Priyanca Mathur Velath
It is usually assumed that internal displacement occurs either during conflict, communal tension, natural disaster, environmental change or due to a developmental project. But within the peaceful daily humdrum of city life there are also groups of vulnerable people who are forcibly evicted and rendered homeless overnight. The residents of the Ejipura housing colony, for the economically weaker sections, in Bengaluru city of the Karnataka state in India, in January 2013, underwent precisely that when they were forcibly evicted to make way for a mall and a residential complex.
Living homeless, bearing the vagaries of nature, the erstwhile residents of Ejipura are battling survival. It was recently reported that nearly 40 families were living under tarpaulin sheets on the footpath along the land that once had their houses. The people displaced from Ejipura alleged that “out of the blue” the Bruhat Bangalore MahanagaraPalike (BBMP), the municipal body, had decided to give their lands to a builder, Maverick Holdings. This transfer was unjust as it was without the consent of the residents. Thus the homeless are gathering together to bring out a state-level protest against such ‘land grab’, to increase awareness amongst slum-dwellers on the right to dignified housing, and to demand legal protection for example through the re-enactment of the repealed Urban Land Ceiling Act.
Being evicted from their homes and forced to live under plastic sheets and in tents, some Ejipura residents, like two elderly women and a newborn baby, have even lost their lives. As a newspaper reported, “Neelamma (60), who was running high temperature for over a week, died in her plastic tent that overlooks the site where the construction of the mall is apace. ‘The tent got flooded every time it rained. We could take it because we were younger, but Amma was too old,’ said Neelamma’s son Kumar”. (i) It is only ironical that some of the older women who were amongst those evicted were sleeping on the pavements right in front of a police station, in the hope that their children, especially older girls, could get some protection. However, while official state assistance has been wanting, concerned citizens, like some people studying at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Bangalore, have reportedly tried to help these victims in their individual capacity.
There have been public interest litigations (PILs) filed. The Karnataka High Court has asked the BBMP to file a detailed affidavit providing information about construction of a new apartment complex for persons from economically weaker sections (EWS) at Ejipura. There have been allegations of corruption thrown at the BBMP, that it is unethically assisting private builders gain more land through such demolitions. But citizen’s anger towards this alleged nexus has been growing and more than 10,000 signatures had been collected to protest and draw attention to the plight of the Ejipura displaced. "The process of displacement that is done through slum evictions and forced rehabilitation in the outskirts is an enactment of the segregation along caste lines that has been historically practised and continues in the name of 'development'”, said one such protestor emphatically at a solidarity protest meeting held in the city. (ii)
At a public consultation organised in the city on November 7, 2013, in the backdrop of this EWS quarters demolition in Ejipura, activists, citizens and social movement leaders deliberated on the urgent need to address the right to land of the state’s urban poor. Issac Arul Selva, member of the Forum Against EWS Land Grab, reiterated that the state government should cancel its agreement with the private party by withdrawing the government’s decision, and build temporary shelters on the same land for the displaced persons to restore their right to a home and land that had been snatched away from them. “We are asking the state government to transfer land rights to the urban poor who have been living on the land. The government has already surveyed all the government land in all 21 cities in the state and have data on the people living there. If the state cabinet decides to give land rights to these people, more than 60% of the slum problem will be solved,” he said. (iii)
Ejipura, is an ironic symbol of the failure of the state’s attempt to make the displaced stakeholders in the development process. In exchange for half of the land (on which they were to build the mall), Maverick Holdings was to construct multi-storied flats for the 1,512 Ejipura residents on the remaining half of land (on the public-private partnership model). All hitherto established norms of participation and information were violated as no written notice was given to the residents before demolition. Instead there was use of force and violence, along with arbitrary arrests and illegal detention. The homeless had to endure loss and destruction of personal possessions and property. They had to further endure lack of official relief and rehabilitation. Only civil society organisations and volunteers had raised money for food and medical supplies for them.
There were also allegations of differential treatment meted out to allottees and tenants. Although an alternative accommodation site was provided at Sulekunte village near Sarjapur, about 18 km from the original site. For those displaced from Ejipura a daily commute for work was not easy from Sarjapur. On the footpaths of Ejipura, the displaced people have limited access to clean drinking water, sanitation and other basic amenities, and there is constant fear of theft and violence.
It is a picture of complete violation of human rights; of the right to health, as the Ejipura evictees became susceptible to cough, cold, malaria, respiratory ailments plus trauma of eviction, and other psycho-social ailments; of the right to adequate housing; of the right to work and livelihood, particularly women who were unable to leave their children and belongings and get back to work; of the right to education, as nearly all the displaced children of Ejipura could not get back to school.(iv)
At the official level, unfortunately, the response has been just a blame game, and comprised only of passing the buck. When questioned BBMP officials express sympathy and shock but obviously they had consented to eviction in the first place. Post all the protest that marked the Ejipura eviction the state Ministry of Housing’s response was to assure that no EWS housing project will be undertaken under a public-private partnership model as a joint venture as that ends up in ‘commercial exploitation of social housing project for the poor’. (v) But it rests to be seen as to what extent these are mere empty words. As it has been pointed out that when such housing projects are undertaken housing should be provided to not just allottees but all families.
This urges us to look at the wider picture and brings us to the imperative to question the government’s housing policies for the poor and homeless. How legitimate are all the measure that a government undertakes in the name of urban development? Finally since most of the Ejipura displaced are Dalits, this points to a clear violation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) 1989. In fact 99 per cent of urban housing shortage in India pertains to the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) and Low Income Groups (LIG). Unfortunate events like the Ejipura eviction serve as a critical reminder of how highhandedness of the state results in the violation of many constitutional rights most importantly the right to live with dignity.
i) Mondal, Sudipto ‘Births and Deaths on the footpaths of Ejipura’, The Hindu, July 31, 2013, Bangalore edition.
ii) Mukherjee, Saswati ‘Displaced Ejipura residents cry foul, stage protest’, The Times of India, April 13, 2013, Bangalore.
iii) See ‘Delegation to urge CM to scrap Ejipura Project’, The Hindu, Bangalore, November 7, 2013.
iv) “Return Ejipura slum land to the poor: Activists”, Deccan Chronicle, November 7, 2013.
v) SeeGovernance By Denial: Forced Eviction and Demolition of Homes in Koramangala (Ejipura), Bangalore, (2013) Interim Report of a Fact-Finding Mission, Housing for Land Rights, Delhi and Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties, Karnataka, March