Around 50,000 members of 4,000 families in Haldwani are on the verge of being rendered homeless due to a judgment of the Uttarakhand High Court that orders the razing of encroachments on railway land. Recognizing the seriousness of the issue, the Supreme Court stayed the high court’s order to demolish their houses till the next hearing in February 2023. The top court said that it would be improper to uproot the people till arrangements for their rehabilitation are in place.
It seems that the apex court will ultimately allow their displacement, provided they are rehabilitated properly. In such matters, courts finally side with the administration. However, that will not solve the problem. The rehabilitation process is bound to be tinged with the communal polarization that has seeped into our system.
It is, of course, nobody’s case that encroachments should be allowed. But then, the local administrative machinery should also be held to account, because no one can encroach on government land without the blessings and cooperation of the administrative officers.
Haldwani is the gateway to the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. Kathgodam, a suburb of Haldwani, is the railhead for the region. There is a metre-gauge railway line to Khatima, Banbasa and Tanakpur (a small town on Nepal border) but just two or three train services run on it. And only one or two trains take you to Haldwani.
The Indian Railways have rarely approached courts seeking repossession of the land owned by it. But recently a petition was filed in the Uttarakhand High Court in “public interest”, alleging encroachments on railway land and the court pronounced its judgment without hearing the alleged encroachers.
What is shameful is that the state government acted like Bajrang Dal. It did not bother to enquire as to how much land had been occupied by encroachers, what part of it belonged to the railways and whether only railways land had been occupied or government land, too. There was no attempt to find out how branches of public-sector banks, an intermediate college and other government institutions had come up on this land.
Quest for justice
The public interest petition makes it seem as though only Ghafoor Basti, with a predominantly Muslim population, sits on the encroached land. In truth, there are many temples and gurudwaras on the same land.
It was downright insensitive on the part of the Uttarakhand High Court in Nainital to order the use of police force for evictions, which has been assailed by the Supreme Court. Going by what the IT cell of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been propagating on social media, the entire area is teeming with Rohingya Muslims, who are now slotted under the omnibus category of Bangladeshi Muslims, and are a security threat.
To understand the reality, one would have to comprehend the geographical and social contours of Haldwani, and in fact, the entire Terai region. Otherwise, we would be creating problems for the people, not solving them. The judiciary’s role is not limited to goading the administration into “strictly” enforcing the rules but also includes contemplating solutions to problems from the human angle.
We also need to understand that in the past, people hardly possessed any documents to prove that they owned the land on which their homes stood. Documents have become so important only in the present digital age, when mafias have also started eyeing prime land, and laws and rules are being selectively enforced based on the caste and religion of the people concerned.
It is not that those living on the disputed land had settled in Haldwani five or six years ago after displacing the locals. It is also common knowledge that those living on strips of lands adjoining the railway tracks are mostly poor. Occupants of the land in question had used their hard-earned money to buy a small piece of land for building their homes. They have been paying house tax, water cess and power bills regularly. However, social media is being used to build a narrative to the effect that people of a certain community are terrorists and a threat to law and order.
What is painful to see is that the Revenue Department, which first allowed people to settle there, registered their sale deeds and demanded house tax, electricity charges and so on from them, failed to state whether the encroached land belonged to the railways alone or also to the government.
It is sad that the High Court pronounced a judgment which could have had cataclysmic fallout in the Terai. What 50,000 people turning homeless overnight means is beyond the grasp of those for whom a piece of land is more important than the people concerned. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that rehabilitation is an important issue, though only time will tell what its final verdict will be.
It should also not be forgotten that when the movement demanding a separate Uttarakhand state was gaining ground, a section of the people had duly written to the government arguing that the Terai region should not be made a part of the new state as its culture was different from that of the hilly region. This cultural divide may take a dangerous turn in the times to come, because the population of the plains of Uttarakhand will exceed that of hills. The population of districts like Haridwar and Shaheed Udham Singh Nagar will be more than that of the remaining state. In case delimitation of assembly constituencies is done, the number of seats in the hilly districts will be reduced to match its population proportion. It is akin to the anxiety in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and other states in south India, who will be left with a lesser number of seats in Lok Sabha and the elation in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the number of seats will increase, owing to the quantum jump in their populations.
The Terai region mainly comprises immigrants from other states. The Tharu and Boksa tribes – the original inhabitants of this region – have been reduced to a minority on their own land. After the partition, the government had settled refugees from Punjab and Bengal in the Terai.
Many of those who are sought to be evicted in Haldwani have been living there since 1907. They have been granted their title deeds by the municipal bodies and the revenue department. How, then, is their possession of the title deeds unauthorized? If the government starts evicting people from their homes merely because they do not have ownership documents, a majority of people in India will be rendered homeless.
The Terai region is sitting on a volcano. The reason is that land management has still not been done with honesty and transparency. The entire Udham Singh Nagar is dotted with huge farmhouses, mostly built on land belonging to the Tharus and people of other local communities. Raising land issues can bring your life under threat here. There is a huge cultural divide between the Terai and the hilly regions of Uttarakhand, and that is because most of the people settled in the Terai are outsiders. The Terai area had more than enough land for the Adivasis living there. But after Independence, the government settled Sikh, and then Bengali refugees, there. Then, people from Western Uttar Pradesh settled there, followed by those from eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Today, the situation in Lakhimpur Kheri and Pilibhit (both in Uttar Pradesh) and in Shaheed Udham Singh Nagar (Uttarakhand) is almost the same. Land ceiling laws have not been implemented sincerely, and big farmers are up in arms whenever chakbandi (land consolidation) is taken up.
A 25-year-long legal battle was fought from the lower courts up to the High Court for distribution of fazil (excess) land under the ceiling law. The High Court ordered the government to implement the law. However, the government did not dispossess the people of their illegally occupied land and kept the truth from the court till the last moment.
It is well known that there comes a stage when the courts get tired of reiterating their orders. Moreover, they depend entirely on the government for information and facts. So, if the officials tell the court that their orders have been implemented, the claim is often accepted. I know from my personal experience that what the government says is often accepted by the courts, although in my case, the revenue secretary had to appear personally before the court and he was fined Rs 5000 for contempt of court.
In the present case, the attitude of the Uttarakhand government raises many questions. The government never honestly implemented the court order in the case of the 1167-acre Escort Farm case. Instead, it indulged in whataboutery and convinced the court that its order had not been disregarded. About 15 years ago, acting on my petition, the Uttarakhand Lokayukta had indicted many top officials, but the government simply ignored the Lokayukta and did not take any action against the encroachers. What is even more worrying is that no help was extended to the 150 Dalit families whose case I had pleaded. Institutions like SIDCUL (State Industrial Development Corporation of Uttarakhand Limited) and IIM, besides many factories, have come up on the land freed under ceiling law and this did not seem to interest the government earlier. New investors are coming to Rudrapur. But the government never evinced any interest in allotting the freed land to the Dalits. Even today, the ceiling law is yet to be enforced sincerely on scores of farms in Rudrapur, Haldwani, Kashipur and Khatima. Had it been done, thousands of landless would have got land. This is true of the Lakhimpur and Pilibhit districts of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. The drawing of new state boundaries has not made a difference to the social and political realities.
Be that as it may, the Uttarakhand government should go for permanent bandobast of land in Terai. Instead of harassing the people in Haldwani, it should survey and explore ways and means of rehabilitating them. Only then can we hope for a permanent solution to the problem. Evicting people will only worsen the law and order situation. While laws should be enforced, it is also imperative to respect the rights of the people and to ensure that undesirable and unpleasant situations are not allowed to develop.
(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)
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