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‘Can’t throw people off’: Supreme Court on Sarojini Nagar slum eviction

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The Supreme Court on Monday put on hold the ongoing eviction of nearly 200 families residing in the slums of Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar area and asked the Central government to act “humanely”, as is expected of a “model government”, by not taking any coercive action against the occupants till their plea for rehabilitation is decided next week.

Four occupants of the slum cluster in question had approached the top court to appeal against the Delhi high court order of April 19, rejecting their plea for rehabilitation. Although Delhi has a Slum Rehabilitation Policy, 2015, which provides for rehabilitation of dwellers of all slums that came into existence prior to January 1, 2006, the benefit was denied to the Sarojini Nagar slum dwellers as their cluster was not a notified slum in the list maintained by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB).

The petitioners claimed that the slum was established in the 1980s and many of them have been residing there with families for decades, earning a livelihood by doing menial jobs of dhobis, daily wage labourers, ragpickers, maids, and street vendors. Three of the petitioners are minor, school-going children while the fourth is an elderly resident of the slum. The demolition was to take place from Tuesday.

The bench of justices KM Joseph and Hrishikesh Roy took a compassionate view of the matter and said, “These people have come from all over the country and are residing there as they are poor and have no other choice. When you deal with them, you deal humanely.”

Additional solicitor general (ASG) KM Nataraj, appearing for the Centre, told the bench that jhuggi jhopri dwellers cannot claim a right to be rehabilitated after having usurped government land. “This land is Central government property and it is not open for anyone occupying this land to claim a right to be rehabilitated…otherwise, anybody who usurps government property will tomorrow claim similar right,” Nataraj said.

The bench replied, “As a model government, you cannot say that we will not follow a policy and throw these people off. You are dealing with families. Do not precipitate any action till we hear you.”

Posting the matter to Monday, the bench recorded the submission of the ASG and said, “We record the submission of ASG KM Nataraj that no coercive steps shall be taken till the next date of hearing.”

The Centre had sought the eviction of the slum dwellers as part of a memorandum of understanding signed in December 2016 with the NBCC India for redevelopment of Nauroji Nagar, Netaji Nagar and Sarojini Nagar government quarters. The petitioners were informed about the eviction on April 4 and were granted a week to clear the area.

Senior advocate Vikas Singh, along with advocate Aman Panwar, told the court that the forced eviction of nearly 1,000 slum residents will “permanently disrupt” and destroy the lives of about 200 families, including children, the elderly and women (including pregnant women), who will be thrown on the streets, without any alternative accommodation. “Two children in these slums have to appear for Board examinations beginning tomorrow,” Singh said.

Singh pointed out that as per the 2015 policy, and two past decisions of the Delhi high court In Sudama Singh (2013) and Ajay Maken case (2019), every slum dweller has a right to be rehabilitated, and these orders are binding on all authorities, including the Central government.

DUSIB was represented in the top court by advocate Jyoti Mendiratta, who said the agency maintains a list of slum clusters. However, in 2017, DUSIB decided to extend the benefit of rehabilitation even to scattered slums. “The benefit of this decision would extend to the petitioners as well. So they will enjoy protection,” Mendiratta said.

The bench observed, “The rights claimed here are not based on statute alone but fundamental rights. On one hand is the issue of housing and on the other hand, taking timely action (against encroachment) is also important.”

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