By Sunil Garodia
First publised on 2023-01-07 06:24:18
With a huge number of migrants and homeless people in cities and towns, encroachment of government land is a serious problem in India. Huge tracts of land owned by the government or government-owned entities (and even privately-owned land in some places) have been occupied by illegal settlers all over the country. But, as the Supreme Court rightly pointed out in the case of Haldwani squatters on railways land, people who have made it their home for more than 40 years cannot be "uprooted overnight". The Supreme Court has always held that while illegal encroachment cannot be automatically legalized, the squatters cannot also be removed arbitrarily.
There is no doubt that what the squatters have done is illegal and discriminates against others who are homeless but if they have occupied the space and have been living there for decades (having identity and address proof documents issued by government authorities bearing the address of the plot, and in some cases even lease or title deeds) without any action on part of the authorities, it is inhumane and unfair to tell them to pack up and go.
To understand the problem, we have to examine the modus operandi under which such land is 'grabbed'. No one can build even a temporary structure, let alone grab a piece of land and build a permanent house on it, without the active connivance of the political and administrative class. The former does it for creating a vote bank and the latter to their bidding and make some money on the side. Even a hawker setting up a roadside stall will be made to pay a lump sum amount and then daily or monthly 'fee' to be able to do business.
Hence, more than the squatters, it is those who give them protection or sell them dreams in the form of lease or ownership deeds or identity and address-proof documents or the 'right' to illegally occupy public space are at fault. Although things have now improved and the government and government-owned entities take good care of their land and do not allow squatters, the Supreme Court is right in saying that a humane solution needs to be found and using brute force to evict the squatters cannot be allowed.