FARIDABAD, INDIA (AFP) - Indian authorities on Saturday (July 17) pursued the demolition of thousands of homes in a village near New Delhi despite protests by rights activists and UN experts.
Bulldozers and earth movers began the operation this week at Khori, a settlement of tens of thousands of people near the Delhi border that the Supreme Court has ruled is protected forest land and must be cleared.
Activists say the migrant workers and poor labourers have been there for more than 30 years and that the forest was destroyed by mining decades ago.
Police set up barricades Friday to stop journalists and others from entering the area, which the court said should be cleared by July 19.
But huge piles of brick debris and other rubble, cupboards, beds and utensils could be seen from outside strewn around.
Activists say there were at least 5,000 homes in the settlement, which had its own schools and places of worship.
"The land was being used for mining and after mining was banned it was sold to the villagers by 'mafia' criminals," said Vimal Bhai of the non-profit National Alliance of People's Movements, which has worked with the residents.
"The poor villagers are paying the price for the inadequacies of the government and poor policy making." Before the demolition started, electricity and water supplies were cut off to the homes and even water tankers were not allowed in.
Residents said there was a showdown with baton-wielding police when the bulldozers moved in. Police denied there was any violence.
In a statement, rights experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council on Friday urged authorities to halt the mass eviction.
"We find it extremely worrying that India's highest court, which has in the past led the protection of housing rights, is now leading evictions placing people at risk of internal displacement and even homelessness," they said.
The experts said the demolition would add to hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with thousands of children and young mothers affected.
On Friday, police sent away journalists including an AFP team, citing safety and the "tense atmosphere" at the settlement, which comprises basic and unplastered red brick houses.
The settlement is in Haryana state which has set up a rehousing programme. Activists say most residents will not qualify for the housing as they do not have proper paperwork. The state made no immediate comment on the demolition.