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“Rules Are There Only for the Poor”

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“I feel that the poor in this country never get justice.”

In the biting cold of December, the Railways undertook a demolition drive in Delhi, resulting in the death of a baby. When this case came up for hearing in the Supreme Court, Justice Markandey Katju tweeted about a landmark PIL filed by senior journalist OLGA TELLIS in 1981, wherein the SC said that those living on the streets should be given alternate accommodation before undertaking a demolition drive. Moreover, prior notice should be issued to the slum dwellers. In an interview with NEETA KOLHATKAR, Tellis says the poor get no justice in India and while we are a politically democratic country, we have miles to go before achieving economic democracy. Excerpts:

Recently, Justice Markandey Katju mentioned your PIL in a tweet. The PIL was the turning point in slum demolition. What prompted you to file it, considering that few journalists have gone beyond their line of duty, which is reporting?
In 1980, then Maharashtra chief minister AR Antulay announced at a press conference that the state government had approved the demolition drive that was to be undertaken by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. I was a senior journalist then and questioned Antulay on the efficacy of the action as I realised that the government was not going to stand by the poor and would demolish their slums. A human rights group had filed a case to stop the demolition, saying the poor had no scope to move out in the rains. The right to housing was only a Directive Principle and not a basic fundamental right.

However, Justice B Lentin ordered a stop to the demolition in the monsoons. I was quite disturbed that it was stalled only in the monsoons and spoke to human rights groups and lawyers who said there was no way out.  


My contention was that the poor were mostly from rural areas and had migrated to cities due to the failure of the government’s policies, lack of employment opportunities and abject poverty. It is primarily for economic reasons that they are forced to live on the streets.

I was part of a group that used to meet every night and discussed various issues and problems. Around this time, Justice Bhagwati had just initiated a PIL in the Supreme Court for filing cases by independent citizens and he had encouraged the public to use it effectively for larger issues.

I sent a letter urging him to look into the economic compulsions of the rural poor and this being the main reason for them to live on the streets. I always wanted this letter to be an economic document. It had to be based on economic understanding; only then would the courts understand the compulsions and ramifications of this issue.

I sent my letter to the Supreme Court, which was converted into a PIL. I spoke to senior lawyer Indira Jaising and she said she would fight the case. That is how the compulsion for providing alternate housing before a demolition and later, providing it free to the poor in Maharashtra, came into being.

We see the impact of this PIL even today as the poor on the streets of Mumbai have been granted free housing. Did you anticipate such an impact?
This judgment widened the scope of the rights of the poor to providing the right to quality of life. This then widened the scope of Article 14 of the constitution. It is not just about halting a demolition. One needs to understand the abject poverty of these people. They come with absolutely nothing to these streets. And the slums have inhuman conditions. Safety, hunger, loss of livelihood…so many issues are interconnected.

Article 14 is about Equality before Law—the state shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of laws within the territory of India. Equal protection before law is important for people across the strata.

One criticism is that your PIL went beyond the duty of a reporter. Is this activist journalism, which, in fact, the media is turning to today?
I can’t be bothered about what a journalist is supposed to report. I don’t follow any such rules of what I can or should not do. I follow the Gita, which clearly states that one should do one’s work and do what is right. I did what I felt was right and what was needed to be done. I still follow this rule.

Recently, there was a demolition in Delhi which resulted in the death of a baby. We still see slums being demolished either by builders or agencies. Do we ever learn from our lessons?
I feel that the poor in this country never get justice. They are treated as disposable commodities. What happened in Delhi is heart-wrenching. Had the authorities been as sympathetic to the poor as to the rich, our society would have been different. So many illegal flats, buildings and townships without NOCs are legalised despite court rulings. How are they allowed to exist and function with all infrastructure?

uneasy coexistence Slums and high-rises exist cheek-by-jowl in Mumbai
Uneasy Coexistence: Slums and high-rises exist cheek-by-jowl in Mumbai.

The rich and elite get away with everything. We have no economic democracy. We have only political democracy. Sadly, there are no provisions in our constitution to save the poor. Rules are there for the poor and none for the rich and elite.

The problem is politicians only capitalise on such situations. We saw Rahul Gandhi speak, but only after the demolition. There are different ways to earn political brownie points after every such incident. Political parties have their agenda and people need to understand this. They need to rise in protest.

Leading corporate lawyer Zia Mody has used your case in her book 10 Judgements That Changed India. Your case is taught in law colleges too. Do you feel proud that you have made a difference?
If we look at this case, what was the goal? We haven’t reached that goal. Whether my case is being taught or being mentioned in a book, doesn’t matter because this is not the ultimate goal of my case.

The basic issue remains, which is that people living on the streets have to be rehabilitated. At least Maharashtra has a Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) and has come up with a plan to give free housing to slum dwellers, though this housing too is inhuman.

We then hear stories of this being contested in court with the accusation that many slum dwellers have sold out their SRA flats. But is that an issue to be contested? Almost all rich and elite are doing it too. Almost all original owners have been replaced by new occupants. Why is this not challenged in courts?

dire situation The scene after a demolition drive by the Railways in New Delhi in December
Dire Situation: The scene after a demolition drive by the Railways in New Delhi in December. (UNI)

We were promised all this would change with Narendra Modi. But whatever is happening is only at the top as he has full control there. The good thing is that Modi wants everything online. I agree that once things are online, corruption is reduced to a large extent. Processes become transparent. But for a complete overhaul, we need the public to rise and revolt. Then only will we see a positive change.

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