No action on slums for four weeks, SC told

 The Centre told the Supreme Court on Monday that discussions were underway to implement the court’s August 31 order to remove 48,000 slums located alongside railway tracks in the Capital, and ruled out the immediate evictions of their residents, offering them a semblance of relief at a time when the city is battling the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.

The court recorded the Centre’s submission that no coercive action will be taken against the slum-dwellers until a decision is taken and posted the matter for hearing after four weeks.

“The ministry of railways, the ministry of housing and urban affairs, and the government of Delhi are going to take a decision on the issue raised in the instant petitions and till a decision is taken, there is no question of removing them,” solicitor general Tushar Mehta, appearing for the central government, said.

The apex court was hearing an application filed by Congress leader Ajay Maken, who was represented by senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, and a separate petition by slum dwellers challenging the demolition notices issued by Indian Railways.

The petitioners said the notices had been issued in total disregard for the policy of rehabilitating the slum-dwellers, adding that they had ought to force them out of their homes during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde said, “It is a fair suggestion made by solicitor general. We will record his statement and the matter can be heard after four weeks.”

Eleven slum dwellers represented by senior advocate Salman Khurshid were also allowed to join the proceedings on the next date of hearing. The biggest grievance of the slum dwellers was that an order removing slums was passed without them being heard. The August 31 order also restrained any courts from granting a stay on the eviction.

The court recorded Mehta’s statement, which said: “Till then (until a decision is taken on the issue) the Union of India will not take any coercive action against the slum dwellers.”

Singhvi understood the order to be as good as a “status quo on demolition”. But the bench clarified, “We have not given any status quo. The solicitor general has said that they will maintain status quo, which we recorded.”

But Monday’s order provided much-needed relief to nearly 240,000 affected slum dwellers.

“We were all tense after we heard about eviction notices being issued to several slums along rail tracks in neighbouring areas. We knew that we too would receive a notice very soon. Now that the government has said that our houses will not be demolished immediately, it has brought us big relief,” Ghanshyam Vishwakarma a 32-year-old resident of a slum along the railway tracks in Kirti Nagar, said.

Puran Mehto, a 45-year-old resident of a slum along the railway tracks in Mayapuri, has other concerns.

“We have learnt that the government and the Court are talking about rehabilitation. Now the problem is that if we are relocated to far-off locations, we shall lose our livelihood. And that would take a heavy toll on us under the present circumstances, especially in the light of the loss of work because of the pandemic,” he said.

Both Vishwakarma and Mahato were factory workers who lost their jobs in April during the lockdown.

Advocate Vrinda Grover, who appeared for four Nangloi slum dwellers, told HT: “The August 31 order of the top court never sought demolition of slums. The notice of demolition issued by the Indian Railway is totally illegal and contrary to two decisions passed by the Delhi high court which recognises right to shelter of slum dwellers and entitles them for in-situ rehabilitation under the Delhi Slum & Jhuggi Jhopri (JJ) Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy, 2015.”

Singhvi claimed that demolitions had taken place in some areas on Friday (September 11) and Monday (September 14), but Mehta denied this, stating: “My instruction is that under this order (of August 31), no demolition has taken place.”

Presenting a short note of his submissions, Singhvi pointed out that India is currently president of UN-Habitat, which issued guidelines on March 14, urging member-states and governments to stop all relocations and evictions during the pandemic.

Singhvi said, “India is globally the second worst affected country in the world due to the coronavirus pandemic. In the said circumstances, it would be highly risky to demolish the jhuggis (slums) of approximately 2.5 lakh persons without prior rehabilitation… Even a small percentage of the displaced population, if affected by Covid-19, the same will prove to be a recipe for disaster in the current pandemic.”

Most of the slum dwellers work in markets and industrial areas near their residence. In their application, the slum dwellers stated that if removed, earning a livelihood in these difficult and unprecedented times of the pandemic will be the biggest challenge.

The court passed its order of August 31 when considering the issue of garbage and solid waste piling up near the railway tracks in pending matters related to air pollution in Delhi.

The court asked the authorities to put their mind together on the issue. Pursuant to discussions, the Railways filed an affidavit which acted as an immediate trigger.

The Railways stated that the predominant presence of slums along the 140-kilometre route length of track in the national capital territory of Delhi “are not only adding to the present menace of accumulation of garbage, municipal solid waste, human waste along the railway line but are a safety threat to the day-to-day operation of the Railways.”

The transporter informed the court that despite a special task force having been constituted to remove encroachments, political interference was coming in the way of getting the slums removed.

On Monday, the ministry of railways said it will not dismantle any encroachments along the city’s railway tracks, without a “proper decision” taken in consultation with the urban development ministry and the Delhi state government.

Railway officials are holding regular meetings with stakeholders, including the Delhi government, Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board and the urban development ministry, a statement by northern railways said.

“Further, Railway will not dismantle any encroachment without proper decision…The same stand has been taken by ministry of railways in hearing of Ajay Maken’s petition in Hon’ble Supreme Court listed today,” the statement said.

Railways has removed 5-6% of garbage lying along train tracks. “The garbage cleaning will be completed within three months as given in the order by Hon’ble Supreme Court,” it added.

Indu Prakash, a member of Supreme Court-appointed committee on monitoring of homeless shelters in Delhi, said, “It is a good sign that the court has agreed to put the matter on hold for a month and the Centre and the Delhi government will sit together and discuss it. We are writing to the railways and the Delhi government to include the residents in this discussion too, as it is a matter of their lives. We will be submitting a memorandum in this regard to the two governments soon. These people should be actively involved in the decision-making process.”

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