9 months on, families evicted during building of RSS stalwart’s statue in Varanasi still homeless

By Rohit Ghosh, TwoCircles.net

Varanasi: Every season is harsh in Uttar Pradesh. Temperature touches the 45 degree Celsius mark in summers, while floods ravage the plains of the state during monsoon. During the peak of winter, Mercury drops to two degree Celsius in some places.

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However, for the sixty odd families in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, have already spent the summer and the rainy season under the open sky. The families fear they will have to spend the winter without roofs over their head. And winter has almost arrived.

The Varanasi district administration demolished the homes of these families in February this year. Authorities felt they stood out like a sore thumb close to a statue of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyay.

It was a double whammy for the affected people. First, they lost their homes. And then their livelihood due to COVID-19 pandemic.

The edge of Varanasi along the Ganga is curved and lined with ghats that are over 80 in number. The first ghat on the west is the Assi and the one on the east is the Raj Ghat. Just above the Raj Ghat is the Malviya Bridge that links Varanasi to the east of India.

Across the Ganga, under the shadow of the bridge in Sujabad neighbourhood of Varanasi are the sixty shanties of people belonging to the Dharkar community.

Making bamboo products like ladders, fans and baskets has been the traditional occupation of these families. Many cremations take place in Varanasi hence the families also sell biers.

It was in February this year that Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s statue over 60 feet high was erected close to Sujabad.

The statue was unveiled for the public by Prime Minister Modi.

“People were evicted and their homes demolished two days before the prime minister’s visit,” said Saurabh Singh, a social activist of Varanasi. “It happened in February and since then the people have been living in the open.”

Government officials claimed that the people were illegally settled over the government land.

Saurabh runs a non-profit Innervoice Foundation and told TwoCircles.net that it was by chance that he came to know about the plight of the people. He is trying hard to ensure that homeless people get accommodation.

Saurabh had started distributing food packets to the poor and homeless as a nation-wide lockdown was imposed in April.

People who were in urgent need of food were constantly calling him on his mobile phone. “While distributing food packets in Sujabad, I realized that shanties of the poor had been demolished,” said Saurabh. “Some 60 shanties were demolished in the name of beautification of the place around the statue and the total number of affected people is about 250,” he says.

“The people have spent summer and monsoon without any shelter and winter is approaching,” he says.

Kajhri, one of the women whose hut was demolished, said, “Politicians during elections came to us with folded hands for our votes and promised a land, house and other government facilities. Now that they have been elected, they are not ready to listen to our pleas.”

She said, “As Modi came to Varanasi, we were evicted from our homes and they were demolished.”

Kajhri is worried about the health of the children and the elderly. “Our babies are unsafe. They are exposed to the weather and everybody knows that the coronavirus is spreading,” Kajhri said.

Ramdas is 60 years old and his home was also razed to the ground in the demolition drive.

“We have been living in Sujabad for the past sixty years. Many families have lived here for three generations and yet our houses were demolished. We have every document like the ration card, Aadhar card, voter ID card and PAN card. But still, we were evicted and our homes were demolished,” he said.

Ramesh Kumar, 60, is wheelchair-bound. He said, “The statue has been erected, it has been unveiled. Our only request is that we should be allowed to rebuild our shanties in the place where they once stood.”

Jira, another woman who is now homeless said, “Policemen have been deployed at the spot where once our home stood. We are shooed away by them whenever we try to rebuild our homes in the old place. The police call us terrorists.”

She questions, “How can we be terrorists when we have documents like voter ID cards, bank passbooks etc?”

The homeless people at present hang around in Sujabad for the most part of the day. Food is cooked over temporary ovens in any space available. The people have not given up their occupation. They still craft things from bamboo. As night falls, they shift to any shelter they can find.

Weddings are not taking place as the COVID-19 is yet to be controlled but Jira hurriedly arranged the wedding of her 20-year-old daughter.

“I felt my daughter was not safe. Hence, I fixed her marriage and arranged the wedding as soon as possible even though we are without a home,” she said.

The wedding took place on September 25, the birth anniversary of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. Birth anniversary ceremonies were going on under the statue as just 100 metres away the rushed wedding took place.

It was Modi’s biggest promise to make India open defecation free. The people had constructed some toilets in the settlement. “The toilets have been demolished along with the homes. So it’s a no-brainer where the people are defecating,” said Saurabh.

The settlers had also pooled in money to arrange for a source of drinking water. But now, they claim that the policemen don’t allow them to fetch water from the source.

Saurabh Singh said other people living in and around Sujabad had sympathy for those whose homes have been demolished.

He said, “I visited the place for distributing food packets. But other people living in Sujabad said I must first help those who were homeless.”

Other non-profits have also joined Saurabh in an attempt to see that the affected people get a shelter.

Athira Murali, a member of Distress Management Collective, a non-profit headquartered in New Delhi, is helping Saurabh.

Talking to TwoCircles.net, she said, “What is heart-rending is the condition of the infants. They are vulnerable to weather and infections.”

Athira further said, “Also, there are disabled elders on wheelchairs. It is inhumane how they have to manage sanitation on the streets. Their health is getting affected by the change in season.”

The non-profits have written letters to the offices of the Prime Minister, Chief Minister and District Magistrate but haven’t got any positive response.

Athira said, “There are government schemes under which the families can be provided accommodation. Humanitarian action is needed from the government.”

Varanasi district magistrate Kaushal Raj Sharma did not respond to the calls and messages by TwoCircles.net.

Saurabh said he has decided to provide some financial help to the people.

“Diwali is approaching. People gift sweets and fruits in baskets made of bamboo strips. I have asked my friends to buy baskets from the displaced people,” said Saurabh. “And with some of the money, I will buy books and gift them to the children. They may not read the books, they may tear them but at least I will be introducing them to books. They don’t go to school at present.”

Rohit Ghosh is an independent journalist based in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh.