A forced eviction. A stay order that came a little too late. A home emptied out onto the streets.
This is the story of 73-year-old environmentalist Aruna Rodrigues after the Directorate General of Defence Forces (DGDE), a civilian wing of the armed forces, evicted her from her decades-old home in the Mhow Cantonment area, near Indore in Madhya Pradesh.
“They had no court orders, they turned up at my gate at around 9 am on 21 December and proceeded to empty out my entire house and deposit it on the main road in front of it,” she told The Quint.
On 21 December, DGDE officers along with 25-30 military police personnel who report to the colonel commandant of the army, reportedly showed up at her doorstep, purportedly misbehaved with her and evicted her, allegedly without a court order.
In defence of the eviction, Mhow Cantonment Board Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Rajendra C Jagtap, who works under the DGDE, told Free Press Journal:
“Mhow court canceled their title suit, thus the case went in Army's favour. Without wasting time, the army took action and got all residents evicted from there.”
After the Defence Estate Officers, along with the military police, showed up at her doorstep, Rodrigues immediately appealed to the district court in Indore, which then went on to stay the eviction and ruled that status quo be maintained.
During the urgent hearing, the Defence Estate Officer (DEO) told the court that they were still in the process of evicting her.
The order however, came in the evening, by when the eviction had already been done.
She has since filed a petition for restoration of occupation.
“All of Mhow is terrified because of what the army has done. But I will take this to its hilt. I will not stop taking this up in courts,” she said.
The Quint has also tried to reach out to Mhow Cantonment Board Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Rajendra C Jagtap, through phone calls and SMS, but we have not received a response yet.
This story will be updated once the response comes.
Who is Aruna Rodrigues?
Aruna Rodrigues, the environmentalist, is the daughter of Brigadier EA Rodrigues, independent India's first director general of ordnance forces.
She is also no stranger to battling it out in court. Neither was this her first skirmish with authorities.
Since 2005, she has been pursuing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Supreme Court, in which she has contended that India should not yield to pressures from mega agri-transnational corporations who are keen on pushing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) into farming.
She has alleged lapses on part of the government, in the process of incorporating GMOs in farming.
Based on her plea, the Supreme Court stayed the commercial release of GM mustard on 3 November 2022.
While the case regarding her house too has been playing out in courts since 1995, several environmentalists wonder whether this actual act of eviction is somehow linked to the success of her plea.
In a statement, Colin Toddhunter, who specialises on development, food and agriculture at the Centre for Research on Globalization in Montreal, noted:
“We can only wonder whether any of this [the eviction] is connected to Rodrigues’ case before the Supreme Court. Given the billions of dollars at stake for the global agritech companies, it would indeed be wise to wonder."
The Case of the House: An Overview
The army and Rodrigues have both staked claim to the title deed i.e. the ownership of Rodrigues’ house.
While Rodrigues has argued that her house was purchased in a registered sale deed by her ancestor Dr VP Cardozo, the army has contended that the house, by virtue of it being within the cantonment area, belongs to them.
The security forces have said that the purchase was made based on old sale deeds and thus, stands invalid.
But is the Eviction Legal?
Rodrigues' lawyer, as well as other legal experts, have contended that her eviction was illegal on multiple grounds.
First: In 2001, the district court had passed a temporary injunction (stay) until the settlement of the dispute.
“The respondents maintain status quo regarding (her place of residence) and other disputed buildings on Bhayaji Road without evicting the defendants till the final disposal of their case,” the court had said.
The Estate Officers had not challenged this in court, which means the order was applicable on the day of her forceful eviction.
Second: The move came without appropriate eviction notice, which is a mandate under the Public Premises Act, 1971.
As pointed out by her lawyer Rohit Mangal, Section 3 of the act clearly says:
(Evicting authority should) "issue notice in writing calling upon such person to show cause within a period of three working days why an order of eviction should not be made.”
Third: “Her eviction was illegal because when you’re evicting someone principles of natural justice have to be followed i.e. 2-3 criteria have to be met, none of which was followed in her case," Delhi High Court Advocate Harshit Anand pointed out.
And what are the criteria?
To evict someone:
1) There has to be a reasonable notice period
2) There has to be a timeline for objection
3) There has to be adjudication on the basis of whatever evidence is produced
Not following this violates Rodrigues’ fundamental rights under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which prescribes the right to shelter and housing as part of the right to live.
In a landmark 1985 case (Olga Tellis & Others vs Bombay Municipal Corporation), a constitution bench had held that eviction should be in accordance with the procedure established by law.
This “procedure” should be “fair, just and reasonable.”
"Any action taken by a public authority which is invested with statutory powers has to be tested by the application of two standards - The action must be within the scope of the authority conferred by law and it must be reasonable."Supreme Court
The illegality of the army’s move, however, doesn’t seem to have ended with eviction.
So, What Else?
The district court on 20 December last year ruled that “prima facie the disputed property appears to be the possession of the defendant (the defence estates wing)."
This, in fact, was the order cited by Mhow Cantonment Board CEO in his comment to Free Press Journal.
However, it is important to note here that while disposing Rodrigues’ appeal claiming ownership of the house, the court, clearly stated in paragraph 39 of its order that:
“The appellants have the right of occupation/possession on the disputed property.”
What does this mean? Occupation rights don’t translate to title deeds (ownership) but it does mean that you have some sort of right to be there – you might not have title on the land but you still have right and interest in the land.
“That is kind of a favourable order which will allow you to stay on the land,” Anand said.
Further, if someone has the right to occupation, then they are also entitled to rehabilitation.
“The way the law operates is that if you don’t have the right to occupation or the title, then you do not have the right to a remedy. But if the right to occupation has been established, then at least you have the right to be rehabilitated or re-located to an alternative location,” he said.
Rodrigues told The Quint that she hasn’t been offered any sort of rehabilitation and has been living with her friends and family in and around Indore since the eviction.
Thus, even if the land does belong to the army, rehabilitation is still Rodrigues’ right.
In fact, only last week, the Supreme Court had observed in the Haldwani mass eviction case: “People have lived there for 50-60 years, some rehabilitation scheme has to be done, even assuming it is railway land.”