Panel Hears Affected Communities, Environmentalists, Activists & Media Testimonies:
Detailed Findings to be published soon
20th July, 2021: This public hearing was organised to hear the affected citizens of Khorigaon and understand the status of implementation of the Supreme Court’s order of 7 June 2021. The Jury members included Environmentalist Ashish Kothari, Environmentalist Claude Alvares, Social Activist Ms. Anjali Bhardwaj, Adv. Tripti Poddar, Housing Right Activist, Prof. Amita Bhide from TISS, Mumbai and Prof. Bittu K. R. from Ashoka University, Sonipat.
The Public Hearing was organised by Group of Concerned Citizens for Khori Gaon & National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM)
Before the testimonies commenced, Vimal Bhai, from NAPM, provided a brief introduction about the aim of the public hearing and later introduced the speakers, including all the Khori Gaon residents who gave their testimonies to the members of the panel:
Rekha, a social worker, living in Khori Gaon along with Sitara Begum, Shabra, Nirmala Devi, Nazima, Anu Verma, Sameena, Razia, Manorma Gupta and Shiraz Mithun whose houses have been demolished or were going to be destroyed in Khori Gaon, told the panel that the entire area had been converted into a prison through heavy police deployment for the purpose of demolition. Their electricity and water supply has been cut off, mobile phone towers broken, and internet access curbed. They stressed that people had bought this land by selling their village land or taking loans; hence they were not encroachers.
Those speaking up were being beaten up, arrested and jailed by the police. While the government made temporary arrangements for stay and food after a day for the residents at Radha Swamy Satsang, first, the location is very far from the demolition site, and second, there is not enough space. The authorities were not even allowing people to bring back food for their families. Under the EWS rehabilitation plan announced by the Haryana government, Khori Gaon residents are being asked to pay an impossible rent deposit of Rs 17,000 for their rehabilitation in Dabua. If the government destroyed our houses, which we paid for, why should we pay for the rehabilitation flats? Are we the ones who should be punished? Not those who settled us here? Not the governments who knew what was going on here? What happened to the slogans Jahan Jhuggi Wahi Makan, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and instructions to maintain social distancing? Do people know that we are here? Do they consider us citizens of India? Did the Supreme Court really give such orders to treat us so inhumanly, without food, water and houses?
Ishita Chatterjee, a PhD researcher from the University of Melbourne, said there is no proper demarcation between Delhi and Haryana border and the land mafia and government officials have exploited this confusion. Even after the court cases started in 2012, people continued to be provided with fake promises by government officials and politicians that they will not be evicted. Most of the residents from the newer part of Khori Gaon have documents from Delhi and get their basic facilities from Delhi. Hence, the majority of them will be ineligible for the rehabilitation scheme announced by the government. She further added that along with Khori Gaon, many high-end developments are standing on forest land as per the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA). However, they have not been called forest encroachers. She also raised the point that this area had stopped being a forest when mining was allowed here from the 1950s. The idea of the forest only exists in the government’s imagination and on paper, but on the ground, there is no forest.
Dr Manju Menon, working at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), said that Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA) is a colonial law that was used to regulate land use in certain areas to protect soil and water. In 2004, the Supreme Court held that the PLPA land would be considered “deemed forest” and construction activities will be illegal unless approved. Based on this order, the Forest Department of Haryana issued a notice for eviction in 2005. This was the beginning of calling the people of Khori Gaon “forest encroachers”. There are many illegal elite constructions on PLPA lands in Haryana, and the forest department has a long list of them that was prepared in 2020. However, while these elite violations have not been touched, the Haryana government is displacing the people of Khori Gaon to reclaim a relatively small area of forest land at a very high human cost.
Neelesh Kumar from Basti Suraksha Manch informed the panel that Khori Gaon had become a jail for the residents after the order of the Supreme Court of 7 June 2021. There were police all around, and they were constantly threatening the residents. People’s water, electricity and other facilities were stopped. The police held marches through the streets of Khori Gaon regularly. Whoever raised their voice or whenever groups tried to gather were put in jail. Journalists were threatened many times. Whenever people tried to organise a protest, processions and demonstrations, they were prevented from gathering or even exiting the basti. When they resorted to lathi-charge many of the residents and activists were injured. Due to helplessness, many people committed suicide. Demolition by bulldozers and JCB machines began on 14 July. In the rain and scorching sun, people’s houses, temples, mosques, churches were demolished based on a resettlement policy on paper without conducting any ground survey.
Sumedha Pal from NewsClick informed that even journalists were threatened and faced police brutality. They were asked to give written consent that they are responsible if the police do anything with them before proceeding with reporting. Even senior journalists were treated in the same manner. She ended by stressing that the state of freedom of the press in India has become deplorable and dangerous.
The presentations by the people brought forth the reality of exploitation by the land mafia and government agencies. The Apex Court also ignored the COVID situation and ensured no effective and timely alternative rehabiliation. The right to shelter, water, food are covered under basic Human Rights, and all citizens have the right to demand the state for these rights. Temporary shelter should have been immediately given to the displaced people along with written assurance for proper rehabilitation.
After listening, the judges (panel) shared their observations.
Social Activist Anjali Bhardwaj: Even if the court has ordered eviction, this type of violence is unacceptable in any civilised society, that too during COVID and without rehabilitation, camp, livelihood, and media is barred from covering it. Both Delhi and Haryana governments are responsible, and we have to make them accountable.
Environmentalist Claude Alvares: How can the Supreme Court support all this? The SC order should not be misused in this way. This type of violence took place during the emergency period in 1975-76. We have gone backwards as a nation on the human rights front.
Prof. Amita Bhide: Violence, brutality and land politics should be resisted and protested against. The first goal of the SDGs is to leave no one behind, but the government is hell-bent on pushing poor people into a deep pit. Residents are not begging by demanding housing; they have laboured, struggled to build their houses that were then demolished. Housing is their right. We must demand compensation and rehabilitation, keeping in mind the four issues of land, violence, development and housing.
Prof. Bittu K. R: I salute Khori Gaon resident’s strength. What we have been witnessing is the repetition of the same pattern of settlement, displacement and faulty and inadequate rehabilitation. It is the government’s responsibility to provide houses for people. But they have forgotten this, and now people have to fight for their basic rights.
Adv. Tripti Poddar: My head hangs in shame hearing about what has been going on in a democratic country. There is a lot of confusion regarding accountability and the Haryana and Delhi governments’ policies. The Supreme Court must be informed about how their orders are being implemented on the ground with brutality and violence. People who sold these plots, including government officials who accepted bribes, need to be made accountable.
Environmentalist Ashish Kothari: This case follows a trend across India of people being rendered ‘illegal occupants’ of land by either post-facto changes in land-use designations. The inequality of treatment is stark between the Khori gaon residents and the other high-end occupations. If reclaiming and regreening the Aravalli is indeed the objective, why remove only Khori Gaon?
The purpose of the public hearing was to hear about the implementation of the Supreme Court’s order and raise questions regarding the government’s responsibilities while complying with the order. It was also to discuss the rehabilitation scheme announced by the government and understand how that is being carried out in reality.
The Panel shall publish its detailed findings soon so that everyone may understand the issue in detailed as well as the atrocities being committed against the working people in the name of the “rule of law.” We will also submit the panel’s recommendations to the concerned authorities.