The families — who have lived for decades in the city’s Charan Khad settlement — were evicted by the local municipal body four years ago and were left to fend for themselves
Around 50 families who live in poverty in Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamshala are struggling to survive amid the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on one hand and a fear of floods with the onset of monsoon on the other.
The families — who have lived for decades in the city’s Charan Khad settlement — were evicted by the local municipal body four years ago and were left to fend for themselves.
The eviction was in response to a high court order directing the state government to clear illegal settlements that allegedly posed a public health hazard.
The Charan Khad settlement was identified as one such area: It was located upstream in one of the primary water sources in the city, with the area reportedly being used as an open toilet by the community.
Dharamshala, incidentally, was identified under the Smart City Mission in 2015.
The families found shelter near another stream — 10 kilometres away from Dharamshala in Chetru village — where they built shanties as temporary settlements and awaited a response from authorities after demanding permanent housing.
“In four years, we approached every authority possible to grant us shelter, but are yet to receive a positive response,” said Raju Shinde, who heads Charan Khad Basti Punarwas Samiti (CKBPS).
The people who were evicted are descendants of Dalit families who migrated from Maharashtra, Rajasthan and West Bengal several decades ago, according to Shinde. They have been earning a living as cobblers, rag pickers and daily wage labourers since they settled in Himachal Pradesh.
It was only in the last couple of years that a few of them were employed as sanitation workers.
Forty-two families were enlisted as ration card holders in the past few years, while the remainder is still undergoing the process of registration. This effectively meant the families were faceless entities, living for decades on government land, only to be legally evicted.
“While locals around Charan Khad were used to their presence in the area, as they knew them for years, the families began facing resistance over their new settlement,” said Aditi Vajpeyi of non-profit Himdhara Collective.
A delegation of the families — along with civil society activists — met Rakesh Kumar Prajapati, Kangra district’s deputy commissioner on June 18, 2020 seeking rehabilitation.
Himachal Pradesh declared a yellow alert in the wake of the coming monsoon, something that has posed a risk to their settlements located in a flood plain, the delegation said.
“We have spent many monsoons sleepless, running for our lives, holding on to plastic sheets to keep a roof above our heads to protect our children and elderly,” said Naazuki, a member of the CKBPS.
Last week, Himachal Pradesh Chief Secretary Anil Khachi directed the district administrations and local bodies to deploy enough labour to clean the drains and avoid clogging in the area.
He called for removal of encroachments and blockages from drainage systems and flood plains, adding that people with habitations around river beds that are prone to flooding must be sensitised about their safety. Early warnings must be issued to them as well, in case of heavy downpour.
Prajapati told Down To Earth that since the families had no proof of having lived in Charan Khad for decades, they cannot be treated as bona fide citizens of the state. This will also prevent them from receiving land till they go through government modalities that will take several years.
“We cannot give them land as there are more than 100,000 migrants in the district. But we are looking for a safe site for their lodging,” he said.
The families did not get certificates as proof of being members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Shinde pointed out.
This stops them from receiving benefits of government schemes, he said, adding they now strived to get the required documentation.
“It is an irony that while refugees from Tibet and even those from the partition days get facilities, we have not been given the same all these years. We have been at the forefront of carrying out our duties as sanitation workers at a time like the COVID-19 outbreak,” Shinde said.
“The Union government promised housing for all by 2022. Crores of rupees were spent on the Integrated Housing Slum Development Programme,” said Sumit Mahar of the Kangra Citizens Rights Group.
The government should account for these funds and provide shelter free of any cost to the community displaced from Charan Khad, he said.
The COVID-19 outbreak prompted the state government to issue several statements asking migrant workers to stay back and contribute to the state’s economy, Mahar pointed out.
“Here are migrant workers who lived here for decades and provided services to the city,” he said.
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