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Destroying homes, lives?

People living in gated communities often talk of slums in terms of their legal status. The question, which often arises, is whether they should be demolished or not. Late last week, the Indian Railway police demolished 500 shanties during an anti-encroachment drive in a West Delhi slum. One child is alleged to have died during the demolition while hundreds are left exposed to the biting cold. Residents of the slum have alleged that their houses were demolished without warning. Railway officials have denied the charge, saying that a number of notices were issued to residents, asking them to vacate the land where a new passenger terminal will be constructed. Speak to those living in gated communities and what you often hear is that such measures are required for the “development” of our city. Slums, they argue, are an eyesore and come in the way of a smart city-led future. Quite evidently, the discourse among the elite and the middle class is usually bereft of empathy. However, if slum demolitions were described as what they actually are, i.e. the destruction of people’s homes, and, therefore, their lives, the discourse would definitely turn on its head. The new discourse in place would address questions on how can people from the slum find affordable housing in a city, where the price of real estate is through the roof. Moreover, if government officials considered the crucial role people from the slums play in the city’s economy, they would realise that demolishing their homes would be an act bereft of reason and empathy. American journalist Robert Neuwirth, who compiled a book on slums around the world in his book Shadow Cities wrote, “The true challenge is not to eradicate these communities but to stop treating them as slums – that is, as horrific, scary and criminal – and start treating them as neighborhoods that can be improved. They don’t need to be knocked down and built new because in most cases this will only produce housing that is not affordable to the people who are living there.” Somewhere along the line, governments have not taken cognisance of the sheer humanitarian costs involved in demolishing these neighbourhoods.

 The Delhi High Court recognised this very fact. The Railways came under fire from the court on Monday for clearing the Shakur Basti cluster “without alternate arrangements” for rehabilitation of its residents “in the biting cold”. It directed that no further action to remove people from the area be taken until “a satisfactory rehabilitation plan is in place”. The counsel for the Railways had failed to satisfactorily answer questions on whether a proper survey was conducted of the area, as per law. “The Railways had no business removing people,” the court said.  It went on to add that these people were protected from eviction under the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) policy and the Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Act which provides for protection of jhuggi clusters which existed before 2006. It is interesting to note that such cut-off dates seem to exist only for those living in slums. The Supreme Court has often observed that the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution includes the right to shelter. For those in Shakur Basti, who have been rendered homeless due to the demolition, especially poor women and children, such a demolition drive may represent a gross violation of Article 21. Suffice to say, it is a question of class. Illegal encroachments or constructions by those well-off are often regularised on payment of a certain amount. On the one hand, one can understand the government’s desire to demolish illegal structures or encroachments. However, on the other hand, if these structures do contain people from the low-income bracket, it is incumbent upon the state to resettle them on an alternative piece of land, allied with affordable housing. Instead, the people from Shakur Basti have been thrown out in the cold.

 Under these circumstances, it is important to recall the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Chameli Singh vs. State of U.P. 1995 case. “The Right to life guaranteed in any civilised society implies the right to food, water, decent environment, education, medical care, and shelter. These are basic human rights known to any civilised society. The civil, political, social and cultural rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Convention or under the Constitution of India cannot be exercised without these basic human rights. Shelter for a human being, therefore, is not a mere protection of his life and limb. It is a home, where he has opportunities to grow physically, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually. Right to shelter, therefore, includes adequate living space, safe and decent structure, clean and decent surroundings, sufficient light, pure air and water, electricity, sanitation and other civic amenities like roads etc. so as to have easy access to his daily avocation. The right to shelter, therefore, does not mean a mere right to a roof over one’s head but the right to all the infrastructure necessary to enable them to live and develop as a human being. Right to shelter, when used as an essential requisite to the right to live, should be deemed to have been guaranteed as a fundamental right,” the court said in its judgment.
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