Guest Post (and photographs) by THOMAS CROWLEY
The media is all praise for the central government’s rescue efforts in Kashmir, despite the evident hollowness of the government’s claims to heroism. But the press has little to say about the brutal destruction authored by the government in its capital city. Thursday, September 11, saw another demolition drive in a city that has seen far too many of them, from the Emergency to the Commonwealth Games. The demolition took place in the South Delhi neighborhood of Aya Nagar, where residents say about 250 houses were destroyed.
The comparison between Kashmir and Delhi is one the residents themselves repeatedly invoked. Why, several asked, was everyone praising the government for saving people whose houses were destroyed in floods, when, at the same time, the same government was bulldozing the homes that hundreds of people had painstakingly built over the course of many years? Among the residents, another common refrain was the total absence of media coverage of the demolitions. Despite many attempts to contact various media outlets, the only publicity that has appeared so far, say residents, is a two-line article in a single newspaper, and even this article drastically underestimates the number of houses destroyed.
If media outlets had shown up, they would have heard chilling stories of the demolition. There was no notice given to the residents, no time to prepare for the onslaught. An elderly woman was hit by a crumbling wall; some said that she fell into a coma, while others said she has since passed away. A pregnant woman died in the wreckage. Another woman suffered a heart attack when she saw her home being destroyed. Many more sustained injuries as they were caught unawares by the demolition. Others were injured by the police as they tried to protest, including one woman who was struck by a lathi and fractured her arm.
In the previous days, rumors had swirled around the neighborhood, speculation about possible evictions, but they lacked any specificity. Some residents were told that there would be a meeting on the 10th to discuss the possibility of a demolition, but when they reached the meeting place, they found it abandoned. They thus dismissed the rumors. On the morning of the 11th, before the evictions, men came around to remove the electricity meters. It seems the electricity companies knew about the upcoming demolitions, but the residents themselves were never told.
When the police finally arrived, the residents asked them to see the court order or at least a notice for the demolition, but the police refused. Only after the demolition did some residents hear that a notice had been given many days back to the “dealer,” from whom the residents had bought their plots of land. The dealer claimed that he owned the land, that is was his ancestral property. Apparently, it was gram sabha land that was not his to sell. The dealer has absconded, clearly fearing the wrath of the residents.
This is not the first time the residents have faced government bulldozers. The same lanes were razed in 2010. But after that, the police did not return. They allowed the residents to rebuild their houses and rebuild their lives in the neighborhood. Almost all the residents had piped water and metered electricity. They were finally beginning to regain a sense of normality and security when the police descended once again.
Just months ago, in the run-up to the Delhi elections, politicians were coming to the neighborhood, promising to build a road and improve the water supply. Now, no politician is to be found in the area. “The area has developed over more than a decade under the watch of the administration, with water supply, electricity bills, voter IDs and Aadhar cards issued on these addresses. MLA candidates have regularly been coming to the area asking for the people’s votes. However, it is only now that it has struck them that the colony is illegal,” says Munni, a resident of the area for nearly a decade, now busy trying to gather her few belongings from the debris.
Many are still in shock, as they salvage what they can from the wreckage, while balancing responsibilities of family and work. But a sense of anger and defiance is also starting to pulse through the neighborhood. On Friday, hundreds gathered in a nearby park to express their anger and plan for the challenges ahead. With the threat of even more demolitions in the coming days, the residents are determined to hold on to their rights and their property.
At this early stage, much is still uncertain: who ordered the demolition, whether it will continue in adjoining lanes, how the government will respond to the rising voices of outrage coming from the neighborhood. These uncertainties only highlight the importance of standing in solidarity with the residents of Aya Nagar as they continue their fight against the destructive capacities of the state.
Thomas Crowley is a writer interested in issues of urban ecology. He lives in Delhi