On the flanks of a shrunken and polluted Yamuna river in the national capital of Delhi, hundreds of destitute single homeless men found for the past many decades shelter and community. This exceptional brotherhood of the destitute survived in the shadows of this profoundly uncaring and impatiently swelling metropolis. It helped that about 12 years ago, the Supreme Court had ordered the establishment of shelters for homeless people on the banks of the river.
But on the night of March 10, officials of the Delhi government arrived without warning with bulldozers and a shield of armed police persons to pull down the shelters for the homeless. This extraordinary official cruelty to the most impoverished residents of the national capital led to bewilderment, fear and grief. The shelters that had been their only home for more than a decade were reduced to rubble in minutes. The homeless men were given no notice. They ran for their lives losing even their scant belongings.
The official claim could not be that these shelters were unlawful encroachments. They had been created by the orders of India’s highest court. It was during the winter nights of 2010-11 that reports poured in, as they do each year, of young working homeless people freezing to death. Our studies revealed that there were at least six times more chances of dying if you were unhoused as compared to people, however poor, but with roofs over their heads.
As Commissioners of the Supreme Court in what is popularly known as the Right to Food case, N C Saxena and I wrote three anguished letters to the Supreme Court urging it to pass orders to prevent such deaths in future. In a luminous moment of judicial activism, a bench of the Court responded with compassion and alacrity. It ruled that every person, including houseless destitute persons, had a fundamental right to life, and this implied the constitutional entitlement to all that was needed for a life with dignity. From this iridescent moral imagination of a good society and state, the Court ruled that it was the state’s constitutional duty to ensure decent shelters for all homeless people.
This order became a lighthouse for organisations working with homeless people in many countries around the world, who used this ruling to make similar demands from courts and governments. More than 2,000 shelters were constructed across India because of this ruling, including over 250 in Delhi. Among these were the shelters that the governments of India and Delhi chose to erase on March 10.
Eleven homeless people had gone to the Delhi High Court seeking a bar on the demolitions after one shelter was pulled down some months ago. Government officials had assured the HC that they would not demolish any shelters without its permission. But even without this stay order, it is unconscionable that governments could break down homeless shelters that were built on orders of the Supreme Court in recognition of the fundamental rights of the city’s homeless residents.
The riddle remains: Why did they undertake this public act of merciless brutality directed at the most oppressed of all residents of the country’s capital? We have been unable to access any official explanation. Unspoken, of course, are the rampant official prejudices that stereotype homeless people as criminal, drug-abusing parasites dangerous to law-abiding (housed) residents of the city. Such criticism is blind to their critical role in the city’s economy – as casual construction workers, in eateries, at wedding parties and as head-loaders, all at dirt wages.
What appears more than likely is that the homeless shelters were demolished to implement a grandiose plan to “beautify” the national capital for heads of G20 countries who will assemble in Delhi later this year. Slums are eyesores and destitute homeless settlements are even more so, ugly embarrassing protuberances that the vishwa guru — a country destined to lead the world by its shining example – must erase.
More tangibly, I fear that what lies in the immediate pipeline is the construction of the Yamuna Waterfront, patterned after the Sabarmati Waterfront in Ahmedabad that rose by demolishing thousands of informal slums.
This demolition of homeless shelters in the dead of the night, then, was undertaken without heeding the devastation that this would wreak on the lives of the most dispossessed residents of the capital in order to create a mirage of “beauty” and “development” for our foreign guests.
This lays bare many disgraceful pathologies of “New India”, including the spectacular absence of elementary public compassion. The state exhibits unapologetically how little it cares about its poorest citizen; how utterly dispensable their lives are. But the state is able to do this because it is secure that the middle-class and wealthy Indians will applaud it for its resolve to beautify “their” city, unmindful that this twisted aesthetic of the shining city was enabled by the near-fatal felling of impoverished destitute residents.
The demolished shelters are directly adjacent to the city’s largest cremation grounds, the Nigambodh Ghat. The air there is always thick with the smoke of bodies that burn at the Ghat each day. This was why the city ceded this stretch of land on the banks of the Yamuna to its most dispossessed residents. But now, pitilessly, even this has been snatched away from them. Those with no one in the world, and no home they can call their own, have been dispossessed of the one place in the world they felt they belonged to.
When the history of our times is written, this will be recalled as a seismic moment in the collapse of our collective moral centre. For dubious aesthetic, for narcissistic exhibition to powerful foreigners, we lost sight of the reality that true beauty actually lies in kindness and justice.