Not even the right to be heard: A discussion with Kirity Roy on the Bellilious Park Eviction

Please describe a little of the history of Bellilious Park.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, a wealthy European named Isaac Bellilious settled his business in Howrah, and there he established the park that is his namesake, over an area of some 120 bighas [around 40 acres]. At that time, the park was outside the city limits. After he expired, his wife asked the municipality to look after the property, under a trust.

Around the time that the park fell into the hands of the municipality, Howrah was very prosperous, with flourishing industry. The municipality needed cleaners for its streets and neighbourhoods, so it arranged for agents in other parts of the country to send Dalits, so-called ‘untouchables’, to do this work. They came from places like Delhi, Haryana, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.

Because the people who were brought to work as cleaners were all Dalits, they had to be segregated from caste groups. The municipality decided that the park was a convenient location for them to be accommodated. Before independence in 1947, it erected a building on the parklands to house them, with at least 60 to 70 quarters. It built two more structures later, one in the early 1970s, and another in 1982. All these buildings were standing up until the time of the eviction. By that time, the number of persons in them and nearby dwellings is said to have been over 7000, although our own research suggests there may have been around 5000.

We have gone to the municipal authorities several times and pointed out that they were the ones to erect those buildings, but they have denied it. I personally asked the mayor, “Who erected these buildings?” and showed old photographs, but he said, “I couldn’t say.” We have not been able to get access to the records that will prove those buildings were erected by the municipal authorities, because they are the custodians of those documents.

Meanwhile, the municipality also began using the park as the main dumping ground for Howrah, as it was outside the city limits. In 1987, an environmental group, Ganatantrik Nagarik Samity, filed a writ petition before the Calcutta High Court to the effect that Bellilious Park was being polluted, and should be cleaned. There were three or four respondents, namely, the mayor, the government of West Bengal, and the secretary of municipal affairs.

So for years the only people staying in the area were Dalits, and it was no problem for the municipality to dump rubbish on their doorsteps. But gradually the city expands, middle classes and caste groups move into the area, and they don’t want to live next to a dump. So in 1987, this writ comes up, and basically what it is saying is, “Get rid of this dump next to our houses.”

Yes. Then the municipality stopped dumping there, and moved its dumping to Vagar. But until now, if you go to Bellilious Park you will find that it is still deeply polluted from the tonnes of rubbish that had been dumped there earlier.

From 1987 to 2002, the writ didn’t proceed past a few hearings; it kept coming on the record, but didn’t get far. Over this time, the number of respondents grew to 14, from various government departments.

In 2002, the court told the government to give information on the people staying on the land, asking what their legal right was to stay there. In response, the municipality submitted an affidavit that September to the effect that not a single person was staying there legally–it alleged that all were encroachers, and were responsible for polluting the land. In fact, all the residents had mountains of government-issued documents to prove they were legally settled there, including ration cards issued by the Food Department of the state government, municipal employee cards, and voter registration cards. Each of these cards records place of residence as Bellilious Park, even to this day.

Notwithstanding, on September 6 the court gave an interim order. That order does not contain a single word to evict the people from the park. What it stated was trespassers should not be allowed to stay there. However, the order was open to interpretation, and the High Court knew full well how the authorities would interpret the order.

The High Court did a great misdeed by this order, because the affected persons should have had a right to be heard. However, in the entire time this writ petition was in the court, not one person from the resident community was made aware that the case was going on, and nor was a single one of them ever invited to submit an affidavit to the court. After 15 years of this writ being in the court, how could the judges not have had in mind that, “We should hear from these people before passing this order?” That would be natural justice. But these judges didn’t care. Even when the media were reporting the case and they could get independent news from other sources, they ignored it. In fact, the state government has been using court orders to evict people for some time, irrespective of what the order actually stipulates, invariably in the name of beautification. So in this instance, everybody could see the writing on the wall.

The same municipal authority that originally located the people at the park, registered them as residing at that address and even built dwellings for them submitted an affidavit that they were illegal occupants. Then there was this court decision, in which the judges must have known full well what would happen, and yet they put everything in the hands of the municipal authorities and the police. What happened between the court decision in September, and the eviction in February 2003?

In November 2002 there was an election. If the eviction were carried out before then, there would be a huge negative reaction during the election period. So they just sat on the order until after the election.

Finally, near the end of January 2003, some police came around and informed people they would be evicted. According to civil law, there are provisions that before an eviction even an illegal occupant has the right to written notice, at least one month in advance, during which time the residents can file a complaint before the magistrate. But here–and not just here, everywhere in West Bengal–no written notice was given, just a public announcement by the police with a loudspeaker on a rickshaw, stating that the people had to leave before February 2.

After the police announcement, some of the residents gathered together with an advocate from the High Court, and on January 30 they moved two petitions. One was filed to become a party to the writ; the other was to get the interim order revoked. This was two days before the eviction, yet the Chief Justice refused to hear them at that time–he said that they would be heard in the course of routine business; no urgency. The demolition went ahead, and the matter finally came to the court on May 16. The advocate stood up, and the Chief Justice said, “Yes, everything is done already, so we have nothing to discuss,” and the two petitions were rejected. This is even though the court case is going on. And that is the pity. In this case, not only the civil administration and police have defied the principles of the Constitution of India and the rule of law, but the upper judiciary also has been complicit in denying relief to these people. They didn’t even allow the people’s right to be heard.

Also just before the eviction, some trade union leaders for the workers of Howrah Municipal Corporation came and made public speeches to the effect that nobody would be evicted and they would take care of everything.

The police come and tell people they will be evicted, then the union leaders say they won’t, so people are confused, and for the most part they don’t move their things out or make other preparations. And they had good reason to believe the word of these union leaders, because they are powerful, and close to the municipality. But some of the people there were permanent employees and some temporary, and others, private employees. Were there different reactions among these groups? After all, this was a trade union leader for the municipal employees coming to reassure them, so perhaps the reassurance would have been felt more strongly for some than for others.

Actually, if we go back to the history of the park settlement, all these people are in some way or another connected with the municipality. Now families have expanded, and they are in an area where unemployment is growing. The municipality cannot provide jobs for all of them, so some work elsewhere. But all have their origins as cleaners for the municipality. The grandfather, grandmother, father and mother of a young man may have been doing this work, even if he is pulling a rickshaw, for instance. And of course these union leaders have high political influence, so everybody was reassured by their words, which turned out to be hollow.

They came early, around 6am on the morning of Sunday, February 2. There was a huge police force of over 1000 men. Some were commandos, with modern arms and ammunitions, and balaclavas. The mayor, Superintendent of Police, Deputy Superintendent, and some magistrates were there: they all came out early for the show.

The choice of a Sunday morning was strategic. Everything is closed then. There were no legal avenues for complaint at the time. When you’re attacked, your first option is to go to the police, and lodge a complaint. But the police were the ones attacking. The second option is to go to the courts to get an injunction, but these were closed. So the people had no options.

Imagine it. Your family has been living there for around 100 years. You have a brick house, which may have been built by your parents. You have all your possessions handed down over generations. Now you are given a few seconds to clear out. What can you take in a few seconds? Can you take your refrigerator, television, doors and windows, beds and clothing?

Under our law even if these persons were illegal occupants of this land, which they were not, the police, magistrates and local authorities cannot just evict people without giving them time to remove their belongings. But they did this, and worse. They brought hundreds of hired labourers to remove people’s valuables to a dozen trucks. In fact, they simply stole all the residents’ belongings. My simple question all along has been why was there not a single seizure list for the looting of virtually all of the possessions of over 5000 people? These trucks carted away one load of goods after the next. This was barefaced robbery. And each and every eviction in West Bengal has involved these practices, which means that they are being carried out with a green signal from the government.

The residents were resettled next to the new dumping ground at Vagar; returned to the rubbish that they were blamed for creating. They stayed there for about one month without any shelter, expecting to be relocated again. When the anticipated relocation never came, they built some semi-permanent structures. But it may be that one day some authority will again come and tell them, “You are illegally occupying this place; get out!”

Six people died as a direct consequence of the eviction, some from starvation. These deaths were preventable, but the persons who died couldn’t get proper treatment, partly because of distance to the hospital. There is no health facility, no electricity, and so many mosquitoes and flies at Vagar. Everybody has skin problems, and there are so many TB cases. With the help of Sramajibi Hospital, a local workers’ hospital, we are just trying to do a little, and have organised for a doctor from there to visit the Vagar site once a week. But a doctor is needed there daily to address the number of problems, and meanwhile, no services at all are provided in places where smaller groups from the park relocated.

After the eviction, Masum organised two deputations, accompanied by protests, at the offices of the municipal corporation. The first, on June 9, involved some 600 persons, and we submitted a letter to the mayor, Gopal Mukherjee, protesting the eviction. He defended the act, saying that it was legal as it followed a court order, and that the municipality is not obliged to resettle or rehabilitate the victims.

Now just look at what is going on at Bellilious Park. To begin with, the row of shops constructed on the land with municipal approval has not been demolished along with the houses. Also, new constructions are coming up. In 1987, the same year that the writ petition started, the municipality made an agreement with a notorious and influential land developer. This agreement, which was filed in the high court and was a registered deed, included a proposal to build a series of buildings to house the residents in a new part of the park. But now what will you find there these days? The local parliamentarian, Swadesh Chakraborty, has used his development funds, which must be approved by the District Magistrate, to erect a dobhi ghat — a place for washer persons to do their work. This was not in any plans. Now, how are they erecting these things? And what is the purpose? Remember that to this day, this land is under a trust body. And the trust simply asked the municipality to look after the land, not take it over. But because of electioneering, to get the votes of a few washer persons, this thing is erected. They are trading off concessions between two downtrodden communities — Dalits and Dobhis. Meanwhile, the developer is no longer interested in the land. So the whole reason for evicting the people in the first place has been lost.

What can this eviction tell us about the overall human rights situation in West Bengal?

The international community needs to pay attention to this case, because, as I said, it captures the situation of West Bengal, and indeed, that of India. Look at how the upper castes treat Dalits, for instance. These people have been evicted from the park, but they cannot reside in other areas–nobody will rent accommodation to them. If your last name is Balmiki or Hela, for example, other groups will not allow you to reside with them. So where do they go? What do they do? What is more, Balmiki and Hela are Scheduled Castes, which should receive certificates entitling them to special benefits. Most of the Bellilious Park residents, however, have never received them, as the District Magistrate has not recognised them as Scheduled Castes.

And we can keep on looking. Look at how the police and civil administration conspire against downtrodden communities. Look at the role of the judiciary in all of this. All the authorities are in league–the politicians, the administration and the judiciary. So when people face serious human rights challenges, what can they do? To whom can they turn? The Constitution of India has the right to everything, but in practice, the people have the right to nothing.

We need friends internationally who can stand beside these evicted persons. We need people who can raise their cause. I am talking about assurances of even just a minimum amount of food, housing and health care to live a dignified life. I am talking about us ending this society where till today people are carrying human shit on their heads for work, while the government is talking about sending a man to the moon. These people are not asking for handouts–they are just asking for the right to be able to live life in dignity, with some stability. They would be happy if their children can get some education, if there is no impending danger to their loved ones, if they can get medical care in a hospital when they need it.

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Footnote: Kirity Roy is the Secretary of Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), a human rights organisation based in Howrah, West Bengal, India, which has been active in investigating and acting on the Bellilious Park eviction. The interviewer was Nick Cheesman, from the Asian Legal Resource Centre. The interview was conducted in West Bengal during March 2004.

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