By Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI, Sept 4 (Openly) - India's top court has ordered the demolition of tens of thousands of shacks alongside railway tracks in Delhi, a move that housing campaigners said could plunge nearly 230,000 poor residents into even deeper poverty.
The Supreme Court, ruling in response to an affidavit filed by state-run Indian Railways, said 48,000 shacks should be pulled down in phases, setting a three-month deadline for the destruction of those in so-called "safety zones".
"No interference, political or otherwise, should be there and no court shall grant any stay with respect to removal of the encroachments," the judges said in this week's order, which did not mention any plans for rehousing residents.
Officials at Indian Railways were not immediately available for comment on the court's ruling in the pollution-focused case, which housing rights activists said would trigger further hardship and homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic.
"Every time you demolish a jhuggi (slum), every time you evict people, you are literally pushing them into poverty and destitution," said Choudhary A. Z. Kabir of the Human Rights Law Network.
He said that without rehousing, "great distress" would be caused to families that are already at risk due to COVID-19, which is spreading faster in India than anywhere else in the world.
"On the one hand you're telling me to remain indoors, on the other hand you're demolishing my house," Kabir said.
The pandemic and strict months-long lockdown have left millions of people jobless in the world's second most-populous country, exacerbating the poor's access to food, healthcare and housing.
Kabir said he was helping the slum dwellers and filing an application to the Supreme Court for all their representatives to be added as a party in the case, urging the court to consider their arguments and modify its order accordingly.
He said the original order was passed without giving the "affected parties" prior notice.
'EQUATED WITH GARBAGE'
Campaigners also expressed concern that the Supreme Court's order might violate a 2019 Delhi High Court ruling that said forced and unannounced evictions of slum dwellers on railway land without consultations or resettlement plans were illegal.
The United Nations has called housing the "front line defence against the coronavirus".
But at least 20,000 Indians were evicted from their homes between March 16 and July 31 despite court orders banning evictions during lockdown, according to a report published by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) last month.
Elsewhere in the world, bans on eviction are ending as lockdown restrictions ease, putting millions of people at risk of losing their homes.
Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of the Delhi-based HLRN, said this week's order was surprising because the case was concerned with pollution rather than housing.
"It's also an issue of concern that housing of the poor is equated with garbage and all low-income communities are blamed for pollution without substantive evidence," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She urged the government to carry out a thorough survey to determine how many people live within "safety zones" alongside railway tracks, hold extensive consultations with the affected communities and develop an adequate rehousing plan.
"Given the pandemic, the court should consider extending the timeframe for implementation of the order and issue directives for adequate rehabilitation before anyone is removed," she said.
(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Helen Popper; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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