Punjabi Line is a densely packed strip of land on the edge of Bara Bazaar, the commercial hub of Shillong. On October 30, the Meghalaya government took possession of this land and handed it over to the urban affairs department.
Several ideas have been floated about what to do with the 2.5 acres – maybe build a flyover or a parking complex, the deputy chief minister mentioned “beautification”. The verdict was that the strip of prime real estate could not be occupied by squalid homes. Especially if many of those homes belonged to “illegal settlers”, as a government-appointed committee claimed.
The takeover had been enabled by a tripartite agreement signed last month by the Meghalaya government, the Shillong Municipal Board and the Syiem of Mylliem, the head of the tribal body that controls land ownership in Shillong.
The actual residents of Punjabi Line, often referred to as Sweepers’ Colony, were not consulted. Most are Dalit Sikhs, or Mazhabis, a community that has traditionally worked as sweepers in Shillong. The government has extended the offer of talks to them only now, after having taken over Punjabi Line. As they face forced relocation, the local Harijan Panchayat Committee has vowed to fight back.
It will not be easy. Many stories of marginalisation intersect in those 2.5 acres….