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Delhi’s old illegal constructions have given India’s divisive politics new fangs

People watch the demolition of small illegal retail shops in a communally sensitive area in Jahangirpuri, in New Delhi, India, April 20, 2022.
REUTERS/ Anushree Fadnavis
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If Delhi’s civic authorities genuinely decide to pull down illegal structures, as they did earlier this week, a vast majority of the city’s residents could turn homeless overnight.

After all, this problem has been debated by urban planners, civic bodies, and even the supreme court of India for decades.

While many of them lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation, others have turned into elite settlements like Sainik Farm and Freedom Fighter Colony. Unlike Jahangirpuri, attempts to raze illegal construction in, say, Sainik Farms, have often met stiff resistance from the rich and their embedded institutional interests.

That is why a Bharatiya Janata Party-run civic body’s demolition drive, apparently in the face of a supreme court order against the move, is now widely being viewed as aimed at Muslims. This is despite authorities denying it had anything to do with the religious violence reported in the area on April 16.

And that is what made April 20 demolition drive in the city’s conflict-hit Jahangirpuri locality unparalleled.

A widespread problem in Delhi

Over the decades, various master plans and blueprints have tried to address the problem of Delhi’s unauthorised colonies, encroachments, and slum dwellings.

Only about 24% of the city lived in planned colonies—the rest in unauthorised constructions and slums, according to state government data from 2008-2009. As of 2019, there were over 1,700 such illegal colonies spread across Delhi, according to a ministry of housing and urban affairs estimate.

A new master plan announced in 2021 lays out a blueprint for development till 2041. It, too, addressed the issue of the 1,700-odd unauthorised colonies, even considering ownership rights for residents.

Urban planning experts, however, worry that this would instead lead to gentrification of the city.

For instance, Delhi’s Kathputli Colony, a slum cluster, was demolished in 2016, to pave the way for better homes. Nearly six years after being razed, the older residents still await their promised new homes, while they live in a transit camp. Such action only pushes residents of such shantytowns further toward the city’s margins.

Kathputli Colony’s residents were at least given due notice, a requirement under law, before the demolition. The residents and traders of Jahangirpuri say they were not extended even that courtesy.

Jahangirpuri and the lack of due process

A 2017 supreme court judgment said any eviction can only follow extensive surveys and identification of rehabilitation options for residents, according to Land Conflict Watch, a network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change, and natural resource governance in India.

This was based on UN guidelines for development-based evictions.

In 2017, a Delhi court asked a municipal body to rebuild the homes it had demolished in Sainik Farms, despite the fact that the colony is unauthorised. Lawyers now point to the bias against Jahangirpuri’s poor in following such due processes.

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