Waiting for Godot

Today I would like to give you a glimpse of how the other half lives! The images of the over the top house I visited a few days back compelled me to browse the bazillion photographs taken over the last 14 years. They all are from across the divide. What I was looking for was snapshots of homes as well as slums themselves to give you an idea of what goes on behind our iron curtain and to show you how people beat all odds and don't just survive, but live with dignity and courage.

The question I often asked myself is whether the right to shelter, that is not enshrined in our Constitution is an act of omission, or whether those who framed this perfect peace of legislature believed that it was implicit in the other rights like equality or simply the right to LIFE! The supreme court has debated the question ad infinitum and though it has ruled in favour of a right to housing in some cases, it has failed in others. It is a fact that millions of people are still living in sub-human conditions on pavements, in squatter settlements, bastis, jhuggies or unauthorised slums and are under constant threat of being evicted or even smoked out as happened recently in Delhi. 700 homes were gutted and the question that arises now is the one about ownership of the land on which these homes were erected. It seems far more complex than one could imagine and a true political and administrative nexus at play. The story goes something like this: the camp had 1200 tenements that were 'owned' by slumlords and 'rented' out with rents ranging from 1500 to 2500 rupees per month. The land it seems 'belongs' to the DDA (Delhi Development Authority) as confirmed by an NGO activist.

Today the slum dwellers have decided to take things in their own hands. They want to build their own homes. One of them gives the real picture of their predicament: The thekedars gave us nothing. They became so greedy that the area where four jhuggis stood some years back now holds at least six. There were no toilets either. We had realized that the land does not belong to them but this fire has given us the chance to set things straight. After realizing what we are up to, the thekedars have been threatening us with rape and murder. We have complained to the police. One wishes then success but even if you are an optimist one wonders how they will beat the system.

Talking of system, there is another story in the same paper that illustrates spot on how politicians deal with such situations and how empty their electoral promises are. Good to know in the election times. The article is entitled Slum families wait for flats. In 2009 slum dwellers of Bhawar Singh Camp were present at the inauguration of a redevelopment scheme for them with the promise of  a flat with two rooms, a kitchen, a washroom and access to elevator. It is one of the PPP (private public partnership) whereby a certain amount of the land was to be for homes for the poor and the rest could be exploited by the developer. A brochure was distributed and I guess a plaque put up. Lakhs were spent on the inauguration party.

2014 and nothing has happened. An RTI filed by another activist revealed that no building can ever come up on this land as it is part of the Ridge and Reserve forest area. Voila! Nonetheless the same Minister who inaugurated the foundation ceremony was back asking for votes. When quizzed on the subject you can guess what his answer was that it will be his first priority as soon as he is back in power! I have watched this cat and mouse game in every election - municipal, assembly and parliamentary - over 3 decades now. The promise is always the same and it is also never fulfilled. The people wait just like Becket's protagonists in Waiting for Godot.

Some years back I had met an activist who is also an urban planner. She is the author of a fascinating book entitled Slumming India. In her opinion the root cause of urban slumming lies not in urban poverty but in urban greed. Her views may be radical but are nevertheless true and I urge you to read this interview of hers. I will just reproduce part of her answer to the question why is India becoming one huge slum: This is happening because of the moral bankruptcy facing our intellectuals, activists and celebrities. They are allowing our cities to die rather than taking steps to the contrary. To cite a few examples, if sprawling farmhouses for a handful are allowed to occupy prime space, then the poor will be forced to huddle in huts, as there is just so much urban land to go around. If fancy malls, used by a few, are allowed to occupy a lot of space, then shops catering to the needs of the majority will come up on the roadside. If only a few industrial houses are given prime sites, then smaller factories needing propinquity to ancillary establishments will come up in residential areas. Get the picture.

Before I continue, I would like to share a few pictures of the slums where we work and our children stay. The conditions are abysmal and shameful. But as I said people live with all the dignity they can muster.

The street where Babli lives

You cook outside

Home is where mom's feed their kids with love 

Imagine if there was a fire

She goes to school and does her homework in one of these shanties

Proud of my home and my TV

Slums are tucked away in any space available

You can barely stand in this one

A nostalgic picture of the Lohar Camp now destroyed.

You will not believe it but residents of all the homes in the pictures above have voter's ID Card, Adhaar Cards, Ration Cards and all other identifications that make them a citizen of the city. Yet they continue to live in abysmal conditions. Sadly, they are not ready to see the way as they are prisoners of a feudal mindset that makes them believe blindly in the promises of wily and greedy politicians.

After meeting Ms Verma and getting convinced by her views, I requested her to come and talk to the residents of the slums we worked in. We had a workshop but what Ms Verma wanted them to do was a far cry from what they have been doing for ever. She wanted them to take on the next politician who came to their door soliciting votes and claimed s/he would 'regularise' the slum in question. She also wanted them to tell her/him that they knew their tenement was illegal but also knew that there was land earmarked for them etc. You get the picture. It all ended there and they still wait for Godot. How could they give up their feudal past.

So now the moot question is whether right to housing is a fundamental right. As it was not stated clearly in the list of fundamental rights by those who framed our Constitution, it was left to the State and the Courts to decide on a case per case issue. And this has been going on forever. In the article I mentioned earlier it seems that there are sufficient loopholes in the law that despite the existence of such rights, the state can still get away with not providing its citizens their fundamental human rights.   Whereas in some cases the Courts decide in favour of the citizen and in the 1990s the Supreme Court reiterated the right to adequate housing as a distinct constitutional obligation of the state, both under the right to life and under Article 19(1)(e), which guarantees the right of every citizen to reside and settle in any part of the country. But in 2000 the same court rules that '...displacement of the tribals and other persons would not per se result in the violation of their fundamental or other rights…' Confusing to say the least.

Today the Supreme Court has pronounced 2 judgements in matters related to housing. In the first case that relates to what is known as the Campa Cola housing Society case, it dismissed the appeal of the residents and have directed them to vacate the premisses by May 31st. Residents were duped by builders who built more flats than sanctioned. In 2002 these extra flats, numbering 100, were declared illegal and the residents were served demolition notice. They knocked at every door possible but to no avail. They have lost their homes for no fault of theirs.

The second judgement concerns a High Courtorder directing demolition of two 40-floor towers in Noida. The Supreme Court has agreed to examine agreed to examine real estate major Supertech Ltd's plea against the Allahabad high court's order directing demolition of two 40-floor towers in Noida and ordered the company not to sell or transfer flats in the buildings. One wonders what the final verdict will be.

Housing is the perfect playing ground for politicians and business men. In the bargain the poor suffer as there is no safety net for them and no one wants to give up  land which is the proverbial hen that lays golden eggs.

The question we need to ask is whether shelter is a fundamental right. It is a right that has been recognised internationally. It is time we did so for the sake of our pavement dwellers, tribals, slum dwellers etc as they cannot depend on interpretations of a law that has too many loopholes. As is highlighted in the article quoted above the right to adequate housing an important component of the right to live with dignity, but also therefore an obvious component of the right to equality.

Till housing is not recognised as a fundamental right, how can any social or economical rights be fulfilled. I hope our new Government looks at this crucial issue.