Editorial: Are they really ‘encroachers’?

FPJ EditorialUpdated: Friday, January 06, 2023, 10:14 PM IST
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People protesting against the eviction in Haldwani | File Photo

The Supreme Court order this week staying the Uttarakhand High Court judgment of December 2022 to evict the slum dwellers near Haldwani railway station has provided temporary relief to the nearly 50,000 residents of the slums. At the same time, it has touched upon a contentious issue which rears its head with regular frequency in not just Haldwani but in cities and towns across India: occupation of urban land by the poor who are seen as ‘encroachers.’ The issue here is the right to the city – who has it, and who determines who can have it.

In its order, the SC asked the railway authorities and the state government how people who have lived on the land for 60-70 years can be removed and how so many people could be moved in a week. “There is a human angle to this issue,” the two-judge division bench observed. The Uttarakhand government has promised to uphold the order though there are doubts raised about the ruling party’s animosity towards Muslims, dominant occupants of the slums, clouding its better sense. The Haldwani case is a familiar one: government or railway authority suddenly realises that people have been living on the land they own and terms them ‘encroachers’ to make eviction appear legally and morally correct. However, in most cases, the so-called encroachers are people with informal work living in non-formal settlements like slums that are indirectly legal by way of electricity meters, water meters, ration cards, and in some cases like Haldwani even property documents. Haldwani’s residents have land records from 50-60 years ago.

In condemning such a demographic as ‘encroachers’ the state and urban capital class, which holds power over land and the power to make urban plans, reveals a fundamental disconnect in the process of urbanisation: the power elite of a city determining who is an encroacher and therefore does not have the right to the city. What is forgotten in this framing is that everyone who lives and works in a city has a right to the city, articulated by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in the 1960s – an inalienable right to its land and basic public services. Robert Neuwirth encapsulated this in his book Shadow Cities, saying that the dominant political-market view is that slums constitute ‘a city within a city’ as if they were not part of the city itself. This is not to suggest that authorities turn a blind eye to public land occupied by people who do not have the means or access to formal housing, but to suggest that eviction – especially of slum dwellers with land records – is the 1980s approach; they can and must do better.

A hasty decision, perhaps

The University Grants Commission (UGC) has moved the needle on an issue that has been stuck for nearly 30 years: permitting international universities to set up their campuses in India. To be sure, the announcement by the UGC chairperson earlier this week was the draft norms and regulations for foreign universities and there will be a process of finalising them before they can be implemented. However, it is not too early to assess the implications of the new regulations and their impact on higher education in India. The regulations were not totally unexpected given that the New Education Policy had dropped enough hints that the long-pending issue of international universities on Indian soil could finally become a reality.

The first move in this direction was made back in the 1990s and the latest Bill moved during the Dr Manmohan Singh government, but there was no conclusive decision so far. Ironically, the Bharatiya Janata Party was among the parties, joining the Left and others, to oppose it on the grounds that the entry of international universities would make higher education more expensive and put it out of reach of most young Indians. This point remains as resonant today as it did then but the BJP Government seems to have ignored it completely. Expensive higher education would mean that the market for student loans would expand.

In the new regulations, international universities have been promised complete autonomy in academic matters and governance, freedom in admission policies and fees; these off-shore campuses are allowed to repatriate funds to the parent country and are not obliged to maintain a corpus in India – two points which they found contentious in the older drafts. Has the Government, in its haste to have foreign brand names in education on Indian soil, given away too much? At this point, it seems so.

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