Lessons From The Law
On an early winter morning in 2015, Indian Railways leveled over 1,500 homes in Shakur Basti, Delhi without notice or rehabilitation, rendering over 6,000 people homeless in the bitter cold. A six-month-old girl died during the demolition. Eight more people, including four children, subsequently died from the cold and inadequate living conditions. No one has been held accountable and the state denies any causality between the eviction and the deaths.
The story of Shakur Basti is not an isolated one. Indian cities, towns, and villages routinely witness forced evictions. In 2017, state authorities across India demolished about 150 homes every day, violating laws and international human rights standards. India’s housing crisis is characterized by the politics of land; an acute shortage of low-cost housing, manifesting in rising homelessness and the prevalence of inadequate settlements with tenure insecurity and abysmal living conditions; forced evictions, land acquisition, and displacement; and real estate speculation. Though India has ratified international law guaranteeing housing as a basic human right – and while Indian courts have recognized the right to housing as an integral component of the right to life – successive governments have not complied with this legal and moral obligation. The notion of the poor as “encroachers” and “illegal” residents considered “dispensable” in the nation’s drive to modernize continues to underscore state interventions.
Since India’s independence in 1947, the state has labelled homes of lower-income groups “slums” and considered them a blight on the city’s image. The global “slum-free city” ideology has furthered this trend. Though state housing policies have adopted different forms over the years, they have largely focused on obliterating low-income settlements. National public discourse on housing and land is now dominated by notions of individual ownership, with state policy prioritizing market interventions. The growing reliance on the private sector to meet India’s housing shortage has financialized housing provision, reducing housing from a human right to a marketable commodity for those who can afford it and resulting in the failure of the state to invest in public housing. Over 17 percent of India’s urban population lives in inadequate settlements without access to essential services and over three million urban dwellers are homeless, unable to afford housing.
The government’s goal of providing “housing for all by 2022” is commendable, but the restrictive scope of this scheme has excluded beneficiaries such as people experiencing homelessness, and its focus on number of houses rather than on the adequacy of housing has limited its progress. Although “affordable housing” is much talked about, the lack of an income-based definition of “affordability” has fueled abuse. The real estate sector leverages the notion of “affordability” to obtain government funding for developments for the middle class instead of the low-income groups in dire need of adequate, low-cost housing. The Indian government’s continued destruction of self-constructed housing exacerbates the crisis.
State-provided housing and resettlement for low-income groups further fails to uphold the human right to adequate housing as an inalienable right linked to the rights to work, health, education, food, land, and security. The state uses the tool of “eligibility criteria” to discriminate and deny people their rights to housing and land. For instance, those who meet arbitrary “cut-off dates” and extensive documentation requirements are considered “eligible” for housing or resettlement, but still shunted to uninhabitable settlements, generally on city peripheries. Those declared “ineligible” are rendered homeless or left to fend for themselves. Mahul, Mumbai, where over 30,000 people have been resettled, is one such site. The toxic air and water have endangered residents’ health and over 100 have died. Such forced relocation and the provision of inadequate housing reveals the contradiction between state rhetoric of “inclusive development” and state actions that sanction dispossession and a rise in poverty and unemployment. Children, women, and older persons are most severely impacted by these phenomena.