The realities of accessing the ‘Right to Housing’ in India

July 2018 | INDIA

In August 2017, the Delhi High Court declared 14 residents of Rajeev Camp eligible for rehabilitation and relocation after their houses were demolished in February 2017. Rajeev Camp is a Jhuggi Jhopri (JJ) Cluster[1] in East Delhi, neighbouring the National Highway 24. When iProbono met the residents, they were residing in tarpaulin tents next to the highway, with limited resources available. Out of the initial 77 residents, more than half had dispersed and were not traceable; the rest wanted to fight for rehabilitation.

It was an uphill battle for the residents as no one had the necessary documents under the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB)’s Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy 2015 to be declared eligible for rehabilitation. iProbono wrote representations to various government bodies before approaching the High Court through Civil Appellate Panel lawyer, Robin David. A writ petition was filed challenging the denial of housing and demonstrating that many of the residents were living in Rajeev Camp from 1995.

Despite the High Court’s positive judgment, the battle to assert their right to housing continues. After multiple representations and follow-ups, the residents were finally allocated houses last month but not all of them have been able to move in; seven people have been given the keys to their flat while others are still overcoming bureaucratic and financial hurdles. This demonstrates the difficulty of realising economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) for economically vulnerable communities in India despite the protections afforded under national and international legislation.

Fifty-five year old Laxmi[2] was elated when she received the news that her family was one of the few declared eligible for rehabilitation by the Court. The joy soon turned to worry as she had to start collecting one lakh forty-two thousand ($2200 USD) as a deposit within three months to get the flat that was rightfully, and now legally, hers. Laxmi’s husband is the sole breadwinner and works as a daily wage earner. It took her five months of going to banks and micro-credit lenders, only to face rejection. She then started asking everyone she knew for a loan. Two months after depositing the money, the lenders are already asking that she return the money at 10-20% interest. While she no longer has to worry about paying rent, she must now save money for the next several years to pay back her high interest loan.

Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) provides that the State must take steps to ensure the realisation of the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes housing. Sudama Singh & others v. Government of Delhi & another (MANU/DE/0353/2010) recognises the responsibility of the State to provide housing as India is a party to the ICESCR. Referring to this precedent, the High Court in Laxmi’s case said, “It is trite that the right to housing is an essential part of Right to Life and a fundamental right ensured by Article 21 of the Constitution of India.”[3]

India has demonstrated intent to provide housing for all. In fact, the Central government and various States have not only created and implemented several schemes to forward the mission of housing for all in recent years but the first housing policies were proposed immediately post-independence.[4] On the basis of Sudama Singh, Delhi Master Plan advocated for in-situ rehabilitation.[5] There are, however, 675 JJ Clusters, which are built on State land; most of these clusters have not been relocated. While rehabilitation procedures are followed in some cases, many JJ Clusters have to approach the court for their right to housing.

Laxmi’s example demonstrates that while it is a necessary first step to have progressive judgments such as Udal and Ors. v. State, the judiciary also needs to recognise the interconnected factors that enable the right to adequate housing. Laxmi was unable to access any state financial resources. She was unable to pay her deposit in installments, which means that now she is debt-ridden for the immediate future despite having possession of her property. Going further back to why most of the residents, including Laxmi, were unable to produce documents further shows the difficulty of the economically marginalised. Due to a combination of losing belongings in a fire and alleged bureaucratic prohibitions on the creation of official documents from that district, the residents did not have access to basic government documents demonstrating their residency. The Right to Housing is deeply connected to other factors. The Court took note of this with regards to access to livelihood stating that –

Judicial notice can be taken of the fact that the National Capital Territory of Delhi attracts people, especially poor people, from all over the country who come to the city in search of work and must reside reasonably near to their place of work.”[6]

Civil society groups and evicted JJ dwellers have used the law to access their right to housing. To be able to follow this in principle, the courts must also look at the interconnected ESCR and acknowledge this in their decisions. For the almost 19 million people who are facing housing shortages, justiciability of the right to housing will only become a reality if it comes alongside the recognition that there are other interconnected impediments like lack of documentation, access to resources like loan, savings and limited legal literacy, which need to be in place for effective right to housing. [7]

[1] ‘Jhuggi Jhopri’ is the term referred to slums in India. The term is used in government policies and judgments.

[2] Name changed to protect the identity of the person.

[3] Udal & Ors. v. State. W.P. (C) 5378 of 2017. Para 14.

[5] Rehabilitation in the same location as the JJ cluster.

[6] Ibid Para 15.

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