Supreme Court on January 5 will hear pleas challenging the proposed demolition of the more than 4,500 homes that have allegedly been built on encroached land belonging to the railways.
On December 20, 2022, a division bench of the Uttarakhand High Court directed Indian Railways and local authorities to remove "encroachment" after giving residents a week's notice.
Apart from the more than 4,500 homes, the disputed land—measuring almost 2.2 kilometers—also houses three government schools, 11 accredited private schools, 12 madrassas, 10 mosques, one public health care center, and one temple.
Even as the residents hope for prayer from the Supreme Court, more than 4000 families—some of who have been living on the land for decades—are braving the biting cold to agitate their cause with candlelight marches, sit-ins, and collective prayers.
BOOM looks at what the high court order said and its appeal.
Political shield by ex-ruling party to secure vote bank: HC
Division bench of the Uttarakhand High Court on December 20, 2022 reiterated its 2016 order and directed authorities to demolish illegal encroachments. "…the removal of the encroachment is necessitated, in order to meet out the urgent needs…and where a prolonged delayed process will be a danger for public by permitting the encroacher, claiming semblance of the right to obstruct the removal of encroachment," the high court judgment said.
However, before we discuss the December 2022 order, it is important to understand that since November 2016 several attempts were made, and pleas filed to stop the demolition of the alleged illegal encroachment.
The high court had ruled in favour of the Railways—which have been fighting to reclaim its land since 2013—and directed authorities to clear the encroachment within 10 weeks. However, the state government at the time led by Congress leader Harish Rawat had appealed against the eviction drive.
In its 172-page December 2022 order, the high court observed that the Congress-led government at the time had appealed against its initial 2016 order to secure its vote bank. The division bench said that the ex-ruling party provided a "most reckoned political shield" "for its political gains to the unauthorised occupants, just to secure its vote bank".
Last month's order is thus a culmination of an almost nine-year protracted battle where the Indian Railways sought to reclaim its encroached land.
Indian Railway's demarcation report arbitrary and illegal: plea against demolition
Residents affected by the eviction order contend that the April 7, 2021 demarcation report submitted by the Indian railways is arbitrary and illegal. The residents suggest that the land they occupy is nazul land which refers to government-owned non-agricultural land that can be leased or in some cases, even given as freehold. The issue of converting this nazul land into freehold is also pending, the plea said.
The plea said that the Demarcation Report played an "extremely vital role in driving the High Court to the conclusion" that those who have appealed are "illegal encroachers" on Railway Land. "However, a bare perusal thereof reveals no demarcation whatsoever," it read.
According to the plea, the state has reversed its stance and their support on this issue during the pendency of this matter. The plea said that in 2016 the state government had acknowledged the lawful occupation of the residents and the "illegal, unjust and arbitrary manner" in which the Railway authorities were behaving.
But, in December 2022 the state reversed its stance even though there has been "no change whatsoever" in the circumstances. It is pertinent to note that in November 2016 the state government was led by Congress leader Harish Rawat's party, whereas the BJP leader Pushkar Singh Dhami is the incumbent Chief Minister.
The plea, filed by advocate Prashant Bhushan, said the high court failed to appreciate ample evidence submitted by the residents proving their lawful occupation and that many applications filed by the residents during the COVID-19 wave were arbitrarily dismissed through ex-parte orders by the Estate Officer of the Railways.
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