Razing Hopes and Rising Fears

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Irreparable losses The demolition drive in Delhi’s Shakur Basti has wrecked the lives of many Photos: Paromita Chatterjee
Irreparable losses The demolition drive in Delhi’s Shakur Basti has wrecked the lives of many. Photos: Paromita Chatterjee

On that unfortunate day the temperature dipped suddenly. Things could not have got any worse. Amid the remains was a torn tarpaulin sheet. Inside a mother was struggling to keep her three-month old daughter warm by shielding her from the chilly winds, which continued unabated all day. This is how the father Mohammad Sabeer, 32, described the horrifying night following the demolition of over 500 shanties in Delhi’s Shakur Basti, the land owned by the railways. The girl child, a toddler yet to be named, is currently struggling for her life in the intensive care unit at the Bhagwan Mahavir Hospital (Pitampura).

Mohammad Anwar, who suddenly became the focus of all TV channels and newspapers, is the most unfortunate among the ones hit by the demolition. Ruqaiyya, his six-month-old child, is no more. All that Anwar is left with is her memories, her grave and the humongous task of rebuilding his shattered life from scratch. “Yahan kaun apni iccha se reh raha hai, itna paisa nahiki hum room rent par lekar rahen (Who wants to live here, we do not have the money to even rent a room),” says the daily wage worker. Anwar had sent his two other children, a son and a daughter, and wife Safeena to his in-laws place in Delhi.

Over 3,500 lives were affected in the demolition drive on 12 December which was carried out after giving a day’s notice. The jhuggi residents have Voter ID and Aadhar cards, which show addresses as the ones razed by the railway authorities. For them life has come to a grinding halt.

Railways’ official argued that Ruqaiyya died due to suffocation and not because of the demolition has put the onus back on her parents. Slamming the drive, the Delhi High Court, said, “A number of children are suffering out there. What was the hurry to demolish in December? You really don’t care about the people.”

Trashing the railways’ claim and the Delhi Police version that Ruqaiyya died before the demolition started, Anwar tells Tehelka, “We were shifting household items from the shanty when she was sleeping inside. When I returned I saw that the shanty was razed to the ground. We instantly started looking for her.” According to him, a panic set in when the demolition started at the same time when the police started asking the residents to remove their belongings. “Bhagdaud ke karan meri bachi ki jaan gai hai. Agar wo jimmedar nahi hain to kaun hai (The panic and the chaos were the reasons for my daughter’s death. If they are not responsible then who is?),” asks Anwar.

Photos: Paromita Chatterjee

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Another resident of the cluster, who accompanied Anwar to the hospital, tells Tehelka that she was alive on the way to the Bhagwan Mahavir Hospital and breathed her last at the hospital itself. However, when Anwar returned with her dead body he was stopped by the police at the entrance to the colony where demolition was going on. He was then taken to Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Hospital with assurance of better medical assistance despite Anwar reminding them that his daughter was already dead. Then the dead body was taken to the hospital and given back the following day. Probably the police wanted to avoid public outrage in case the body reached the colony while the drive was still on.

The Shakur Basti incident instantly turned into a political battle. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in a series of tweets held both railway ministry officials and the Centre responsible for the incident. The broadcast vans of various TV channels stood outside the cluster of shanties. Locals, huddled around the TV, were watching their destinies being decided in a debate, where a BJP  spokesperson assured the homeless that the party will provide a house to every citizen of this country by 2022.

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi who also met with the locals at Shakur Basti and said that he will fight their battle. However, his claims hardly made an impact on the locals. “He came and left. He didn’t even address the people properly,” tells a resident. The volunteers of various political parties who went to the affected cluster got busy with the relief work. Be it the food stalls of the Congress and the AAP, Delhi civic officials making basic arrangements or various fringe groups distributing parchas (pamphlets).