Thousands of people who faced the prospect of being left homeless in the middle of the harsh North Indian winter won a major reprieve from the Supreme Court on Thursday as it paused an eviction drive on railway land in Uttarakhand’s Haldwani.
“There cannot be uprooting of 50,000 people overnight… It’s a human issue, some workable solution needs to be found,” the Supreme Court said, as it stopped an Uttarakhand High Court order that had cleared the eviction of the people who live in some 4,000 homes after a case that went on for years.
Referring to the suggestion by the high court of using force to evict the people, the Supreme Court said, “It may not be correct to say that paramilitary forces have to be deployed to remove people who have been living there for decades.”
The court also stopped any construction in the area and sought responses from the railways and the Uttarakhand government. It said the case will be heard again next month.
Supreme Court Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice AS Oka took up the case a day after activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan made a formal request.
The order comes as a major relief for residents who have been holding candle marches, sit-ins and prayers to stop the eviction.
The area covers a 2-km strip of land near the Haldwani railway station – Gafoor Basti, Dholak Basti and Indira Nagar, in Banbhulpura area.
Besides houses – nearly half of the families claim to have a land lease – the area even has four government schools, 11 private schools, a bank, two overhead water tanks, 10 mosques, and four temples, besides shops, built over decades.
The matter reached court in 2013 when a petition was originally about illegal sand mining in a river near the area.
The district administration, following the court’s order of December 20 after a long litigation, had issued a notice in the newspapers asking people to take away their belongings by January 9.
Blaming the BJP government for action against an area where most residents happen to be Muslim, activists and politicians had also joined the protests.
Senior Congress leader and former chief minister Harish Rawat held an hour-long ‘maun vrat’ (vow of silence) at his home in the state capital Dehradun.
“Uttarakhand is a spiritual state,” he said, “If 50,000 people including children, pregnant women, old men and women are forced to vacate their homes and come out on roads, then it would be a very sad sight,” he said.
Mr Dhami has said his government will respect the Supreme Court’s decision.