Very recently i.e. on August 31, 2020 the apex court of India has passed an order in one of the old ongoing case of M.C. Mehta (a renowned environmentalist) lingering since 1985. The Hon’ble three judge bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra, who got retired on Sep 2, has directed the eviction of more than 48,000 dwellers who are running a life of risk each moment they spend beside the Railway tracks. Albeit, the direction includes the the removal of jhuggis in a phased manner, within the timeframe of 3 months, whereby neither the political influencers would be entertained advocating the cause of slum clusters, nor any stay order from any Court would stand in the way of its execution, thereby letting the encroachments in the concerned area evacuated, which means such people are left with no legal remedy of getting an interim stay order to protect their right of life guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.

As per the Ministry of Railway’s new tentative schedule released on July 1, 2020 for private train operations, expected to begin in 2023 and in 12 clusters, to go along with the recommendation given by the expert panel chaired by Bibek Debroy, in 2015, i.e. way forward for the railways was “liberalization and not privatization”, to ensure the improvement and growth in the services by allowing the entry of new operators. The Government has its pilot plan landing down authorizing the exploitation of the modern trains by the private operators, this order apparently is in the concatenation with the above plan, so as to clear the path for the private parties to ensure the consumer protection in service as well as to improve the degree of mobility.

The bench passed the order after the Railways stated in the affidavit filed before the Court that there is a ‘predominant presence’ of jhuggies in Delhi along with 140 km route length of track in the region of NCT of Delhi, “Out of this, about 70 km route length of track is affected by jhuggie jhopri clusters existing in close vicinity of tracks”. The direction to Railways and MCDs also includes the removal of plastic bags and garbage collected on and near the railway track as they cause pollution and safety hazard, for which the original case came into existence, herein, this order seems going beyond the subject matter of the PIL. Even though such a direction was also passed by NGT in 2018 which was not executed, hence this order. Nevertheless, Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, in its report, has sought a direction to Railways to present a time-bound plan for solid waste management in the northern region, starting with Delhi and its vicinity.

Talking about the affected lives, there have been innumerable incidents which captivate our attention towards the sufferings of thousands of innocent lives. In may, this year, 16 workers were mowed down by a freight train as they slept over the tracks assuming no trains were plying due to the lockdown1, whereas in 2018, Amritsar2, approx 300 people were proliferated on the tracks to have a glimpse of burning down of Ravana effigy, who stood dead as a train passed over them, due to the sheer negligence offered at the unmanned gates. Though after this incident the government claims to have achieved the target of leaving no railway crossing unmanned, a solemn promise made in 2016, it must also keep the efficacy of these manned railway crossings in its top correction list. Moreover, in 2015, trains derailed while crossing a bridge in Madhya Pradesh3 rendering several dead and still more injured. All such incidents have a reverberating effect, when it comes to the dwellers that are actually living along the tracks. But, raising the niche concerns and ordering the evacuation doesn’t resolve the issue. Supreme Court must delve deeper into the plunges of poverty stricken people who are not living there by choice but instead are forced to do so for the lack of choices and so inevitable put their lives on risks. This order has a serious aftermath as where such evacuees will find their abode to continue with their lives?

The Supreme Court must rethink about the Basic Right that our Constitution grants under Article 21 to all its citizens as well as non- citizens envisaging the right to life which includes “right to livelihood and household” as was recognized by 5 judge bench in a leading case of 1985, wherein, the  pavement dwellers and public interest organizations claimed, eviction of pavement dwellers would violate their right to life under the Constitution by depriving them of their livelihood as right to life includes protection of means of livelihood4. Instant order doesn’t talk about any such right whereas the Olga Tellis case has a binding effect on this bench being a 3 judge bench. No notice was served to them beforehand. Any such order in the time of pandemic going on where people are suffering from unemployment, depression, job losses due to the outbreak, is implicitly referring to a situation where Court is asking these residents to die, thus, punishing them for their poverty ridden destiny. The rights of these people must be protected and they must be provided with efficacious and fundamental amenities before executing any such evacuation. Their human rights must be protected that stands in contradiction with this order. Thus, in view of the above contentions, this order is ostensibly lopsided, oppressive, and indifferent, while ignobly ignoring the plight of the indigents.

Whereby the garbage thrown at the sidelines of the tracks pose a huge threat to the environment, so also the invasion of the new operators jeopardizes the easy and cheap commute of the majority of the population of the country. Thus, the said order on the one hand tries to resolve the issue of environment and human risks involved thereby aiding the pilot plan in providing better consumer services while on the other hand, doesn’t get vocal for the rights of the poor dwellers with no directions for the government to allocate funds for such poor people to rehabilitate thereby precluding them from rendering homeless.  Why Supreme Court is trying to tap on the back of the government where the time demands its reprimand in connection with the resettlement of these evictees subsequent to the lawless encroachments, prior to the much requisite eviction?

The author's views are personal only.

Author Information
Hanshi Mishra
Author: Hanshi Mishra
Faculty of Law, University of Delhi

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