Is There No Place for the Poor in Dharamshala "Smart" City?

The migration of poor, homeless people in distress from faraway rural areas to upcoming urban and sub-urban hubs is not a new phenomenon. The demolition of the Charan Khad settlement in Dharamshala on 16 and 17 June 2016, is a classic story of slum demolition and the ongoing struggle of displaced people. Dharamshala is one more example of urbanisation where people were rendered homeless in the wake of the city being declared “smart.”

 

Dharamshala, located in the lap of the Dhauladhar ranges of the Himalayas in Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh is famous for the Indian Premier League cricket matches and has been a haven for foreign tourists for years. The place provided refuge to a Tibetans from across national borders. It is ironic then that the same city is suddenly unable to accommodate a few hundred families, because they are “illegal occupants,” when they had been part of building the city itself. 

Charan Khad Settlement

The origin of the Charan Khad settlement dates back to the early 1980s, when families from the Sansi tribe of Rajasthan and Mangoris from Maharashtra migrated to the area. The settlement came up on a piece of government-owned land near the Charan khad (stream) below the existing new municipal office. At the time of eviction, on 16 and 17 June 2016, there were 291 families residing in the area.1 Most of these families lead a hand to mouth existence. Some of them migrated from Rajasthan, and are marginally better off than the rest. The 45 families from Maharashtra who have been mostly doing rag-picking work in and around the city are the poorest. While the Rajasthani families are street vendors, barbers, shoe-polishers, petty guides and daily wagers. Some of them recall that they had provided labour for the construction of roads and buildings in the city. 

Overcoming their difficult circumstances, many of these families, with support from some local organisations have enrolled their children in both public and private schools in Dharamshala city. A few of these children have excelled and are now pursuing higher education like medicine, engineering and business management. The Municipal Corporation of Dharamshala (MCD) demolished their shelters at the peak of exam ination time and the children thus could not sit for their exams. 

Eviction Background

Interestingly, the birth of Dharamshala as a municipal corporation and as a smart city happened around the same time.

Dharamshala was a municipal council referred to as a nagar panchayat till September 2015. As a response to one of the right to information applications, the MCD stated that Charan Khad settlement has never been officially declared a slum under the Himachal Pradesh Slum Act 1979. Yet, the authorities did not explain why this “illegal settlement” on government land was allowed to stand all these years. 

The joint commissioner of the MCD initiated the eviction proceedings with a notice dated 16 May 2016. The order, pointed out that in a district level meeting conducted on 8 February 2016, “open defecation” in the Charan Khad settlement area was discussed as a crucial issue against the backdrop of the threat of jaundice epidemic. Moreover, through a letter sent by the Irrigation and Public Health (IPH) department on 29 April 2016, it was alleged that pipe lines in the Charan Khad area had been damaged deliberately by the slum dwellers, and hence that had a constant leakage problem. The subdivisional magistrate (SDM) also alleged there was danger of contamination of drinking water due to the open defecation. However, there were no water sampling reports that suggested contamination. In fact, the IPH confirmed that all pipelines are laid out upstream the Charan Khad settlement area. The SDM relied merely on a site visit where he reported that sewage pipes were broken, but there was no investigation to find out the responsible person or to fix the problem. 

Misled Displaced People

The tenants had discussion with the MCD for an alternate rehabilitation with facilities in the month of March 2016, when they heard about the plan to demolish their settlements. The deputy commissioner, joint commissioner and the mayor of the MCD regularly and verbally assured them that they would be rehabilated at an alternate site. However, there was no written agreement or plan. Instead, some alternate sites were shown to them in villages such as Passu, Sarran and Gamru outside Dharamshala. But these places lacked basic amenities. 

The authorities neither communicated with the local panchayats of these villages about the proposed rehabilitation plan in their villages’ common land sites nor attempted to involve village panchayats in the process of identifying and acquiring land for these evictees. Just a few days before the eviction, the Charan Khad tenants received threats from these villagers that they would be thrown out if they entered the village territories. When the members of the Kangra Citizens Rights Group went to meet local representatives for further discussions regarding shelter for the Charan Khad oustees after eviction, they expressed disapproval about their village commons being used for their shanties.

The Final Eviction

The final notice for the eviction was issued on 3 June 2016 about two weeks before the actual demolition, following an appeal (under CWP 1378 of 2016) by a few members of the Charan Khad tenants, who approached the high court when they felt that the eviction was imminent. The court had directed the respondents, namely, the MCD to take action “as warranted under the law.” The joint commissioner in the order dated 3 June 2016 cited Section 278 of the HP Municipal Corporation Act 1994 for the “removal of the slum.” This section is related to “disputes” and an area being a “public hazard” (because of the open defecation). Till recently open defecation was common in Himachal Pradesh. Following the implementation of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan Himachal Pradesh, it is claimed has joined the status of an open defecation free (ODF) state. Driving away people who defecate in the open space is not the aim of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, and it remains to be explained as to why sanitation facilities could not have been provided to the people of Charan Khad to deal with the issue. 

The eviction finally took place on 16 and 17 June 2016. Infants, toddlers, children, disabled people, the aged, and women—including pregnant women and sick—were evicted from their homes despite the monsoon rains. Their housing materials were burnt and much of their belongings were thrown away on the streets. People were loaded into trucks and tempos and taken across forests, riversides and villages in the Kangra Valley. Many of them were separated and got scattered. They were offloaded into the villages like Passu, Sarran, Gamru, Yol and Dagwar, outside Dharamshala. While they were chased away in many places elsewhere, villagers offered houses for rent. With an earning of  `200 a day, this was a tough call for them. But they had no choice. Some of the evacuees returned to Rajasthan while others migrated to Punjab. But close to 70% of the families from Rajasthan and the entire group of people from Maharashtra stayed back and settled in rented small rooms. Meanwhile, some others have taken rented tents (jhuggi) for `700 near Chaitru on the bank of Manjhi Khad, which swells up in each monsoon season, so much so that the families have to stay awake throughout the night on the edges of the river till the rain recedes. This is how they spent the entire monsoon season in 2016.

The authorities’ arguments of “public interest” and “illegal encroachment” barely hold ground in the Charan Khad eviction case, given that there are several illegal constructions in Dharamshala and that too for commercial purposes that have come up over the years which have not been removed but rather protected (TOI 2017). Meanwhile, some recent reports show that unauthorised constructions of septic tanks have also destabilised the slopes in McLoed Ganj, but almost no action has been taken to deal with such issues (Mohan 2015). What went against the Charan Khad community is the inherent bias that the authorities have against them for not being “Himachalis” and furthermore for being poorest of the poor.

One Year After

As there was no progress in the rehabilitation process, the displaced people of Charan Khad approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). As a response to the NHRC, the MCD responded to its enquiry that they were “illegal occupants,” and cited once more the high court order which allowed them to carry out the eviction. 

In its final judgment delivered on 28 June 2016, interestingly, the High Court of Himachal Pradesh had said that the affected people could approach the concerned authority for “grievance redressal.” That is what the Charan Khad Basti Punarwas Samiti, has been doing. Apart from the appeal to NHRC, the committee wrote to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, chief minister, district collector, commissioner, and the chief executive officer of the proposed smart city. In one instance, authorities informed them about the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna Scheme. About 115 displaced families from Charan Khad submitted their applications for homes under this scheme hopefully despite having no Aadhar cards or any other identity proof. 

Thirty people of the Charan Khad basti also listed themselves as cleaners under  private contractors who hired them to manage waste in the smart city. Raju, one of them said that they managed the waste better as independent waste pickers and even made a better wage. These cleaners were promised a wage of  Rs 6,000 per month, but they were not paid for almost 40 days. After a few months of work and not being paid on time, these 30 workers (Maharashtra) quit their job with this contractor. 

To mark the one year of the struggle for rehabilitation, the Charan Khad Basti Punarwas Samiti supported by the Kangra Citizen's Rights Group organised a campaign called “Citymakers for Justice” in Dharamshala in June 2017. As a part of this, a photo exhibition narrating the journey of this displaced community was displyed at Shaheed Smarak Park, near Hanuman Mandir and at the main market square of McLeod Ganj. The campaign sought and received support from many people including citizens of Dharamshala, as well as tourists for their demand for rehabilitation. A petition signed by 350 people during this public event was submitted to the commissioner of the MCD appealing for immediate rehabilitation of the displaced people. As a result these 25–30 cleaners were hired again as door-to-door garbage collectors and were promised proper wages. 

In the last two months as the monsoon rains made life harder, the Charan Khad Basti Punarwas Samiti members met the commissioner and the district magistrate innumerable times asking for allotment of a piece of land near Gamru village close to Dharamshala, which was shown to them earlier by the administration. But there was only one response, “it is difficult to allot land.” The Divisional Commissioner, Nandini Gupta, who is also the chair of the Board of Directors of Smart City, in a personal meeting in August even went on to suggest that they must approach a private eminent citizen to donate land for them. 

Smart City – What about Inclusion?

Inclusion is a word that is written into almost all smart city documents. The City Development Plan (CDP) for Dharamshala also does not fail to mention “inclusion.” 

“This CDP, therefore, truly reflects the vision of the citizens including the poor and the slum-dwellers and the members of Dharamshala municipal council along with other officials who are determined to make Dharamshala a futuristic city in the next few years.” 2

In the name of slum-dwellers and the homeless there are two housing projects already under construction in the city. One is just opposite the old Charan Khad settlement. The construction is close to completion and it seems to be under the Integrated Housing and Slum Development Programme. The funds, approximately  Rs 3.68 crore in round one, were allotted for IHSDP in 2008. Up until 2016, Rs 2.53 crore had been spent. This is not the only fund that has been directed to Dharamshala for the homeless. Under the Shelter for Homeless Scheme, a part of the National Urban Livelihood Mission, a lot of money has been spent to build an all weather rain shelter at Dharamshala. However, no discussion was conducted for the displaced people of Charan Khad.

The smart city proposal actually does little to streamline any policies towards inclusion. In fact, it does exactly the opposite. “In the lobbying efforts with the Dharamshala Municipal Corporation our interaction with the mayor who gave repeated assurances while stating that she was helpless, revealed her lack of power to intervene,” says Sumit Mahar of the Kangra Citizens Rights Group, supporting the community. The urban local bodies (ULBs) seem to have been severely compromised by the Smart City Mission. The special purpose vehicle (SPV) has centralised power into the hands of the bureaucratic officials within the corporation. A look at the SPV notification3 for the smart city by the urban development department confirms this. Decision-making powers of the ULBs have been now vested with the managing director of the smart city and those of the urban development department with the board of directors of the SPV, chaired by the divisional commisioner. Academics and experts have rightly raised concerns that “the influence of private investors and consulting firms in urban governance is likely to increase with Smart Cities” (Idiculla 2015). Dilution of the 74th Amendment of the Constitution is a threat that has been highlighted. 

One of the key persons who was behind the smart city Project is Sudhir Sharma, the urban development minister and the member of legislative assembly (MLA) of the Congress party. He lobbied with the central government and garnered citizen’s support to ensure the inclusion of Dharamshala in the central government's smart city list, even while the municipal corporation was less than a year old and did not have the capacity to deal with many of the governance issues. In fact, the MCD was formed after merging eight neighbouring villages, still reaching a population of only about Rs 50,000. Today, the municipal corporation which is short-staffed is under a massive financial burden. Further, news reports say that the state government too does not have the fiscal capacity to contribute its share of funds to the smart city project (Mohan 2017).

The Same Old Story

The demolition of the Charan Khad settlement on 16 June 2016 is a classic “slum demolition” story from a city. The migration of poor, homeless people in distress, from faraway rural areas to upcoming urban and sub-urban hubs is not a new phenomenon, and in fact, is as old as the industrial revolution itself. Yet, in the last 200 years, despite rapid modernisation and progress, we have not been able to address the fundamental issue of basic rights of migrants, workers and slum-dwellers in the city, especially access to dignified shelter and livelihood. In a scenario where the class and wealth gap is widening, given this very model of growth, the homeless can only be hopeless. Schemes and plans have come and gone and crores have been spent. We have little reason to believe that the long-drawn promise of inclusion will now become a reality with the Smart City Mission. In fact, Dharamshala is just one more example where people were rendered homeless in the wake of the city being declared “smart.” Meanwhile, tourists can look forward to a sky bus from Dharamshala to McLoed Ganj (Bodhi 2017), a Rs 250-crore project signed recently with a company from Belarus. You may not be able to point that country on the international map, but this is the only project Dharamshala Smart City has to show this far. 

 

Notes

1 With the help of the United Nations Development Programme, the MCD conducted a survey of the settlement in February 2016.

City Development Plan, Dharamshala, available at: http://mcdharamshala.in/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Concept-Note-for-City-Development-Plan-CDP.pdf.

3 Notification of thevDepartment of Urban Development, Government of Himachal Pradesh, dated 24 June 2016;  notific http://mcdharamshala.in/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Dharamshala_GO.pdf

References

Bodhi, Anand (2017): “Smart City Dharamshala to Get Skybus,” The Times of India, 24 March, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chandigarh/smart-city-dharamshal....

Idiculla, Mathew (2015): “Will Smart Cities stifle Local Democracy?,” Scroll.in, 20 December, https://scroll.in/article/776459/will-smart-cities-stifle-local-democrac...

Mohan, Lalit (2015): “Leaking Septic Tanks Pose Landslide Threat in McLeodganj,” Tribune,  6 April, http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/himachal/community/leaking-septic-tanks....

Mohan, Lalit (2017): “Centre Denies 90% Aid to Dharamsala,” Tribune, 3 July, available at: http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/himachal/centre-denies-90-Aid-to-dharam...

TOI (2017): “Dharamshala Municipal Corporation Loses TCP Towers,” The Times of India, 15 June: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/shimla/dharmshala-mc-loses-tcp-p....

 

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