By Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI, July 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian authorities began demolishing hundreds of homes in a village on the outskirts of New Delhi on Wednesday, in a move that housing activists said could leave 100,000 people homeless.
India's top court last month ordered the removal of "encroachers including by forcible eviction" from Khori village, which is home to about 10,000 families of informal workers, including street food vendors, cleaners and tuk-tuk drivers.
Their homes were built illegally on protected forest land, which is part of the Aravalli mountain range that stretches nearly 700 km (435 miles) through northern and western India.
About 300 homes were razed on Wednesday amid monsoon rains by the municipality of Faridabad district in Haryana state, according to activists at the site, and thousands more are set to be destroyed before the Supreme Court deadline of July 19.
"We don't have anywhere to go. We will get drenched here. I have small children," one woman - who was not named - told local news channel NDTV after her home of 15 years was demolished.
Neither district authorities nor local police responded to requests for comment.
The demolition drive started a day after the state announced a rehabilitation plan that would make residents eligible to live in low-cost flats if they met certain criteria, such as having an annual family income of less than 300,000 rupees ($4,025).
Under the plan, 2,000 rupees will be given to the residents to rent alternative housing for a period of six months.
Housing campaigners criticised the release of the plan one day before the demolition, and urged the government to conduct a survey to identify beneficiaries, give them ample time to prove their claims, and also link people to welfare schemes for work.
"Within 24 hours of just announcing the plan, you destroy the homes? What kind of welfare state is this?," said Nirmal Gorana, member of the Khori Mazdoor Awas Sangharsh Samiti, an organisation representing the interests of residents.
"You cannot uproot them and leave them to die in a pandemic," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Khori.
India's coronavirus caseload of nearly 31 million infections is the world's second-highest behind the United States. The United Nations last year said access to adequate housing was the "front line defence against the COVID-19 outbreak".
Video footage posted on Twitter by district authorities showed an earthmover bulldozing and demolishing homes, with bricks and corrugated tin roofs crashing down as police in riot gear and residents looked on.
In a similar case, the Supreme Court last September ordered the demolition of tens of thousands of shacks alongside railway tracks in Delhi.
Nearly 15 million people in India live under the threat of displacement, according to the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) that compiles an annual record of evictions.
Last year, at least 20,000 people were evicted between March 16 and July 31 according to the HLRN data, despite court orders that banned such actions during lockdowns to contain COVID-19.
"(Forced evictions) result in people being pushed into extreme poverty and as such pose a risk to the right to life," said Choudhary A. Z. Kabir of the Human Rights Law Network.
"Residents of Khori village are being pushed into destitution."
($1 = 74.5540 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Kieran Guilbert; 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)