New Refugees

COVID-19 and Forced Eviction

Abhijit Guha

In 1997, The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights defined forced eviction as: "The permanent or temporary removal against the will of individuals, families or communities from their homes or land, which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection"... Forced eviction by the state authorities is a global phenomenon and in India the magnitude of the problem is huge and horrendous. More interestingly, both the central and state governments in India do not maintain any data base on forced eviction of people from their homes for various reasons, like beautification of cities, slum clearance, and implementation of development projects. In most of the cases the affected population belongs to people of lower socio-economic strata, adivasis, dalits and other margi-nalised groups and majority of them are displaced without proper resettlement. In the absence of official data on the magnitude, extent and the nature of forced evictions, adequate policy response towards the problem of resettlement and rehabilitation of the evicted populations is rarely addressed in a proper manner.

The Covid-19 pandemic coupled with frequent lockdown in India has revealed the importance and gravity of forced eviction when thousands of migrant workers had to move out from their workplaces to homes, often by walking to cover hundreds of miles to reach their destination. The crucial importance of providing housing for the protection and recovery of people during the pandemic was recognised by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which addressed the States to impose a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic. Several Indian Courts also directed the state authorities not to evict people or demolish their homes during the lockdown.

The report of the Housing and Land Rights Network ( HLRN) entitled Forced evictions in India in 2019: an unrelenting national crisis is a 109 pages monograph which contains substantial amount of data in the form of maps, graphs, tables, photographs and case studies. In addition, the report has an important section titled Recommendations for remedial and positive actions addressed to the central and state governments as well as national and state level human rights institutions towards the prevention of forced evictions in India.

In the introduction of the report it was categorically mentioned:

Despite the critical importance of adequate housing—both as a means of prevention and for recovery—in dealing with pandemics like COVID-19 the Indian government has not paid attention to reducing the incidence of homelessness or to improving the quality of housing of the urban and rural poor during the pandemic or in its recovery plans. This has resulted in a 'business as usual' attitude which sadly caused the forced eviction of over 20,000 people between 16 March and 30 July 2020(HLRN Report 2020, p.4).

In a press release dated 17 June 2020 the HLRN reported that between 16 March to 16 June 2020 at least 22 cases of demolition of homes by the central and state governments occurred in India which affected 13, 500 persons and the reasons for such demolitions were 'beautification' projects, government land clearance, and 'smart city' projects. Undoubtedly, these evictions could not be justified during the severe global pandemic and the resulting public health and economic crisis in the country.

The United Nation Organisation strongly held that forced eviction during the pandemic is a gross violation of human rights because in this critical period people are required to stay at home. So, forcing them to leave their homes during this time would make them more vulnerable to the deadly disease. Moreover, in India, it is the poor and marginalised who suffered most during the lockdown period by losing their income and livelihood both in the rural and urban areas. Despite the UN warnings and the prohibitory orders of the courts, the governments in India continued to evict people by force from their homes.

HLRN has recorded at least 22 incidents of forced eviction across India during the national lockdown (25 March to 31 May) and after it ended (1 to 16 June). It is likely that many of these evictions were carried out during the lockdown to take advantage of the curfew-like conditions, when movement of affected persons was restricted and they did not have access to legal remedies. For instance, in Siddipet, Telangana, authorities demolished 30 homes of Dalit farmers at mid of the night, without prior notice. In Odisha, the Kalahandi forest department forcibly demolished homes and destroyed belongings of 32 adivasi/ Kondh tribal families in Sagada Village, also without notice. In Manipur's Macheng Village, forest officials with the help of the police, evicted families of the Rongmei Naga tribe, early in the morning, on grounds that they were "encroaching" on forest land. Villagers who protested the drive were dispersed by the police, reportedly, with force involving the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. In Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, local authorities demolished 20 houses for the 'beautification' of a pond, rendering daily-wage labourers homeless during the lockdown(Press release of HLRN dated 17 June 2020) .

In the same Press release a table has been provided, showing the sites of eviction with respective reasons during the lockdown and one month after it as documented by HLRN. The table has been reproduced here in the previous page.

The above table also revealed the general trend of forced eviction in India, which followed the pattern displayed before the pandemic. Overall, during 2019, about 43 percent of the total number of forced evicted persons rendered homeless due to 'Slum-clearance/anti-encroachment/city-beautification' drives. About 24 percent were evicted for infrastructure development projects, like highway expansion, bridge construction and 'smart city' projects while 16 percent were evicted for environmental projects, viz. forest protection and wildlife conservation. Disaster management and other causes constituted the rest of the evicted people.

Another important finding of the HLRN survey was that in most of the cases of forced eviction by the state the due processes mentioned in the UN guidelines, that is prior informed consent of the people and socio-economic impact assessments were not carried out. Furthermore, the scenario of resettlement and rehabilitation of the evicted persons and families by the governments was also very much dismal.

Of the 146 incidents of forced eviction documented by HLRN in 2019, information on resettlement is available ,only for 103 incidents. Of these HLRN found that the state had provided some form of resettlement/alternative housing/plots in only 27 of the affected sites (or 26 per cent) while some compensation was paid in only two of the cases. Thus, in 74 per cent of the cases of eviction in 2019 for which information is available, resettlement was not provided by the state to the affected.

 Both the central and state governments in India should immediately issue a moratorium on forced evictions particularly during the global pandemic. In cases of unavoidable evictions under natural disasters and climate change prior informed consent and proper socio -economic and environmental impact assessments must be done by experts. Finally, proper compensation as well as rehabilitation and resettlement of the already evicted people and families should be given a national priority in the post-lockdown period.

Documented Sites of Forced Eviction and Reason for Eviction
(16 March to 16 June 2020)

SITE OF EVICTION                               REASON FOR EVICTION
Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh                         Chhattisgarh River 'beautification' and 'smart city' project
Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu                     'Smart city' project for restoration of water bodies
Erode, Tamil Nadu                               Land clearance along a canal for a 'smart city' project
Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh               Removal of 'encroachments'
Hubbali, Karnataka                               Road widening
Jaipur, Rajasthan                                   Rajasthan Road construction
Kalahandi, Odisha                                Forest clearance
Macheng Village, Manipur                  Forest clearance
Mumbai, Maharashtra                         Removal of 'encroachments'
Kishtwar, Pulwama and
Srinagar, Jammu and
Kashmir                                                 Removal of 'illegal constructions'
Rewa, Madhya Pradesh                        'Beautification' of a pond
Siwal, Madhya Pradesh                        Village land clearance
Delhi                                                       Railway land clearance
Siddipet, Telangana                              Reservoir project
Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir              Dal Lake restoration project


Vol. 53, No. 22-25, Nov 29 - Dec 26, 2020