India court backs long-time squatters on railway land

NEW DELHI, 5 Jan 2023:

The Supreme Court of India today stayed an order of a lower court – which had directed authorities to displace more than 50,000 people in the northern state of Uttarakhand, allegedly living on land owned by the national railways company.

“People stayed there for so many years. Some rehabilitation has to be given. There are establishments there. How can you say ‘in seven days clear them’?” the Supreme Court judges posed, according to specialised media outlet LiveLaw.

The court also urged the government and the Indian Railways to find a “practical solution” by the next hearing of the case on Feb 7, and also imposed a ban on the construction of new buildings on the land.

The judges were hearing a petition against an order of the Uttarakhand high court, which had in December ordered the demolition of buildings housing over 4,000 families in the city of Haldwani – after a long judicial process that began in 2013.

The demolition order by the court held that for decades, the families had been living on land belonging to the Indian Railways – and asked them to vacate a 2km-long stretch of land which houses several schools, mosques and small shops apart from residences.

In response to the high court verdict, the affected people started a series of mass-protests in Haldwani to demand ownership of the land, as a large number of residents claim to possess lease contracts.

The Supreme Court’s decision today was welcomed by the affected families.

“We are very happy and we thank the Supreme Court. We had hopes that the decision would be in our favour. Because the Court knows that these houses have stood here for an age, for 70-80 years,” a local told an Indian news broadcaster.

The long-term possession of the land has been a key factor in the top court’s decision, as the judges expressed concern over how to “deal with the scenario of people who have purchased the land in auction” or “lived there for 50-60 years.”

“Some rehabilitation scheme has to be done, even assuming it is railway land,” the court said.

A spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power in the state and central, said it “respected” the decision.

“The weather is very cold (these days) and the line taken by the Supreme Court is very clear: it wanted to provide relief to the people.”