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Covid-19 'exposed' lack of housing rights for migrants, 50-60% of urban workforce

By Bilal Khan*

The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID 19 as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, along with general guidelines to limit the spread of the virus. These include frequent hand washing, wearing face mask, and most importantly maintaining ‘social distance’. As this term generated tremendous uproar due to its racist and casteist antecedent, later on WHO replaced it with ‘body distancing’ or ‘physical distancing’, but still in the official advisories and the mainstream media uses ‘social distancing’ as a mandate to control COVID19 pandemic.
From March 25, 2020, India enforced the national lockdown with the hope of maintaining ‘social distancing’ and issued other important guidelines to prevent its 1.3 billion populations from coronavirus, only permitting the conduct of essential services.
However, maintaining social distance was a privilege for those living in big houses in fairly planned neighborhoods but as far as settlements of poor are concerned especially those of urban poor living in cramped spaces in informal housing without adequate spaces and basic infrastructure, maintaining social distance was impossible. The failure to practice social distance in poor neighborhoods happened because of inadequate infrastructure that exists in these settlements.

Predicament for the toiling poor

Ambujwadi, a slum settlement in Mumbai’s Malvani, has a population of 35,000 with all the houses built next to each other. Every house has an average area of 150 sq ft. More than 25 years old Ambujwadi still lack drainage system, personal toilets and potable water supply. Though there are makeshift arrangements created by the government by making few community toilets, majority of them are not functioning and are inadequate to its population size.
Similarly, only two water tanks of 10,000 litres each are sent daily which only caters to a miniscule population of the Ambujwadi. This water is available at the rate of Rs 10 per 40 litres, a rate higher than what a person living in a Mumbai middle class society pays.
In this situation, expecting people to maintain social distance in a cramped environment, washing hands frequently when the availability of water is limited and the price one pays is so high, while remaining locked up in small shacks like houses without food supply due to loss of income, is in fact creating a situation where people might remain uninfected but die either out of hunger or other diseases caused due to unhygienic living conditions.

Right to housing for the urban working class

One reason why people are put into this situation is because of denial of their basic right to adequate housing. Housing has been reduced into a commodity which has resulted in it becoming unaffordable and inaccessible to majority of the poor in big cities which leads to the creation of informal settlements with no or inadequate access to or supplies of basic amenities like water, electricity and sanitation along with other related facilities that determine a dignified life.
In India, housing for poor is provided by central and various state governments by way of welfare schemes and rehabilitation schemes. To avail housing under these welfare and rehabilitation schemes one has to clear the eligibility criteria set by the body governing the scheme as a result of which many needy persons who are equally economically backward find themselves being ruled out from getting the benefit of the scheme. This way the crisis remains the same or keeps multiplying. It is high time that housing is treated as a right.

Constitution of India and UDHR on housing rights

In fact, 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 letter and spirit. There is a need to enact law recognizing housing as a right.
Housing has been reduced into a commodity which has resulted in it becoming unaffordable and inaccessible to majority of urban poor
In 2017, after her mission to India, Leilani Farah, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing expressed the importance of such a law in her report in the 34th session of the UN Human Right Council. In her report she recommended that:
“India needs an overarching, visionary and coherent piece of legislation based on human rights. A national housing law that aims to address growing inequalities and offers a long-term road map is essential. In addition, the economy of India is and will continue expanding, which suggests that it will continue to have the necessary resources to implement the right to adequate housing across the country.”
In the paucity of a law to recognise housing as a right, the poorest of poor in India lives in constant threat of their meagre hovels being demolished by authorities as their settlements is deemed illegal. However, the formal recognition of the right can change the situation in favour of poor who live without a security of housing. In the same report, the Special Rapporteur has very explicitly explained how the recognition of certain basic rights in India has turned things in favour of poor citizens.

Long way to go

As it stands, there is no national legislation recognizing housing as a human right, although legislation with respect to other human rights, such as the right to food, does exist. The National Food Security Act, which came into force in July 2013, converted preexisting food security and food distribution programmes, such as subsidized cereals, and new programmes like maternity benefits into legal entitlements. It aims to provide more than 800 million people, over 60 per cent of the country’s population, with subsidized monthly household rations each year.
The Act shifted from a welfare approach to a rights-based approach. India has also made education a legal entitlement through the Right to Education Act, which came into force in April 2010, guaranteeing every child between 6 and 14 years old the right to education, in line with article 21A of the Constitution, and requiring 25 per cent of places in private schools to be reserved for the poor and other categories of children. Those laws on food and education are considered models that could be used as a reference for the design and adoption of a national housing law, based on human rights.
Similarly, the plight of people who must face demolition of their slum houses on account of being illegal is highlighted in the case of an Unnamed Girl Child of 13 day Vs. State of Maharashtra. In the matter, the Bombay High Court expressed necessity of a law to protect their rights. The judgement stated that:
“18. For the present, we have found and from the narration of the facts and the arguments that, a right is claimed to reside in such land only because it is not possible to afford any decent housing accommodation in the city of Mumbai. It is stated that we must take note of the plight of such persons who move around the State/country and in search of livelihood and decent living coming to Mumbai but their dreams are shattered as it is not possible to make a living except by unfair and illegal means. It is the plight of such persons and occupants which is highlighted. However, even to extend to such persons any benefit or any assistance, there has to be a legislation or law in the field.”

Conclusion

Today, housing has become a priced commodity especially in big cities which accommodate people who come from different parts of the country and the world. The proletariat gets access to housing only in the ‘illegal’ slum settlements where they live a compromised life. Let us remember that the migrant workers are the ‘city-makers’ and backbone of the economy. If anything, this pandemic has exposed the flaws in the system and the lack of proper health infrastructure and facilities in the country.
But we see the government still moving ahead with plans of high rises and smart cities without understanding what the people need to survive. It yet again, exposed the fact the government and its machineries work and devise plan not for the survival of the vulnerable, but of the privileged. It is only through proactive citizen initiatives and calling out of the flaws in these systems that we can correct those measures.
There is an urgent need to redesign urban and semi-urban settlements supported by the local self-government bodies that are closer to the workplace, rental accommodations that are affordable to the migrant workers which constitute 50-60% of the urban workforce and are protected through citizens’ fora.
---
*Convener, Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, a movement of slum residents of Mumbai. The article also contains inputs by student researchers of Tata Institute of Social Sciences

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