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 labeled 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.
Access to, control over, and use of land remain the crux of the housing crisis in India. The state increasingly usurps public land on which the majority of the urban poor lives for profitable enterprises. This is evident in the policies of the Delhi Development Authority and Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority, which focus on forcibly moving residents into dense, poorly-constructed, high-rise structures, thereby freeing the land for public-private partnerships with commercial interests that benefit affluent residents and real estate developers. Instead of helping to improve living conditions of the urban poor, this redevelopment model entrenches prevalent poverty in high-rise structures, privatizes public land, and reduces the already minimal land area occupied by low-income residents. Across India, it is estimated that the urban poor live on less than five percent of the land.
To resolve the housing and land crisis, the Indian government must shift its focus from construction of houses to the provision of land with tenure security, from housing targets to housing justice, and from market-based interventions to a human rights-based approach. A rights-based approach will ensure that housing is affordable, accessible to all, habitable, and culturally appropriate. It will guarantee access to basic services and infrastructure and provide tenure security and freedom from dispossession.
People across India do not want state-constructed tenements. They want rights over the land on which they live, and access to housing finance and technical assistance to build their homes. They require legal security of tenure, which includes not only individual ownership but also rental and cooperative housing, community land trusts, and other collective tenure systems. Such tenure options would help address India’s housing shortage by placing solutions in people’s hands, preventing arbitrary evictions, and shifting away from the market-driven model of home ownership, which has failed to meet the housing needs of the most marginalized.
The country’s law and policy framework should incorporate the principle of the “social function of land,” which recognizes the importance of equality in land distribution as a means to promote social justice. In Brazil, land occupied by the urban poor for housing for an uninterrupted period of five years is transferred to them. India could adopt a similar policy and amend laws related to “adverse possession,” which currently do not provide secure tenure for the poor even when they live at a particular site for decades. Securing land and housing rights in the name of women would contribute to promoting gender equality while addressing gender-based discrimination.
India should promulgate right to housing legislation and invest in adequate, low-cost housing, including through the provision of rental housing. The homeless should be prioritized and allotted housing first. In addition, the government must impose a national moratorium on evictions and focus on in situ (on site) housing upgrades. Every home demolition contravenes the Housing for All scheme. To redress inequalities in land ownership and access, the government must prioritize human rights-based land reform in both urban and rural areas. As forced migration and displacement are serious problems, the government should address urban and rural as two points on a habitat continuum, invest in rural development and housing, and ensure greater policy cohesion. Finally, the state should develop durable, people-centered solutions along a continuum of housing rights, ranging from emergency humanitarian measures such as shelters to the provision of permanent adequate housing.
Such measures would mitigate India’s housing and land crisis, and achieve greater economic and social security while enabling everyone to live in peace, security, and dignity. India’s housing challenges, however, are not unique to the country. Globally, over 1.6 billion people are inadequately housed, while over 100 million are homeless. Violations of housing rights, especially through the financialization of housing and perpetuation of forced evictions, are prevalent across the world. Other states could thus use this human rights-based, people-centered approach to housing to ensure the realization of the human right to an adequate standard of living for all.