Housing for All? India’s Forced Evictions Crisis Contradicts National Housing Policy

By Shivani Chaudhry (Executive Director, Housing and Land Rights Network: www.hlrn.org.in)

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Despite the Indian government’s pledge to provide ‘Housing for All by 2022’ and its national scheme to operationalize this goal, public authorities across the country continue to commit gross violations of multiple human rights through forced evictions, primarily under the guise of ‘city beautification’ and clearance of low-income settlements. The stark contradiction of implementing housing policies through housing demolitions, draws attention to the major housing and human rights challenges currently faced by urban and rural communities throughout India.

Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) India’s most recent study, ‘Forced Evictions in India in 2017: An Alarming National Crisis’ reveals a growing trend of eviction and demolition of homes of the rural and urban poor. This silent crisis, however, continues to be unreported and ignored. As the Government of India does not collect data on evictions, HLRN has been monitoring forced evictions to raise awareness of the issue and promote an adequate state response. Our findings show that in 2017, government authorities demolished over 53,700 homes, forcefully evicting at least 260,000 people[1] across the country. This means that the state destroyed at least 147 homes every day or six homes every hour, evicting about 30 persons every hour in 2017. This is not just startling but also ironic given the government’s target of ensuring ‘housing for all’ by the year 2022. At least 600,000 more people are living with the threat of eviction. As this data only reflects cases known to HLRN, the actual number of people evicted and faced with the threat of eviction is likely to be much higher.

After analyzing 213 reported cases of forced eviction in 2017, HLRN has identified four broad categories for which individuals and communities were forcibly removed and displaced from their homes and habitats:

  1. 'City beautification’ projects and ‘slum-clearance’[2] drives [46 per cent of recorded evictions];
  2. Infrastructure and ostensible ‘development’ projects [25 per cent of evictions];
  3. Environmental conservation and wildlife and forest protection [14 per cent of evictions]; and,
  4. Disaster management efforts [eight per cent of evictions].

The highest percentage of evictions (affecting over 122,000 people) were carried out for ‘city beautification,’ ‘slum-clearance’ drives, and ‘slum-free city’ schemes. The notion that ‘beautification’ implies removing the poor from cities reflects an alarming prejudice and discrimination against the country’s most marginalized populations. In many cities, homes of the urban poor are considered ‘illegal encroachments’ and demolished without any consideration that people have been living there for decades, sometimes 40–50 years, and possess documents that validate their legality and proof of residence.

While several evictions are justified for the ‘public purpose,’ the term is ill-defined, even in law, and is widely misused. In 2017, ironically, at least 6,900 homes were demolished to implement ‘housing for all’ schemes. Though the Supreme Court of India and state High Courts have upheld the right to housing as an inalienable component of the right to life, in 2017, court orders were responsible for 17 per cent of the documented evictions.

In almost all eviction cases, authorities did not adhere to due process. Affected communities, in many instances, were not even provided notice or time to remove belongings from their homes. Central government authorities carried out evictions in Delhi during the winter, rendering families homeless and vulnerable to the bitter cold. In Chennai, authorities evicted families before and during school examinations, and also during the rainy season. In numerous cases, the displaced are not resettled on the false grounds that they are not ‘legal’ residents. The persistent discrimination against the country’s poor is further perpetuated in state policy. Several state governments use the exclusionary tool of ‘eligibility criteria’ to determine rehabilitation. Even when families have lived for many years at a site, if they fail to meet the state’s documentation requirements, they are denied relief and resettlement, despite losing their homes, which are generally built incrementally and with hard-earned savings.

The processes followed before, during, and after evictions have resulted in the violation of multiple human rights as well as of national and international laws, policies, and human rights standards. According to the Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement, housing priority should be given to women and the most vulnerable, especially older persons, children, and persons with disabilities. Despite this directive, these groups are the worst affected by the government’s actions.

Given the severity of the crisis, HLRN has proposed 12 recommendations to the government, which can be found in our report. These include the need for a national moratorium on evictions; the adoption of a human rights approach to housing; a focus on in situ (on site) upgrading of housing and settlements; priority to evicted, displaced, and homeless/landless families under the ‘Housing for All–2022’ scheme; and, the implementation of recommendations made to India by UN treaty bodies, Special Procedures, and the Universal Periodic Review.

It is only through the respect, protection, and fulfillment of the human rights of the urban and rural poor to their lands and homes, that India’s housing problems will be resolved.

For more information, write to: ed@hlrn.org.in

[1] The total number of persons affected has been calculated by multiplying the number of homes demolished by the Census of India average household size of 4.8. However, many demolished houses had more than one family and most of the affected families have more than five persons. The number of people affected is thus more likely to be in the range of 260,000–300,000.

[2]  While HLRN does not support the use of the word ‘slum,’ it is used by the Government of India to refer to settlements/homes of low-income groups.