Housing right or the right to shelter is a very basic human right that deserves universal recognition and respect. This needs to be re-emphasized at a time when some decisions in violation of this are being taken and there are a lot of apprehensions regarding whether these may become more frequent.
Of course no right can be absolute or arbitrary, and any such interpretation of housing right will be counter-productive and will not work in practical ways. What we mean by protection of housing rights is that the authorities should have an overwhelming supportive role towards the provision of certain essential norms of housing for all people and whenever any events or actions result in some people being deprived from access to these norms then the authorities are duty-bound to come to the help of these people deprived of essential norms of housing.
By authorities here we mean the executive, the judiciary and the legislature considered separately or in combination with each other. If, for example, due to widespread poverty there are a large number of people who cannot access these essential norms, then a law can be enacted for them to be helped and supported, governments or municipalities can implement several important schemes over a period of time to improve housing for them. On the other hand if the law is not implemented in the right spirit then this can be taken to courts and the judiciary can issue strong directives for proper implementation of law in the right spirit.
If the threat to essential norms of housing comes from a flood or cyclone then government can quickly repair the houses, or construct new ones, or else the judiciary can issue instructions to the government for fulfilling its obligations.
If a land mafia is evicting poor people from their houses in a slum, the government can initiate strong police action to protect slum dwellers, or if this does not happen, on a case being filed or taking notice on its own, the judiciary can issue orders to the government for extending protection to the threatened households. If in the process it is felt that the legislative base for such protection is not strong enough at present, the case for enacting a new law or amending an earlier one can be considered by the legislature.
Such efforts at all levels have been made from time to time. There are policies and laws for such housing support, although better and stronger ones are still needed. The government has implemented several housing schemes for weaker sections for several decades, although these need to be increased and improved. The judiciary has given several such highly supportive and protective judgments, such as for shelters for homeless people, or for protecting Bombay pavement dwellers from eviction.
However if any or all of the authorities in a country start acting in opposite ways, then a very serious situation is created , one in which the basic human rights relating to the basic need of shelter are likely to be violated . Once such a trend starts then this can also get extended and this is a big reason for concern. Several such concerns have been expressed in recent times in the context of railway land residing slum-dwellers of Delhi, some slum-dwellers of Faridabad ( Haryana) and others from time to time being deprived of their houses ( or facing threat of this ), built by lifetime of toil and relentless efforts of struggling households.
The overall trends of housing conditions in big cities in recent times have been such that in conditions of increasing land and house prices and the grip of big private profiteers in this sector, purchase and even renting of houses has become extremely difficult for most weaker section households who exist in huge numbers in most cities. In these conditions many people who make very important contributions to creating and maintaining cities have no other option but to construct or buy a little house ( or housing space or hut) for which they spend all their savings or incur debts, because this basic need of shelter for the household including children and women, ill and disabled and very old persons has to be somehow fulfilled. Then they spend long years trying to improve this basic housing unit.
There is a story each behind the toil and the effort behind how the very small washroom was added, the tree that was planted when the first child was born, the celebratory mood when the few thousand Rs. needed to add the badly needed second room were finally saved , the love and care with which the very small kitchen garden was nurtured, the time when the lady of the house doubled the number of the houses where she provided domestic work services so that she could save the money for extending the wall just a little bit so that her father very ill in the village could be brought to the city for treatment.
But all these collective and also deeply personal memories—and all that they helped to create for those who created the city –can be destroyed in a few hours of demolitions conducted with heavy machines which tend more and work to act like big dragons devouring their prey.
Hence there is increasing concern that demolitions should be avoided and replaced with on-site improvement, including environmental improvement, with the involvement of people. Instead of people being evicted, for example, the continuation of such a housing cluster can be made conditional to the greening of the nearby area, with each household contributing time and effort for this as well as composting, decentralized sanitation and related activities aimed at environmental improvement, with the concerned departments also making their contribution of course.
Such efforts should be promoted and protected by stronger policy and legislative measures for promoting access of all to certain essential norms of housing as a basic human right.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machine ( Gandhian ideas for our times) and Protecting Earth For Children.