Under Cover Of Covid, India’s Poor Lose Their Homes

Image Courtesy: The Telegraph

New Delhi/Mumbai: Early on 9 May 2020, as the world stayed home to stay safe from the Covid-19 pandemic, the residents of Ratahara neighbourhood in central India’s Rewa city woke up to a loudspeaker telling them to leave their homes.

They had one hour before their homes would be demolished, a man was saying on the loudspeaker.

The homes, stood on public land next to the Ratahara lake, and the government wanted the land for a “lake-beautification project”, which includes lakeside promenades and gardens.The 103 families in the low-income settlement rushed to pack up their belongings from their one-room homes of brick and tin sheet.

“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” said Bhola Bansal, a 22-year old construction worker who lost his home that morning. They were asked to move to the parking lot of an affordable housing project in Rewa—a city of 237,000—where they now live in cramped spaces with no walls and no physical distancing. “If one of us gets Corona [Coronavirus], we are all dead.”

Being evicted during the pandemic is a “potential death sentence,” the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Leilani Farha said in a note to all member nations in April 2020. Housing is the “frontline defense” against Covid-19 and countries should halt all evictions until after the end of the pandemic, Farha said in the note.

Despite that observation, evictions have been reported across India during the pandemic. We have verified information about four from Telangana, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh where local and state governments have ousted at least 138 families. Hundreds more have been evicted, according to media reporting (here and here), which Article 14 couldn’t independently verify.

Because of the pandemic and the lockdown that India imposed, the evicted people, who are mostly poor Adivasis and Dalits, have had no recourse to legal support or protest and are left without shelter or resources. Activists alleged that the government is using the pandemic as a cover for the evictions because this is when they face the least resistance.

Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), an advocacy in New Delhi that campaigns against forced evictions, demanded in May an eviction-moratorium of at least six months “for any reasons including ostensibly public purpose projects”.

There have been at least 22 incidents of forced eviction in 12 states since 16 March 2020, affecting over 13,500 people, according to data compiled by HLRN on 17 June 2020. The data includes the cases from Rewa, Siddipet and Kalahandi described in detail in this report.

When the fundamental preventive measure for COVID-19 is to stay home, demolishing homes of the urban and rural poor and rendering them homeless is ‘inhumane” and a violation of international human rights law and WHO (World Health Organisation) guidelines, said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of HLRN."Such evictions are condemnable and indefensible," she said. "Those responsible for these acts must be held accountable."

Meanwhile, the Delhi government said it had banned all demolitions and evictions during the pandemic. On 29 March, the central government prohibited eviction of students and workers by landlords, but it did not ban demolitions and forced evictions during the pandemic.

Some state high courts have recognised the impact of the pandemic on evictions. The Allahabad High Court barred any evictions by the state and banks for loan defaults. The Madhya Pradesh High Court also banned bank-led evictions. The Bombay High Court barred all evictions and demolitions, and the Telangana High Court extended all stays and interim orders until the first week of June.

‘It Was Mayhem’

On 28 April, the urban development department of Madhya Pradesh, home to the city of Rewa, allowed public works outside of containment zones to restart. This would help finish projects and create jobs, said a government order.

Five days later, on 3 May, Rajendra Shukla, the state legislator who represents Rewa, reviewed the Ratahara lake beautification project, which had been finalized in 2019. But the homes of Bhola Bansal and 102 other families were in the way.

These families from neighbouring villages had no land, and so migrated over the years to the city to work at construction sites. They could not afford housing, so they built shanties on public land near the lake. Bansal grew up there.

For the government, they were unauthorized occupants of public land that the government needed for the lake-beautification project. In the 3 May meeting, Shukla ordered the Rewa Municipal Corporation to raze the settlement, according to a municipal corporation letter.

On 8 May, the state government’s urban infrastructure agency sent a letter asking the Corporation to demolish the houses. The same day, Rewa Municipal Commissioner Arpit Verma, a 32-year old IAS officer, called A P Shukla, an executive engineer, and told him that the houses would be demolished the next morning, according to official correspondence between the officers.

Verma told Shukla that the people living by the lakeside shanty town would have to move to the parking lot of a government building that was built under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, the central government’s affordable housing scheme, in Rewa. The municipality would serve them free meals and provide water, he said.

Verma issued an eviction notice that was to be read out to the people in the Ratahara settlement: “Vacate your shanties before 6 am on 9 May so that they can be removed and the lake beautification work can start.”

The municipal officer in charge of the demolition claimed he read out the notice over a loudspeaker system mounted on a government vehicle on 8 May. Bansal only remembers hearing the notice via loudspeaker on 9 May at 6:30 am, shortly before demolitions began.

“Everyone rushed to get their stuff out, there was hardly any time,” he said. “It was mayhem.”

After seeing news of the eviction, Shivanand Dwivedi, a Rewa-based social worker, visited the parking lot to check the situation there. “They had just been dumped there like kabaad (scrap),” he said. They now faced the summer heat and the pandemic with no walls, no electricity, little water and no physical distancing.

Evictions For Dams In Telangana

On 27 March, three days into the lockdown, the High Court in Telangana in southern India extended every stay and interim order it had passed before 20 March and until 7 June. Yet, state officials evicted people and demolished their homes to inaugurate a major irrigation project.

At around 9 pm on 19 April, Alkaturki Laxman, resident of Kochaguttapally in Telangana’s central district of Siddipet, got a call from local Revenue Divisional Officer K. Anantha Reddy, who also heads land acquisitions in Siddipet.

Reddy told Laxman that he should vacate his home, as it was about to be flooded.

Kochaguttapally is in what is called the “submergence area” of the new Ananthagiri reservoir, one of 20 in Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekhara Rao’s ambitious Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project. The 1,800-km project aims to provide Godavari river water to the rest of the state.

Laxman argued that he had not received any compensation, so he would stay. Besides, on 11 March and again on 20 April, the high court had granted him and others in the hamlet protection from eviction until 8 April, when he and others challenged the acquisition of their village. The hamlet mostly had Dalit families and a few Reddy families.

An hour later, around 500 police came to the village. None were wearing masks, despite a surge in Covid-19 cases, locals said. The police blocked mobile networks and confiscated cell phones to prevent people from recording the demolition.

District officials demolished seven houses. They had not issued any written notices to any of the affected families before that day.

“We were crying and they didn’t listen to us,” said Laxman. He had built his house three years ago. He begged officials to let him at least remove his door, which was worth Rs 100,000. They did not listen.

“They turned our lives upside down, saying that the water was going to flood the village that night,” said Laxman. “But the water came only three days later.”

Despite being entitled to two houses as compensation, Laxman and his family got only one, around 5 km from Siddipet town. On 10 June, it rained. The house is now leaking.

“Because of the lockdown, we don’t have work, we don’t have food,” Laxman said. “Some people lost gold in their houses, others lost cash. Some people’s houses were looted in front of their eyes [during the eviction].” K. Anantha Reddy did not respond to calls for comment.

A similar scene played out 20 km away 10 days later with 40 families in Mamdiyal village, due to be submerged by the Kondapochamma reservoir of the Kaleshwaram project. After a series of online hearings through April, the High Court had asked them to vacate their houses by the evening of 1 May. The police demolished the 40 houses on the night of 30 April.

“We went outside our houses and there were around 200-300 police in front of each of our houses,” said Tammalla Srinivas, a resident of the village and one of the petitioners in a separate case challenging acquisition of their homes for the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project. None of the police officials wore masks. As they did at Kochaguttapally, the police cut electricity, blocked mobile networks and confiscated peoples phones to prevent them from recording the demolition.

“They made us sit packed together in vehicles to the relief site,” said Srinivas. “This was during the lockdown, when only two people could be in any vehicle.”

“The Mamidiyal residents were concerned that the houses meant for their rehabilitation were also in the “full tank level” or submergence area of the Rangasagar dam, which is another part of the Kaleshwaram project. So, on court directions, they met the Siddipet district collector and then the Revenue Divisional Officer, D. Vijayendra Reddy, to talk about those concerns on 28 April, two days before their houses were demolished.

The petitioners said that Vijayendra Reddy, threatened them that they should prepare to leave by 10 am on 29 April or “face the consequences”.

When the petitioners told him that they had court protection until 1 May, Reddy said “he would inform the police that the petitioners had come as a group, and were not following social distancing”, according to a filing in the High Court. On 1 May, the petitioners’ lawyer asked the High Court to record the demolition that violated court orders. The court ordered the district collector to move the families to better accommodation failing which “a serious view shall be taken by this Court”.

Around 100 families in Mamidiyal had accepted the compensation package of Rs 12 lakh per acre in 2017 when the acquisition was “notified”, or officially announced, and had been given two-bedroom houses 20 km from Mamidiyal in Gajwel, which is also a part of Chief Minister Rao’s constituency.

About 40 families who challenged the eviction in court stayed on in the village and were evicted that night. They have now been housed in tin sheds in Gajwel, with limited access to water and rations. Despite court orders, they have not been shifted to the flats. D. Vijayender Reddy did not respond to calls for comment.

Evictions From Forests

In eastern India’s Odisha state, the forest department demolished the homes of 32 Adivasi families in Sagada village on 24 April and justified the eviction on social media, saying the people were encroaching in a reserved forest in Kandhamal district.

The families had migrated there six months earlier because their homes in a remote forest village in the district were destroyed in the rains, said Prafulla Samantara, a forest activist from the state who wrote to the state chief secretary complaining against the eviction.

Those families had no other choice than settling in Sagada, as their villages were too far to even obtain Covid-19-related relief supplies from the village governing body or panchayat, Samantara said.

“If it was illegal, why didn’t they [forest department] do anything for six months?” asked Samantara. “They knew that during the coronavirus lockdown nobody would be able to protest or go to court.”

Life In The Parking Lot

In Rewa, Dwivedi the social worker requested government records regarding the evictions using an “urgency” clause of the Right to Information Act, which says the information must be provided within 48 hours if it affects life and liberty.

But the City municipal corporation provided the information only after Dwivedi filed an appeal with the State Information Commission over an e-mail, three days after his first appeal. The Corporation replied to the Commission, saying it could not provide the information because of the "excess work (karya ki adhyikta)" from enforcing Covid-19 measures.

“If they could arrange bulldozers and carry out eviction during the pandemic, then why couldn’t find a few records and reply to the RTI?” Dwivedi said.

The evicted people continue to be in the parking lot.

“Life is very difficult here,” Bansal said. There are no rooms. Just a roof. In a recent thunderstorm, everything got flooded, he said. “All our stuff is lying in the open, and there have been thefts already.”

Although, the Rewa administration government said that it was “in the process of allotting houses” to the families, they would have to pay Rs 20,000 upfront and then take a loan for Rs 180,000 under the central affordable housing scheme to get their new homes.

Bansal said he had scraped together the upfront payment and was waiting for the loan to be processed. His family had been evicted a number of times before from different areas near the lake. “But I have never thought they would do it now during corona,” he said.

Verma, the municipal commissioner, left the corporation on 11 April 11 and has been appointed the collector of Shahdol district, where he is yet to take charge. He could not be reached for comment. Rewa MLA Rajendra Shukla did not respond to Article 14’s calls and messages over Twitter, SMS and email.

Dwivedi accused Shukla of “putting pressure” on the workers and on the municipal corporation to carry out the evictions during the pandemic to minimise protests.

“Everyone is sitting at home, scared of the disease. Who will come out to protest?” said Dwivedi. “Even if they do, they will be arrested for disobeying lockdown orders.”

(Nihar Gokhale and Mridula Chari are independent journalists and policy researchers with Land Conflict Watch.)