They only come for the poor: Tughlakabad residents who received demolition notices

Tughlakabad residents held a protest in Jantar Mantar against eviction order on January 15 | Picture by authors

The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) posted notices in over 1000 homes in Tughlakabad area of New Delhi earlier this month, causing consternation among residents. 

Arbab Ali & Ubair al-Hameed |

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NEW DELHI — Laxmi Devi, 44, left her home early on January 11 to work as a domestic helper in the neighbourhood of Govindpuri in south Delhi. She noticed a letter had been taped to the wall right outside her house. She requested her 16-year-old son Abhay to read the writing. It was an eviction notice, much to Laxmi’s horror.

In the Bangali Colony in the adjacent Tughlakabad neighbourhood of Delhi, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) posted notices similar to the one on Laxmi’s wall in over 1000 additional homes.

The Bangali colony, which is close to the famous Tughlaqabad Fort, which was constructed in the 14th century and is largely in ruins, accommodates people who have primarily come from West Bengal and Bihar. Hindus and Muslims live side by side in the neighbourhood, which is primarily populated by those from economically and socially marginalized communities. Residents claim that up to 20,000 people will be impacted by the demolition drive.

In March 2001, an applicant by the name of S.N. Bharadwaj filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) alleging that the ASI had neglected to “protect, maintain, and preserve the historic Tughlakabad Fort.” He claimed that numerous unauthorised residents have since entered the fort grounds and built their homes with the intention of grabbing government land for residential use. 

In response to the petition, the Delhi High Court asked ASI to look into the grievances in proper perspective and take necessary action. The court refused to legitimize the petitioner’s demand. However, the petitioner, dissatisfied with the manner of disposition, petitioned the Supreme Court in 2002. And the Apex court ordered the encroachment to be removed. 

Authorities & land mafia nexus not held accountable
Pooja Devi, 39, another resident of the area, stated that they have been given 15 days to vacate. She claimed that the police arrived in force on January 11 and threatened them that if they did not vacate on time, they would have to pay for the rubble removal as well.

Devi has four children, three daughters and one son, all aged between 12 and 2 years. “Where am I going to take them in this cold?” she asked.

Devi and about 100 other women protested the demolition orders a few days ago. “The police harassed and detained us,” she said. 

Ranjeev, 41, a guard at a nearby ATM, was also served with an eviction notice. In 2003, he relocated to this area of Delhi. “My two children are about to take their annual exams. “How can they expect them to study when their home is being demolished?” he wondered.

Ranjeev said that given the Supreme Court in its order held local authorities as responsible parties in the matter which colluded to allow construction, why should they be allowed to go scot-free even after being held responsible? 

He kept emphasizing that the local authorities remain in cohort with the illegal land mafia in the area and asked why shouldn’t they be held accountable. 

He told us that he purchased the land from local builders in 2003. He claimed that when he began construction on his house, the police took money from him to allow it to be built. 

“Now the same police officers came and posted an eviction notice on my front door,” he explained. Ranjeev stated that he only has a General Power of Attorney (GPA) over the property.

“If the authorities knew settling on this land is illegal, why did they allow us to settle in the first place? Shouldn’t the officials be held accountable?” Ranjeev queried.

Just like Ranjeev, Asif Khan, 47, also brought a plot, measuring 70 yards, on General Power of Attorney (GPA) from a property dealer. Khan, a native of Bengal, said to us that he moved his family here ten years ago when property values in the colony were not as high. Khan claimed that he borrowed money at the time and is still paying it back.

Officials didn’t touch BJP leader’s property in demolition zone
Many residents claimed that one of Ramesh Biduri’s properties, a BJP leader and Member of Parliament from South Delhi, is also in the demolition zone, but that no notice was served on it.

“His property is only 100 meters from the fort,” a resident who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from Mr Biduri said. “Ours is about 700 metres away. Why didn’t they serve him with a notice?” wondered the anonymous resident.

“They only come for the poor,” he added, sobbing.

When we visited the area on January 18, members of the local builder lobby and politicians harassed residents and asked them not to speak to the press about the issue.

Legal twists & turns
In November 2011, the apex court turned down the stay on the matter by the Delhi High Court saying that “there is no stay order in the matter and the concerned authorities are directed to take appropriate steps in accordance with law”. 

The court also issued an order directing the ASI to file an affidavit stating how many people lived in the protected monument of Tughlaqabad Fort based on an aerial survey conducted in 1993.

“The Fort has its national importance. It has been declared a protected monument. Therefore, it is the legal as well as the ethical obligation of the concerned authorities to protect this heritage site and to properly maintain it. Notwithstanding, over a period of time, the place is encroached upon and rampant illegal construction carried out by many people,” the Supreme Court observed in an order in 2016.

In 2017, a committee was formed to oversee the surveying of the structure to determine which of them existed in 1993. 

The Delhi High Court was given authority in the 2016 order to issue appropriate orders and to ensure that the Supreme Court’s orders were followed. 

The Registry is directed to forward the case records to the High Court. The Delhi High Court granted ASI six weeks as a “last indulgence” in November 2022 to remove encroachments in and around the Tughlaqabad Fort.

Why issue Aadhar, Voter & Ration card on encroached land
A Bench of Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma and Justice Subramonium Prasad made it clear that non-compliance with its order will lead to strict action by the court and that it will call for the appearance of members of a committee which was formed in 2017 to oversee the task of surveying the structure to determine which of them existed in 1993.

The Bench further instructed the committee members to submit status reports and requested the power utility BSES to cooperate because the site’s energy supply needed to be cut off before encroachments could be removed.

Khan showed his BSES power meter, along with his voter, ration, and Aadhar cards.

“Why does the government give us BSES meters on encroached land, ration cards, and voter cards?” Khan rhetorically questioned us.

Khan claimed that since all of his relatives reside in the Bengali Colony, none of them will have anywhere to go in the case of demolition.

Active collusion of local Authorities: Court
According to the writ petition, the Delhi Government gave the Fort and the 2661 bighas of land inside the fortification wall to the ASI with the intention of protecting, preserving, and developing the entire opening area next to the monument inside the fort wall. 

The petition further stated that the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) received 4435 bighas for upkeep. The apex court had observed in 2016 that “the Government land was allowed to be encroached by all the respondents and construction work was carried out with the active collusion of the Government officials as per reports in the Press.”

In May 2022, the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled South Delhi Municipal Corporation carried out a demolition drive in the city’s Tughlakabad neighbourhood. The drive came nearly two weeks after the North Delhi Municipal Corporation bulldozed shops and homes, mostly owned by Muslims, in the city’s Jahangirpuri neighbourhood, despite a Supreme Court stay order.

According to Shweta Raj of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), there is a pattern of demolition in which only the poor and people from marginalised communities are targeted. On October 21, last year, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) demolished the homes of 25 Muslims in Delhi’s Chattarpur constituency without prior notice.

Arbab Ali and Ubair al-Hameed are fellows at the SEED-TCN mentorship program.