COMMENTARY

Court's Supreme Contempt for Slum Dwellers

A Supreme Court Bench headed by Justice Ruma Pal, in response to a petition by the Nangla Machi slum dwellers against the Delhi High Court's order for mass demolitions of their homes without any relocation, declared, 'If you can't afford to stay in Delhi, go elsewhere!' Justice Pal is someone who is very touchy about the fact that people may have contempt for Court decrees (she is one of the Judges who sentenced Arundhati Roy to a night in jail for committing 'contempt of court' in speaking out against the Supreme Court's anti-poor bias in 2000). But she has no qualms about expressing 'Supreme' contempt for people - especially if they are poor workers living in 'illegal' slums! (For that matter, the Supreme Court is even free to commit blatant contempt of its own former judgement stipulating that oustees must be resettled 6 months before raising of the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam).

The language of Ruma Pal's judgement is saturated with this callous contempt for the poor. It characterises slum dwellers in almost pathological terms, as though they were a pestilence or a disease; she called them "encroachers", but she might well have viewed them as cockroaches: saying that the more their homes are demolished, "the more they come"; and "from what was a few tenements" it has grown to "thousands", and "each tenemant had a family", that they have been "growing and growing", that it was becoming difficult to "deal with the problem". The verdict declared, defying all logic, that the right to shelter did not mean that "everyone will be given shelter". The Court's response to the plea that it was inhuman for people to be left homeless in this intense heat, did not even bother with any humanitarian pretense. It said that "it was never comfortable to live out" in any weather - heat, cold or rain - and so, those who could not afford housing in Delhi should not come here! Perhaps Justice Pal is unaware that the labourers, rickshaw pullers and domestic workers living in slums dod not seek or enjoy "comfort" in their jhuggis; all they hope for is survival. Perhaps she forgets that the homeless die of sunstroke, of cold, of drowning. She could not have forgotten that the poor have no options but to migrate to the cities - due to landlessness and rural unemployment, and that they form a crucial part of the city's economy; since the petitioners reminded her of that fact. Yet, she told them to go elsewhere if they could not afford city life!

The Courts's attitude reflects the ruling class consensus on treating the poor as trash. The UPA's CMP made 'human face' promises of stopping forced evictions and slum demolitions. But the bulldozers have been most brutal in the Congress-ruled States of Mumbai and Delhi . Vilasrao Deshmukh has promised to turn Mumbai into Shanghai , and Shiela Dikshit has promised to make Delhi a ' World City ' before the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Naturally, there is no room for the unseemly slum dwellers in these 'world class' cities! In Mandala in Mumbai, 5000 homes have been reduced to rubble or burnt to a cinder. This slum settlement, earmarked for those displaced from elsewhere, was turned into a war zone, with armed battalions of police in the presence of Government officials battered those who resisted and arrested several under charges of attempted murder! In Delhi , 3 lakh people were displaced in the last 3 years, and a Court Order for slums on the banks of the Yamuna to be cleared will displace over 2 lakh. Blatantly violating the Delhi Government's own stated policy of 2000 providing of relocation of those residents of JJ clusters with residential proof dating before 1998, defying the Right to Shelter enshrined in Article 21 and a host of International obligations to guarantee the right to shelter, the Delhi Government is on a spree of demolishing and illegally setting fire to jhuggis.

The ostensible reason cited for demolishing the jhuggis on the banks of the Yamuna are that they pollute the river - but there is no move to demolish the 30-acre obscenity of the Akshardham Mandir that sprawls on the banks of the same river! And of course, the real reason for clearing the Yamuna banks is so that it can house a 'Commonwealth Games Village' before 2010 - for which the financial consultant is the same Price Waterhouse Coopers who proposed privatisation of water in Delhi.

The ongoing sealing of shops in Delhi got a year's respite from the Delhi Laws (Special Provision) Act passed by the Central Government recently. Union Minister for Urban Development Jaipal Reddy declared that the poor had as much right to live in the city as the rich, and that they had compelling reasons for violating the law. But there is reason to be skeptical of this latest 'human face' promise of the UPA. The Act in question has taken care to warn that the exemption from demolition would not apply to slums occupying land allocated for 'specific public projects'. The massive Nangla Machi slum was being demolished to make way for a powerhouse, the Yamuna slums for the Games Village - if these are taken as 'public projects', then the demolitions may well continue.

Kavita Krishnan