Civil and political rights of slum dwellers

By Rajindar Sachar

Sometime back an attempt was made to throw out like garbage over a lakh of jhuggi slum dwellers of Wazirpur, Delhi. The facile explanation by the government that the Wazirpur colony was on Railway land and that its residents were hence unauthorised occupants, rings hollow and is in violation of internationally recognised human rights norms. Even the World Bank (no friend of the poor) has made resettlement of the evicted people from near the railway tracks in Mumbai a condition for giving aid to the Metropolitan Railway Project.

A false impression has been created that pavement dwellers are unsocial elements; that a majority of them are criminals and unemployed. This is sheer slander. Pavement dwellers are an important part of the daily economy of city life. They are in reality the victims of an unjust social order.

The compulsions of why .these squatter colonies exist was highlighted by the Economic Commission of Europe, which noted: "High levels of squatter housing indicate that the formal land market does not provide affordable residential land for housing, forcing households to occupy land illegally. High levels of this indicator also suggest that eviction may not be a realistic option, but rather calls for policies and programmes which lead to strengthening tenure security in squatter settlements, thus facilitating higher levels of housing investment".

These evictions are unprincipled, considering that India is a signatory to the Istanbul Declaration of 1996, which was reaffirmed 1976 Declaration made by the UN Conference on Human Settlement that, "Adequate shelter and services are a basic human right which places an obligation on governments to ensure their attainment by all people". The National Housing bank or the HUDCO-sponsored schemes for housing the urban poor, stipulate that a minimum of 20 per cent of their clients' income be paid as installments. This is unrealistic: the urban poor can only spend about 11% of their income as their savings are negligible. Thus, by their very design, these projects would miss the target group and the benefits would flow to households in the higher consumption bracket, as indeed has been recorded in several studies.

That demolition and forced eviction like the proposed in Wazirpur should still form a part of government policy or that any court could give such a direction is amazing and illegal, because of the Supreme Court decision that the right to life "would take within its sweep the right to - a reasonable accommodation to live in.

Governments should head the -warning given in General Comment No.7 (1997) of the Committee appointed under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Right 1956: "Evictions should not result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights. Where those affected are unable to provide for themselves, the State Party must take all appropriate measures, to the maximum of its available resources, to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land. as the case may be, is available."

A wide range of civil and political rights of the slum dwellers, like the right to equal protection and benefit of the law, the right to gender equality, the right to property, will be seriously compromised by forcible action in the absence of measures geared towards respecting. protecting and ensuring the human right against forcible eviction.

Are slums a blot on the city, as the upper middle class would have us believe? Are they not, instead, a blot on the governance of any administration? It needs to be emphasised that this segment of the population is like dry tinder. If it continues to be trodden underfoot by the affluent sections of a globalising economy it can catch fire!

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