By Guest Writer Ketan Aggarwal
“My parents were sleeping inside the house. They demolished the house without informing us and set it on fire. I somehow managed to come out of the house. The policemen caught me and beat me up. They were trying to push me inside the burning house. My father was severely burnt, while my mother and sister died in the fire.”
These were the words of Shivam, whose house was demolished during an anti-encroachment drive in the Kanpur Dehat district of Uttar Pradesh this month.
This disturbing incident is not an isolated case of what has been termed “Bulldozer Justice.” Similar incidents of forced evictions and demolitions have occurred in other parts of India, including Delhi and Madhya Pradesh. Many political parties, NGO & human rights groups like Al Jazeera have criticized these actions, which disproportionately target marginalized and minority communities, as a form of extrajudicial punishment.
The use of bulldozers to demolish homes and businesses has become increasingly prevalent across India, prompting concerns from domestic and international human rights groups alike. The US-based global human rights observer highlighted the trend in its latest annual report, drawing attention to the actions of various state governments that have used this method as a means of punishment against vulnerable populations. Every day at least 567 people lost their homes. The systematic destruction of homes and livelihoods without proper notification or legal recourse is a serious violation of human rights and deserves immediate attention and action.
The Right to Housing: National & International Precedents
The right to adequate housing has been repeatedly affirmed as a basic human right in various international treaties whether it be article 25.1 of UDHR, article 17 of ICCPR, or article 11.1 of ICESCR and this has been recognized by Indian courts as an integral component of the right to life under Indian Constitution in the landmark Olga Tellis case. The Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation judgment in 1985 ruled that eviction of pavement dwellers using unreasonable force, without giving them a chance to explain, is unconstitutional. It is a violation of their right to livelihood. In the case, the court gave the fundamental right of “Right to livelihood.” This case emerged when Bombay municipality went to slum and Pavment dwellings to remove them, and the slum dwellers approached the Bombay high court for relief. This ruling established two key aspects of the right to housing – the right to notice before eviction or demolition and the right to access rehabilitation in such situations.
The Delhi HC has further strengthened these requirements directing the state to conduct a survey of all persons facing eviction and check their eligibility for alternate accommodation before carrying out any eviction. In cases such as Sudama Singh and Ajay Maken, the Delhi HC has held that the state must relocate individuals facing eviction in consultation with each one of them in a meaningful manner. In the case of U.P. Avas Evam Vikas Parishad the Supreme Court recognized the right to shelter as a fundamental right that emanates from the right to residence under Article 19(1)(e) and the right to life under Article 21.
The demolition of unauthorized buildings and eviction of residents without notice and hearing by various government authorities across India have resulted in significant human rights violations. The Delhi Municipal Corporation Act 1957 mandates notice and hearing before the demolition of unauthorized buildings. The Delhi (Special Provisions) Act also protects unauthorized colonies and buildings constructed before certain dates from demolition until December 31, 2023.
Still, around 300 huts and shanties were demolished in Delhi without prior notice, rendering the residents shelterless. Similarly, the demolition of 45 homes of those accused of communal violence in Madhya Pradesh and around 100 structures on an island with a population of around 10,000 in Gujarat further highlights the widespread disregard for legal requirements and human rights violations. According to a report by Housing and Land Rights Network, over 36,480 houses were demolished, and 207,106 people were forcibly evicted across India in 2021.
The Road to Way Forward
In India, the frequency of evictions and demolitions is alarming, with 24 people evicted every hour and 100 houses destroyed every day. However, we must recognize that the procedural requirements of notice, hearing, and engagement are not just formalities, but rather essential tools for defining the content of the right to housing. Residents must be able to engage with the state to express their needs and expectations, and these entitlements can be critical for retaining access to housing and preventing further human rights violations.
Additionally, authorities must adhere to the law and provide sufficient notice and alternative accommodation before conducting any eviction or demolition. Failure to do so undermines constitutional and statutory requirements and leads to homelessness, displacement, and loss of livelihoods. The government must take measures to ensure that the right to housing is respected and protected for all citizens.
Ultimately, we must imagine and implement more substantive and powerful entitlements that enable residents and other rights holders to determine the shape and content of their rights. Through meaningful engagement and hearings, residents can assert their housing rights and ensure that their voices are heard.