“Everyday, as you go about your daily chores, many things will pick at your conscience,” AK Singh told me, as we sat in the small conference room of AK Singh and Company—his law firm in Saket. Singh has been a practicing lawyer for over 37 years. Well over a year ago, in early 2014, he was travelling by train to Agra, with friends who were visiting from different parts of the world. It was then, he told me, that he realised what was troubling his conscience. The squalid scenery that is a part of every train journey in India made him squirm in his seat as the coach he was in hurtled past the urban slums that had sprung up beside the railway tracks. “People defecating in the open…garbage thrown on tracks…kids playing in dirtiness,” he recalled, adding, “It was embarrassing.” The memory has stayed with him.
Shortly after, Singh decided to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) regarding the matter. This litigation was filed before the principal bench at the National Green Tribunal in Delhi on 26 July 2014. The petition’s primary objective was to highlight the government’s lackadaisical response to “the huge amount of plastic and human waste” on railway stations and tracks across India. It was filed by Saloni Singh, Singh’s daughter who was, at the time, working at AK Singh and Company, and Arush Pathania, an advocate who is still with the firm. When I asked Singh why he did not file the petition himself, he said, “It is too much of a bother for me to be the petitioner, on the days of the hearing I might be occupied otherwise.”
A few months later, in October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan—Clean India Mission—to much fanfare. Buoyed by the enthusiasm that appeared to surround this programme, Singh grew hopeful about the fate of his petition. “Our petition was in line with the wish and the directive of the PM,” he told me. The Tribunal seemed to be acting swiftly too. The respondents in the petition—the Ministry of Railways (Union of India), the Railway Board, the Ministry of Environment and Forest, the Central Pollution Control Board, and the Rail India Technical and Economic Service (RITES)—were asked by the Tribunal to file replies to the petition, stating the steps they intended to take by 22 August.
Although the bench led by Justice Swatanter Kumar eventually conceded to the points that were raised in Singh’s petition, very little has changed in the past 15 months. On 7 October, earlier this month, the tribunal was attempting to understand why the slum clusters scattered around railway tracks in Delhi had not been relocated, despite the myriad problems that they result in, for both the residents and those who used these public spaces. The counsel for the railways has told the bench that it is these slums that cause the most amount of pollution, and that the Delhi government is not willing to relocate the colonies to other resettlement hubs. Meanwhile, Singh’s petition has lost its track in a depressingly familiar fashion.
The Indian railways and its cleanliness lie at the intersection of several arms that comprise India’s unwieldy state machinery. This complex structure made the issue Singh raised, a contentious one. Unsurprisingly, fingers began to point soon enough. “The main source of pollution at the tracks are jhuggies (slums) situated [nearby] and hence the problem will only be solved after the removal of such jhuggies,” the counsel for railways duly noted before the bench on 18 December. This opened a can of worms. The central issue of cleaning the railways got side-tracked; as firstly, the Tribunal had to rid the railways of slum clusters scattered around its lines.
“To remove every slum cluster constructed around the railway tracks spread out in the lengths and breadth of India would have taken forever,” Singh told me, “so the Tribunal said let’s start with Delhi—it could be a model for the rest of the country.” The Tribunal had another, more plausible, reason to start with the capital. The counsel for railways had also reminded the bench that the Municipal Corporation of Delhi had been allotted Rs 11.25 crore by the Railway Board over a decade ago, in 2003, to clear slum clusters around the tracks in Delhi. It had evidently failed to do so. In 2003, when the MCD had received this money from the Railway Board, there were 4,410 slums that needed to be demolished. More than a decade since, only 257 slums have been resettled according to the Tribunal. At this point, the railway officers informed the tribune, close to 10,000 jhuggies have emerged near the seven kilometre stretch of tracks that pass through Azadpur, Adarsh Nagar and Dayabasti.
Since 2010, the responsibility for this relocation has been under the ambit of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB). This body that functions under the control of the Delhi government, took over the Slum and JJ Department from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. As a result, the tribunal now had to make the Delhi government a respondent to the petition.
The railway tracks in Delhi stretch across 70 kilometers of the city, 22 of which are dotted by slums well within the safety zone—an area of 30 metres on either side of the outermost track. Furthermore, the slums across seven out of these 22 kilometres are situated within 15 metres of the tracks. Some of these, the report to the Tribunal went on to state, are not even two metres away; a fact that was reiterated through the pictures that the railway counsel showed to the bench in December last year.
“When people are living in the safety zone, you see, it is a security hazard before an environmental issue,” Singh told me during our chat. Avikal Somvanshi, who works with the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an organisation that often advises the Delhi government on matters such as slum resettlement, agreed with Singh. However, the premise of Singh’s petition is that these clusters are problematic due to the lack of hygiene and pollution that they result in. This was an argument that did not find favour with Somvanshi. “To say that these people need to be resettled elsewhere from a security point of view is legitimate, but to make the case from an environmental perspective is a bit far-reaching,” he told me. “The state has failed these people. Failed to provide them with decent habitat, and failed to provide them with toilets and water supply and so on.”
Somvanshi was also quick to point out that the Delhi government’s negligence is visible in the resettlement colonies that have been constructed in areas such as Bhalswa, Savda Ghevra, and Bawana. “They were not connected at that point to the main city, so slum dwellers wouldn’t have a livelihood if they moved there. Further, the procedures for ensuring the eligibility of a slum dweller to be awarded a place in resettlement colonies is often quite complicated,” he added.
Somvanshi was not alone in raising these concerns. Although the CSE is not advising the government in this case, the stance that the ruling Aam Aadmi Party has decided to adopt in this matter is fairly similar. Last month, the government approved a new slum policy which, an official statement said, would focus on “the in-situ rehabilitation of slums in Delhi.” This would mean, according to Akhilesh Tripathi, the representative of the AAP who is also a board member of DUSIB, that those who are staying in slums would need to be resettled within an area that is not more than five kilometres away from their current position. “If these people are rooted up from wherever they are living now and dropped somewhere on the fringes of the city, they will lose their livelihood,” he stated.
In March this year, the tribunal passed an order in favour of Singh’s petition regarding the matter. It stated, “it is undisputable and in fact it is not disputed by any of the stake holder before us that throwing of municipal solid waste and human evacuation on the railway tracks and along their side is the major source of environmental degradation in these areas.” The order went on to note that the state of railway stations and tracks, “is not only an eye sore but causes substantial impact upon the public health.” “There was inaction on the part of all the [sic] concerned,” it added. The order directed the railway authorities and the other departments to ensure, among other things, that “all platforms are kept clean and free of municipal waste.” It also mandated that DUSIB “prioritise the sections of the 7 km stretch at the first stage from where the process of rehabilitation of these Jhuggies shall be initiated,” emphasising that, “it shall be a time bound programme and finally not later than 6 month [sic] from the date of passing of this order."
Yet, by May this year, Singh’s erstwhile optimism was fading away. He began to sense that he was now waging a losing battle with bureaucratic balk. In a letter addressed to the prime minister, dated 27 May 2015, Singh's office tried to bring Modi's attention to the unhygienic conditions at the railway tracks across the country. The letter asked the PM's office for "urgent intervention" in the matter to ensure the effective implementation of the order that was issued by the Tribunal in March. Singh noted, “The railway authorities have taken a few rightful steps to effectuate the above stated order although much is still left to be implemented.” He alleged that the directives from the order were being followed only with respect to “Delhi, NCR [National Capital Region] and surrounding areas,” even though the problem of pollution is one that “concerns the other railway stations across the country.”
And as the progress on the petition stalled, Singh’s optimism has been supplanted by scorn. “The prime minister had asked us to clean our houses and the streets, but what has happened except mayors and celebrities getting their pictures clicked with a broom?” he said. “All this is a distraction—you involve more and more departments and they all just point fingers at each other. Nothing happens.”
Early this month, Justice Swatanter Kumar—the chairperson of the Tribunal who heads the principal bench—betrayed his frustration at the state of affairs as well and slapped the DUSIB for its apparent indolence. “From the year 2004, you did not get the chance to shift these slums. What have you done to relocate jhuggies in these years? These people are living near the tracks, discharging waste, causing human defecation. These people block the tracks. There is also a threat to their lives on the track,” he said, during a hearing on 7 October with the chief executive officer of the DUSIB, VK Jain, who had been summoned by the tribunal the day before.
“We are dealing with this issue for a considerable period of time. We were assured [in March 2015] that their [sic] resettlement of slums would be done within six months. Nothing has happened till date. We want action to be taken. It is your headache. We do not want waste to litter on tracks and diseases to spread all around,” Justice Kumar added. Jain reportedly told the bench that “the board was undertaking construction of flats under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and 25,000 flats have already been constructed.”
Though not nearly enough, 25,000 flats, had they been constructed, would have been a great leap forward. However, there are caveats. During conversation over the phone with a senior DUSIB official who refused to be named, I was told of the complications that the board has been facing in heavy, bureaucratic terms. I learnt that the 25,000 flats Jain was speaking of, were stuck in varying stages of construction. These are spread across different parts of the city, including Bawana and Savda Ghera, and will need another six months to “become habitable.” Before allotting these flats, the official told me, the DUSIB will require money from the railway board to construct more flats elsewhere. When I asked him about the Rs 11.25 crore that the board had received from the MCD in 2003, he said that it was so small an amount that it was insignificant and that the board would behappy to pay it back. He added that flats had been constructed with that money, “But those flats were given to other slum dwellers because that was a case of overriding priority.” During that time, Delhi was undergoing its beautification in preparation for the Commonwealth Games of 2010, and there were “over-riding priorities” everyday. The Delhi Development Authority was supposed to return the land used for these overriding priorities to the MCD, and according to the official, the “DUSIB is taking the matter up with them.”
As for the new settlements, the DUSIB official told me, the Railway Board would have to allocate space, as it is the land-owning authority in this case, and would have to bear the cost of resettlement. “So, what will the DUSIB do,”I asked. “Our job in the process of slum resettlement, as noted in the DUSIB Act of 2010, is to work as a coordinating agency and make policies with the consent of the land-owning agency,” he said, in an even-toned voice.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.