of mine has died. They asked us to maintain social distance and to be inside our houses only, but now we are on the road, we have nothing to eat when my children could study? all their books are buried under the debris of our house, they didn’t even allow us to take them out of our house before demolition, they have destroyed the future of my children.
"We call on India to urgently review its plans for razing Khori Gaon and to consider regularizing the settlement so as not to leave anyone homeless” UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing Balakrishnan Rajagopal.
Anyone, women included, slightly speaking up against it, is put in jail, leaving children alone. Putting false cases on people, threatening journalists and not allowing them to cover or report about the demolition and show their pain to the world.
Nobody helped us during Covid. No tests were conducted in our settlement, we were not even able to understand that people were dying due to Covid. We tried to arrange oxygen and other resources on our own but couldn’t save our people. No covid vaccination has been conducted here, none of us are vaccinated. Nobody will know if people die here. There are many women here who became widows after their husbands died during Covid.
Hundreds of pregnant women have reportedly died of the virus in India with no official data given. The situation is likely far worse in rural areas, where poor surveillance, delayed testing and spotty access to critical care have led to a high death toll from the virus. Khori Gaon is no different, as no temporary shelter camp or food facilities have been arranged for the displaced people at the site. The only stay and food facility arranged by the government is one hour walk and none is allowed to bring some food back for their family. Studies have shown that Covid positive pregnant women, compared to non-pregnant women, are at higher risk of dying from the virus. They are also more likely to be admitted to the ICU, hooked to an invasive ventilator, develop dangerous pregnancy complications or deliver prematurely.
Speechless to see such pain and suffering. But we bow before the determination and dignity of these women who continue to resist. The quotations are taken from the testimonies collected on Homeless, starving and nowhere to go. Forced Eviction of Khori Gaon in the Middle of a Pandemic and Monsoon. Report of the Public hearing held on July 17, 2021, organised by the Concerned Citizens for Khori Gaon & National Alliance of People’s Movement.