Evicting The Poor: Should They Be Thrown Into The Sea?

Evicting The Poor: Should They Be Thrown Into The Sea?
I have read the features Karachi's week of eviction: the impact by Abdullah Momand, and SC verdict okaying demolitions shatters hopes of Orangi, Gujjar nullah affectees by Rahmat Tunio, published on this platform.

I have also read the article Evicting without rehabilitating violates rights of slum dwellers by Colin Gonsalves published in the Indian Express.

These remind me of a case which came before a bench of the Indian Supreme Court, of which I was the junior member. The case related to eviction drives against 'jhuggi jhopdi' dwellers in slums of Mumbai.

 In Mumbai there are numerous  jhuggi jhopdi ( slum ) colonies, in which hundreds of thousands of poor people have been dwelling for decades, some even for generations. These dwellers had come from states like Bihar, UP, Odisha, etc looking for work as there were very little employment avenues in their own states. They worked as manual labourers in factories, construction projects, etc, and lived in jhuggi jhopdis with their families in horrible conditions. It is true they had occupied land illegally, but they had no other recourse as they were too poor to buy or rent land on their meagre subsistence earnings. They were living in these slums with their families, somewhat like the characters in Maxim Gorky's play 'Lower Depths', or in his short story 'Twenty six men and a girl', or like the immigrants in Chicago in Upton Sinclair's novel 'The Jungle' or the 'Okies' living in California in John Steinbeck's novel 'Grapes of Wrath'.

During the hearing of the case, the senior judge with whom I was sitting shouted "They (the slum dwellers) should get out of the land.They have illegally occupied it, and have no right to stay there ".

"But where should they go, brother?," I observed.

"Wherever they came from. They should just get out," he responded.

"Brother, they have no means of subsistence in the places they came from," I said. "Should they and their families be thrown into the sea? They are human beings, not garbage, and therefore have a right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution."

On my persistence the eviction was stayed until a proper rehabilitation scheme was framed and alternative accommodation provided for.

I was therefore sad that the Pakistan Supreme Court and the Haryana Government in India did not stay the eviction until alternative accommodation had actually been arranged for prior to the eviction. The Pakistan Supreme Court only made a general observation that rehabilitation should be done, but it has not stayed the eviction until alternative accommodation has actually been provided.

In Ajay Maken vs Union of India, the Delhi High Court went into great detail into the legal principles involved in the issue, and after discussing the judgments of the Indian Supreme Court in Olga Tellis' case, Ahmedabad Corporation case, Shantistar Builders case, Sudama Singh's case etc laid down the following principles:

1. It is true that no one has the right to illegally occupy public land. At the same time, one has a right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, and there can be no life without livelihood. If one is suddenly evicted from his place of residence without providing alternative accommodation it will amount to depriving him of his livelihood, and therefore of his life, for one can surely not work without a residence.

2. The alternative accommodation should be provided before eviction, not afterwards.

3. The alternative accommodation should be near his place of work, not far off, and the rent should be minimal, otherwise poor people cannot afford it.

I appeal to the Pakistan Supreme Court and Haryana government to reconsider their decisions in the light of the above. These poor people are human beings, not garbage to be dumped off at will.

Markandey Katju is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India. He was also the Chairman of the Press Council of India.