Families Surviving Under the Open Sky in Delhi: A Ground Report on the Human Cost of Demolition

The Mooknayak's ground report unfolds the distressing reality of individuals forced to inhabit the remains of their shattered homes beneath the vast open sky. The demolition by bulldozers in this settlement adjacent to Sundar Nursery took place over two months ago on November 21.
Farzana wipes away tears while narrating her struggles.
Farzana wipes away tears while narrating her struggles.Pic- Saumya Raj/The Mooknayak

New Delhi- Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently garnered attention for adhering to strict rituals, including sleeping on the floor while observing rituals for the Ram Temple consecration. However, in Delhi's Sundar Nursery area, bulldozers left hundreds of families homeless, forcing them to sleep under the open sky in the biting cold. While Lord Rama has found a home in his magnificent temple at Ayodhya, those who diligently constructed their homes over the years now find themselves sleeping on the debris of their demolished houses.

This settlement, adjacent to the world heritage site Humayun's Tomb, Delhi Public School (DPS), and Sundar Nursery, falls under the list of 675 'protected' slum clusters maintained by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB). According to the protocols outlined in the 2015 policy 'Delhi Slum and JJ Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy,' authorities are required to follow specific procedures when clearing these settlements. However, the Land and Development Office (L&DO) violated these protocols on November 21, 2023, bulldozing over 500 homes in this area.

An 8-year-old Vansh sleeps on the debris of his shattered home.
An 8-year-old Vansh sleeps on the debris of his shattered home.Pic- Saumya Raj/The Mooknayak

Residents claim to have lived here for years, with all their documents registered at this address. From school admissions for their children to vehicle registrations, all essential documents reflect this location. The DUSIB list includes 212 homes from this settlement, known as 'Sundar Nagar Basti' indicating that these were 'protected' structures. However, more than 500 people were left homeless when bulldozers razed their homes in violation of the established protocols.

We spoke with 43-year-old Sompal, whose home was also demolished by a bulldozer. Now, he is compelled to spend his nights under the open sky amidst the debris of his own home. Expressing his plight, Sompal says, "Where should a poor man go? Whom should he fight with? An individual cannot fight against the government alone. We are pleading with the government to allocate a piece of land to each of the poor whose homes have been destroyed. At least let us raise our children; where will we go, surviving on rent?"

Sompal narrates his plight to The Mooknayak
Sompal narrates his plight to The MooknayakPic- Saumya Raj/The Mooknayak

Similar is the story of 40-year-old Farzana, who used to make a living by doing household chores but lost her job after her home was demolished. Now, she collects solid bricks from the debris of her broken home every day and sells them to make a living for her children. With tears in her eyes, Farzana narrates, "Give us something to cover our heads. Since our home was destroyed, I can't even go to work. Now, I make a living by selling bricks extracted from the debris."

60-year-old Lal Singh sits with his family, spreading a blanket over the debris of his demolished home. He remarks, "We are in great distress due to the cold. We have been living here for 30 years, and we have Aadhar cards, electricity bills, and voter cards, all registered at this address. Despite that, our home was demolished, and we weren't even given time to take out our belongings."

60-year old Lal SIngh with his distressed family.
60-year old Lal SIngh with his distressed family.Pic- Saumya Raj/The Mooknayak

'Alienated within our own country that we sit on broken stones'

Similarly, 60-year-old Shimla Devi, says, "After all, we are also living human beings. We also need food, water, and a place to live. Even a small bird feels upset when its nest is broken. Right now, our situation is so bad. No one is asking us anything; no politician has come, no government officials came. We are sitting here with shattered dreams. We sit on broken stones, feeling abandoned. The term 'Ham Hindustani'.. seems meaningless. During elections, politicians come asking for votes, but no one has come now. During the voting, they address as sisters, aunties, and brothers, but after that, no one cares. Here, sitting with her grandmother (Shimla Devi), 5-year-old Tamanna shows us a photo of their broken home and shies away when posed with further questions.

In this vast expanse of broken houses, debris buried under bricks and stones stretches as far as the eye can see. Clothes, shoes, utensils, children's toys, books, furniture, and even broken beds are scattered around. The scene resembles the aftermath of a severe earthquake, where the entire settlement has been obliterated in an instant, leaving everything exactly as it was, trapped under debris.

Reena and her family at the debris of their home.
Reena and her family at the debris of their home.Pic- Saumya Raj/The Mooknayak

Not Just Homes, Dreams Bulldozed

Our conversation continues with Nancy, who has just returned from school. Nancy is in the fourth grade. When asked how she manages to live here at night, she shows us the bed on the debris and says, "We light a fire here and sleep. In the morning, we go to school from here and come back here again." She reveals that during the demolition of their homes, exams were going on in school, and these people even buried their books and pencils in this debris. Their education was severely disrupted. Listening to Nancy's words, it feels as if someone has also bulldozed her dreams along with her books.

Debris and belongings scattered far and wide from shattered homes.
Debris and belongings scattered far and wide from shattered homes. Pic- Saumya Raj/The Mooknayak

Nancy's 30-year-old mother, Reena, who just returned from work, is a sanitation worker. She mentions that exams are coming and they missed schools for a month after these events. She expresses her frustration, saying, "The government says ' Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao ' . How can we save and educate our daughters when we don't even have a roof over our heads? You can see the surrounding, I can't leave the girls alone here. When I go to work, my attention is always here, and if we don't work, how will we eat? We sleep here with the children at night, and I sit here all night burning firewood. We won't go anywhere from here until we are given a place to stay."

The demolition by bulldozers in this settlement adjacent to Sundar Nursery took place over two months ago on November 21. Despite two months of the demolition, the people have not received any help. The bitterness of the situation is evident in the words of these residents who feel abandoned in their own country.

number plates alloted to the homes that were bulldozed.
number plates alloted to the homes that were bulldozed.Pic- Saumya Raj/The Mooknayak

Dismantled without rehabilitation

212 houses in the area have permanent housing number plates. We spoke with social activist Israr Khan. Israr is associated with the Housing and Land Rights Network and works for the rights and rehabilitation of people. He explains, "This settlement comes under the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) list, making it a notified settlement. However, despite being on the list, this settlement was dismantled without any rehabilitation or compensation.

Even in this cold weather, these people are forced to stay in open. Women, children, everyone is living in the open, with no access to water, food, or toilets. There are no facilities of any kind here." Israr further mentions, "It is uncertain how long these people will continue to live in these conditions because there is a demand for rehabilitation, and it is a prolonged struggle. People are raising their voices, but it's unclear when they will get homes again."

Israr informs that 212 houses have token from the time of V.P. Singh (former Prime Minister of India). The area was surveyed. He adds, "The government never builds affordable houses for these people; instead, it constructs houses in crores, which these people cannot afford. If the government builds affordable homes, it will be accessible for everyone."

Ashpyara says her studies have suffered badly owing to the demolition.
Ashpyara says her studies have suffered badly owing to the demolition.Pic- Saumya Raj/The Mooknayak

We met 28-year-old Arifa, sitting with her two young children on broken furniture. Arifa's husband earns a living by driving a vehicle to support the family. She says, "What can we do? Where can we go? We don't earn enough to rent a room." In the meantime, Arifa's one-year-old daughter looks on affectionately and grabs the microphone.

One of the houses that were destroyed belonged to 16-year-old Ashpyara who is a 10th grader. She was seen reading English notes. Ashpyara says, "Our exams are approaching soon, but due to the demolition, my studies have been disturbed, and I haven't completed the syllabus yet. Living in the open in this cold is very distressing. There is so much pollution here that it causes a burning sensation in the eyes."

Arifa with her young children.
Arifa with her young children.Pic- Saumya Raj/The Mooknayak

Yasmin, the 31-year-old mother of Ashpyara, questions the government, saying, "When we were building houses here, where was the government? They didnt knew when their land was encroached upon. We are poor people; after years of hard work, we gathered money to build houses. If the government wants to demolish it, why didn't they do it earlier?"

An angry 65-year-old woman, unwilling to disclose her name, says, "If the land belongs to the government, why did they approve when we went to make passports, who stamped them? How did the government issue passports on the address proofs, create Aadhar cards, provide ration cards, issue income certificates? How did our children get admission to DPS? How were vehicle registrations done? There is no proof for all these things that we don't possess. Are these documents fake?"

According to the information available on the DUSIB website, the ownership rights of the land on which this settlement was established belong to the Delhi Waqf Board. However, when it was razed, suddenly the name of L&DO (Land and Development Office) came up. People here believe that everything is being done under a planned conspiracy, and there is an attempt to render people homeless who have been living here for 40-50 years. The action to remove the alleged encroachment on this land has been pending for more than two months, with no progress in clearing the debris or putting up any barricades. People whose houses were destroyed are also not willing to leave. Those present here hope that their voices will be heard, and they will be provided with a place to stay again. However, given the indifferent attitude of the administration and the government, it cannot be said when this will happen.

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