Delhi’s ancient city becomes battleground as authorities demolish homes

Delhi’s ancient city becomes battleground as authorities demolish homes

It was early on a Monday when Harpreet Kaur and her family rushed to court in the Indian city of Delhi with an emergency plea to save their home from being razed by bulldozers.

But while she waited at court to obtain the decree, her phone rang and she was told federal authorities backed by hundreds of policemen were knocking at their door to evict her family and flatten the 50-year-old three-storey house in Mehrauli.

Ms Kaur, 42, said they dashed back to their home, begging the authorities to spare their home and waving reams of official documents proving their ownership under the gaze of television cameras.

But nothing worked.

“They razed it brick by brick in front of my eyes. I kept begging them to stop and check the papers. I have registration documents,” Ms Kaur told The National.

Authorities had sealed the bustling neighbourhood and swiftly proceeded to knock down the house with bulldozers and sledgehammers.

Her children were still inside, crying and distraught, she said.

“My husband has lived all his life in this house. I came here after my marriage and my children were born here. This was our home, our safe haven. Everything is gone now. They have made us a joke. They have snatched our life, our future,” she said.

Ms Kaur’s house was among dozens of structures in Mehrauli, one of the seven ancient cities of capital Delhi, that were demolished by the Indian government during an “anti-encroachment drive”.

It is home to the Qutub Minar, a 12th-century Unesco World Heritage site, several Hindu and Muslim shrines and the 80-hectare Mehrauli Archaeological Park, dotted with more than 50 historically significant monuments.

The archaeological park has become a bone of contention between residents, the state government ruled by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Delhi Development Authority, which comes under federal government Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The DDA claims hundreds of structures, including multi-storey residential apartment buildings, shops, schools and shanties, have been built illegally on the edges of the park.

It produced a new map of the park in December 2021 that exceeds its existing boundary wall and aimed to annex the land parcels after demolishing all “illegal structures”.

A year later, the authority issued notices to residents that their properties would be cleared from that land.

Residents contested the notices, saying they had followed all legal process to buy their properties. Some said the notices had wrong plot numbers, while others said they never received one.

When bulldozers rolled into the dense neighbourhood on February 10, accompanied by hundreds of policemen and paramilitary troops, residents blocked the roads with cars and stones. Some threw themselves in front of the approaching machines.

Arguments and scuffles ensued, but authorities went ahead with the demolitions, using force to remove families from their homes.

Some residents went to the courts and succeeded in stopping their homes being demolished.

For the next five days, the demolition squad went from street to street, razing shops, apartments and homes, including that of Ms Kaur. The destruction was aired live on Indian television.

It came to a halt after the Delhi High Court temporarily ruled against the agency following appeals by residents that they were unlawfully being displaced.

Mr Modi’s party said the residents were suffering due to the faulty map provided by the Delhi government, led Arvind Kejriwal.

Mr Kejriwal’s and Mr Modi’s governments are engaged in a years-long tussle over the administrative control of the city, where the elected chief minister has limited powers.

The BJP claimed the city government was consulted at every step, a claim rejected by Mr Kejriwal’s party, which said the demolition drive was carried out solely by the federal agency.

Now, hundreds of helpless residents are gripped by uncertainty and fear of losing their homes.

Many believe the drive is part of government’s makeover of the city for an upcoming G20 event that includes a high-profile meeting at the archaeological park next month.

“We bought a one-bedroom set in 2021. The legal property documents go back to 1987. We all have sale deeds, a sanctioned plan … the DDA had checked the land the same year but did not object,” Uday Thakur, a resident whose property is marked for demolition, told The National.

“We took a bank loan so they could verify the legality of the land. In fact, a neighbour got his property registered two weeks ago. Now, because of G20, they’re snatching the roof from over our heads.”

Mr Thakur, 42, a father of two daughters, said the demolition was a fallout of politics between AAP and BJP, which lost the municipal elections to Mr Kerjriwal’s party recently.

“The leaders of the party used to visit us before the election, they had no problems then. What happened suddenly? This is a political vendetta,” Mr Thakur said.

But the DDA says the clean-up drive was a result of court judgments that were passed on a petition filed by Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, an NGO working for conservation of heritage sites, in 2015.

AGK Menon, of the trust’s Delhi chapter, said the residents were paying a price for the DDA’s inefficiency.

“The buck has to stop with the authorities. The people have got caught in a deep existential problem. What were the authorities doing all these years?” said Mr Menon.

“We try to conserve the heritage and we found a wonderful idea of an archaeological park in the master plan. We wanted to know where the park was and asked them to mark the boundaries. But DDA couldn’t produce a map. The constructions did not happen clandestinely, then why blame residents?”

Legal experts say the authorities can only demolish structures that are illegally constructed on the government land, but it is unlawful to damage the property of bona fide owners.

“Demolitions are resorted to if there are palpably illegal constructions,” said Raavi Birbal, a Supreme Court lawyer.

“However, in case those are not, demolition would be against civil laws as well as basic constitutional rights.”

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