The right to decent housing is violated not by eviction from squalid conditions but by being forced to settle in them in the first place

The right to decent housing is violated not by eviction from squalid conditions but by being forced to settle in them in the first place

A Supreme Court judgment and a former Prime Minister have turned the spotlight on slums. The former has directed their removal, the latter has taken to sitting in front of bulldozers to prevent them from being razed to the ground.

VP Singh has a valid point. That summary evictions should not take place, however, is hardly something that needs to be emphasised. Urban evictions are worse than rural evictions. While in cities, those evicted are victims of a future "public purpose" (never mind how unconvincing), in villages they are victims of past errors of omission and commission by agencies charged with managing land and housing. After all, to live in the appalling conditions that the rest of the city cannot even bear to look at can hardly be a matter of choice. Therefore, their summary evictions are tantamount to punishing the slum-dwellers.

In Delhi, there are an estimated 1,100 slums with some six lakh jhuggis. At the most, the agitation against evictions can make sure that none will be evicted without alternative accommodation. Last year, the Slum Wing provided 6,000 units for resettling squatters - in paltry 18 square metres plus seven square metres of community space to those settled before 1990 and in 12.5 square metres to those settled until 1994. At this rate, it would take 100 years before meagre planned housing is provided to Delhi's slum population.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of slum-dwellers will continue to live in deplorable conditions. V.P. Singh states that the battle in Delhi will win the war throughout the country, just as Wazirpur has become a precedent for all slum settlements on railway land. But the situation of most "squatments" being on public land is unique to Delhi and it may not be reasonable to expect a nationwide demonstration effect. Moreover, after this glamorous precedent, in the future it may become difficult for ordinary people to stop evictions or even draw public attention to them.

VP Singh also seems to want to take this effort beyond dharnas to a national campaign for slum-dwellers' right to live in security and dignity. But the direction of his campaign does not seem to have been directed beyond stopping evictions. V.P. Singh has been calling for a national slum policy. However, his Jan Chetna Manch has failed to notice - or at least highlight - the fact that a national slum policy has been recently drafted by the Government and already contains the type of provisions that he is agitating for.

Meanwhile, in the Jan Chetna Manch seminar on May 2, the persistent refrain was that slum-dwellers should not be evicted under any circumstances and should be provided tenurial rights and houses on the same site. Now consider some facts on Wazirpur, where a settlement has been "saved" by V.P. Singh, from another perspective.

Some of the huts are reportedly so close to the track that one can stretch out and touch a train. Tankers carrying naphtha and petroleum frequently move on this track and in the event of an accident the whole settlement can go up in flames. While Wazirpur may have become "secure" against present evictions, ground realities hardly qualify the place to be amenable to "secure" living.

Stopping evictions does not restore the right to decent housing. It is not eviction from squalid conditions that violates this right but being forced to settle in them in the first place. Any agitation against the eviction of slum-dwellers unfortunately also suggests that slum-dwellers have the "right" to live in slums. This is certainly not a privilege and can by no means be considered the fulfilment of the right to decent housing.

Giving tenure rights to slum-dwellers was tried through a state Act in Madhya Pradesh. At the time of its enactment in 1984 and the amendment to extend the cut-off date for eligibility in 1998, the move was widely celebrated. But once the initial euphoria was over, it was evident that kachha slums were simply transformed to pucca ones. Besides, evictions continued unabated.

Even providing multi-storeyed housing has not been successful. The densities that have to be achieved require high costs for good quality housing. Thus, by definition, it makes this option unsuitable for low-income housing. Besides, one cannot build multi-storeyed buildings on many marginal lands, such as those occupied by Yamuna pushta. There is also the matter of this option being unsuitable to the lifestyles of slum-dwellers, especially when they are engaged in home or settlement-based economic activities like, say, rag-picking.

The best example - or should one say the worst - of upgrading infrastructure is the Indore Habitat Improvement Project funded by the British government. This involved provision of individual toilets connected to underground sewage, individual taps, paved streets and soft landscaping in 183 slums across the city. The project won a number of international awards even while it was being implemented and is now being replicated in many other cities. All this despite the fact that in most "improved" slums in Indore the underground drainage is choked and the water contaminated. Indeed, all that such in situ options manage to do is keep the slums there - although in modified form - so that the urban poor are readily identifiable for sustained (if not sustainable) interventions. These options do not work for obvious reasons.

Slums are very high-density settlements. What this means is that a majority section of the urban population lives in a very small portion of urban land. In many large cities, the slum population accounts for half or more of the urban population and occupies land amounting to a tenth or less of the urban land.

How can a solution ever be found within such an inequitable framework? To say that we want slum-dwellers to remain where they are so that land under slums cannot be exploited commercially by others may be a useful argument against the alarming macro-economic trends emerging. But from the point of view of slum-dwellers, this is tantamount to cutting your nose to spite your face.