Housing For All: Why India Needs A Strong Right To Shelter Law

Posted by Bilal Khan in Human Rights, Society
January 19, 2017

A shelter is a basic human need, but due to the increased commodification of this basic service, housing is becoming unaffordable to each and every one of us. The urban poor suffers the most due to this unaffordability. The absence of an adequate housing forces a poor family to live in an informal settlement devoid of all other basic services like –  proper sanitation, clean water supply, electricity, ventilation, open spaces and so on. The booming real estate backed by black money has furthered this commodification and unaffordability. According to a report in November, 2014 nearly 42% of Mumbai’s population live in slums due to houses being unaffordable.

Only tall claims and figures are being shot to people, but the actual benefits do not seem to be reaching under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Housing For All (PMAY) scheme. Even the full implementation of the scheme will not be able to give ‘house to all’ as the guidelines of the scheme have provided for the setting up of a ‘cut-off-date’ to provide the benefit. Similarly, there is provision for sanctioning of loans to buy houses under PMAY, but there exists a section of the society who cannot even pay the minimum EMI. There is hardly any city where there are ‘homeless shelters’ available as per the norms set under the National Urban Livelihoods Mission. So, a seasonal migrant coming to a city to as a daily wage earner, due to the unavailability of a shelter, is forced to live on footpaths. The problem of housing cannot just be eradicated by a scheme which can merely serve as a jumla (an empty promise) rather than a real solution. For a ‘practical solution’, there has to be a ‘practical policy’.

Even in the age of the “Housing For All” scheme, eviction without rehabilitation has become the order of the day. It is more frequent in places where ‘smart cities’ are planned. Evictions might be considered a mechanical job but the miseries that follow post-eviction can only be expressed by a victim. “If there is no home, there is no life. Home is everything. Without a home, ‘right to life’ has no meaning. Without a shelter, you are left open to face the extreme weather-the burning heat, freezing cold, storms and rains and with a life in jeopardy”, says Santosh Thorat, a slum resident from Annabhau Sathenagar Mumbai and also a member of the Matang community, one of the most backward communities of the country. He had come to the city of Mumbai in search of work from the Jalna district of the Marathwada region in Maharashtra. He initially worked as a construction worker and later found a job as a home guard constable. Santosh, as constable, became part of the massive eviction drive that took place in the year 2005 which was carried out by the Maharashtra government in an effort to transform Mumbai into another ‘Shanghai’. His job was to provide protection to the municipal authorities who were demolishing the slums from the angry public which was opposing the demolition. The government basically wanted to make Mumbai, a slum-free city by simply demolishing the houses of poor living in informal settlements.  However, Santosh resigned from the job the same day when bulldozers steered towards his house in Sathenagar slum, in opposition to the action being taken by the municipal authorities. I think he probably would have understood the nature of difficulties he was going to face after becoming homeless, to which he was indifferent, until his own house came to be brought down.

Evictions occur by simply branding all the poor residents of a slum as ‘encroachers’. This is a commonly used legal term by the government authorities and the judiciary. However, we can only brand anybody as an ‘encroacher’ if one is occupying a piece of land with an objective to earn benefit out of it – but not one who is living on that piece of land out of compulsion and not by choice. Those living in slums are mostly engaged in the ‘unprotected’, ‘unorganised’ sectors backing the economy of the nation, but unfortunately their hard-work is not given due recognition. The rising GDP also has the unrecognised efforts of the toilers from the unorganised sector. The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 provides for housing, education, old age homes, insurance, skill development, provident fund and funeral assistance. However,  the poor implementation of the Act increases the vulnerability of the poor sections of the society against all forms of exploitation. This is not to say that the Act can ensure total social security. Experts have gone to an extent of criticising this Act as a ‘toothless one’ given its ‘inadequate provisions’. But I think that the full implementation of the Act in its present form may provide some respite, and efforts must continue in order to improve the Act.

I know a single woman in a slum in Mumbai. She is 60 and lives all alone in her shack. Her house may be demolished anytime because the Forest Dept. wants to take back the land in possession of slum dwellers. When her house will be demolished, she will have no other place to take shelter in, and instead, will have to face all forms of difficulties at this old age. Similarly, children living in this community would lose their schooling because of the difficulty created due to broken houses. Also, because of the same reason, the livelihood of the inhabitants of this slum is going to be affected. This is the same story in each slum whenever there is an eviction. The worst scenario is when the evictions happens during the heavy rains and in the chilling winters. Sometimes, the resisting inhabitants of the slum lose their lives, including small children, while facing the atrocities committed by the authorities in order to crush the protest.

I contacted Irfan Ali Khan, a colleague in a slum, asking for a quote for this article to provide the readers an idea of the ‘reality’ directly from the sufferer. “I am a handicapped with crippled legs. In a span of twelve years I have seen multiple evictions of our basti (informal settlement or a slum). Every time I have to helplessly see all my belongings along with my house getting destroyed by the municipal authorities, and making entire populations of the basti, homeless in front of my eyes – only to be reminded that being a cripple, and poor without a house, I can’t do anything to save my house just because I am handicapped and the government does nothing to ensure and protect my housing right”. He is only 28 years old with two children and a resident of an informal settlement called Adarsh Nagar in Shivaji Nagar, Mumbai.

To the surprise of all of us, there is no law or policy that would protect persons like Santosh, that 60-year-old single woman, or Irfan, or the many poor children living as ‘squatters’ all across the country, and are in a constant threat of eviction. This is not a new finding. This has been discussed and talked about several times. The Supreme Court and various High Courts have on several occasions stated that ‘right to adequate shelter’ is part and parcel of ‘right to life’. Denial of a shelter or making someone forcefully homeless jeopardises one’s life, which clearly violates ‘right to life’ guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The Government of India has also ratified ‘housing right’ as a basic human right in Universal Declaration of Basic Human Rights and the  International Covenant on Social and Cultural Rights – but has done nothing to ensure it in spirit.

So far any attempt to evict a slum has faced people’s resistance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. There is a need to move away from the ‘fire-fighting mode’ for ‘housing rights movements/organisations’ and work towards a more sustainable legislative solution. There is undisputably a long-felt need for a  statutory law recognising the ‘human right to housing’, which is an integral part of the constitutional ‘right to life’. With the growing influence of the capitalist markets and the increasing bias and indifference of the bureaucracy, political class and even the judiciary towards the poor and all those fighting for their rights – it is certainly going to become that much more difficult to even garner temporary ‘respite’ during eviction drives in the absence of a legal remedy.

This calls for a national legislation to protect and ensure ‘right to shelter’. This would ensure a minimum shelter to each needy citizen of the country, who cannot afford to buy or rent a house and live a dignified life, with the provision of all the basic amenities of life. This would also mean a full stop on atrocities committed on the poor homeless families during eviction, just because they are homeless and living under a temporary shack. A bench comprising of Chief Justice of Delhi High Court and Justice Dr. S. Murlidhar best explains the eviction phase when it states that “what very often is overlooked is that when a family living in a ‘Jhuggi (slum)’ is forcibly evicted, each member loses a bundle of rights – the right to livelihood, to shelter, to health, to education, to access to civic amenities and public transport and above all, the right to live with dignity”.

(The author is an activist with the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan – a housing rights movement based in Mumbai. You can find him here.)