19 Feb 2010

Rights of slum dwellers: The law revisited

More than two decades back the then Chief Justice of India Y.V. Chandrachud passed the famous decision which is known in law circles as the 'Pavement Dwellers Case' vindicating the rights of those who have no choice but to live on footpaths and pavements and are constantly perturbed by the civic authorities according to whom they are an encroachment on public pathways. The recently retired Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, Justice A.P. Shah passed a judgment in similar lines enunciating the rights of slum-dwellers. On behalf of these slum-dwellers it was submitted before the High Court that the applicants were "mainly from the low income groups engaged in peripheral activities in the neighbourhood of their clusters. They are characterized by the term “city service personnel” whose daily chores ensure the health and cleanliness of the households in the neighbourhood where they are employed. There is an element of indispensability of their services for the resident population in the upper-class apartments and households.". 

In this background it was argued before the High Court that the "action of the government authorities in demolishing the slum clusters without ensuring relocation of its poor residents (“Urban Poor”) in total violation of their fundamental right to shelter enshrined in right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution." The Civic Authorities, called upon to justify their actions, contended that such "petitioners were occupying land which comes under the category of „Right of Way‟ and, therefore are not entitled for any compensation or alternative land under any policy or scheme of the rehabilitation and relocation."

The High Court took stock of the important decisions of the Supreme Court on the issue and Reports of various national and international agencies dealing with the practical problem of urban housing and noted the acute problem in Delhi as under;
44. In the last four decades, on account of pressure on agricultural land and lack of employment opportunities in the rural areas, a large number of people were forced to migrate to large cities like Delhi. However, in cities, their slender means as well as lack of access to legitimate housing, compelled them to live in existing jhuggi clusters or even to create a new one. They turned to big cities like Delhi only because of the huge employment opportunities here but then they are forced to live in jhuggies because there is no place other than that within their means. These jhuggi clusters constitute a major chunk of the total population of the city. Most of these persons living in the slums earn their livelihood as daily wage labourers, selling vegetables and other household items, some of them are rickshaw pullers and only few of them are employed as regular workers in industrial units in the vicinity while women work as domestic maid-servants in nearby houses. Their children also are either employed as child labour in the city; a few fortunate among them go to the municipal schools in the vicinity. The support service provided by these persons (whom the Master Plan describes as „city service personnel‟) are indispensable to any affluent or even middle class household. The city would simply come to halt without the labour provided by these people. Considerations of fairness require special concern where these settled slum dwellers face threat of being uprooted. Even though their jhuggi clusters may be required to be legally removed for public projects, but the consequences can be just as devastating when they are uprooted from their decades long settled position. What very often is overlooked is that when a family living in a Jhuggi is forcibly evicted, each member loses a „bundle‟ of rights – the right to livelihood, to shelter, to health, to education, to access to civic amenities and public transport and above all, the right to live with dignity.
In this factual backdrop, the High Court brushed aside the submissions of the civic authorities seeking refuge under the right to way of other citizens 
50. In our opinion, the stand of the respondents that alternative land is not required to be allotted to the inhabitants of such land which comes under the “Right of Way” is completely contrary to the State‟s policy which governs relocation and rehabilitation of slum dwellers. State‟s policy for resettlement nowhere exempts persons, who are otherwise eligible for benefit of the said policy, merely on the ground that the land on which they are settled is required for “Right of Way”. The respondents‟ have failed to produce any such policy which provides for exclusion of the slum dwellers on the ground that they are living on “Right of Way”. We find force in the submission of the petitioners that even if there is any such policy, it may be for those jhuggi dwellers, who deliberately set up their jhuggies on some existing road, footpath etc, but surely this policy cannot be applied to jhuggi dwellers who have been living on open land for several decades and it is only now discovered that they are settled on a land marked for a road under the Master Plan though when they started living on the said land there was no existing road. ...
52. We fail to appreciate how the above letter of the Principal Secretary spells out any policy decision on 'Right of Way'. The letter merely records oral instructions of the Lt. Governor that the jhuggi dwellers on the „Right of Way‟ will not be entitled to relocation. It is also not clear from the letter as to what constitutes 'Right of Way'. When the petitioners set up their jhuggies several decades ago there was no road. It may be that in some layout plan the land was meant for a road but when they started living there, they could not anticipate that the land will be required in future for a road or for the expansion of an existing road. As long as they were not on an existing road, they cannot be denied the benefit of rehabilitation/relocation. The denial of the benefit of the rehabilitation to the petitioners violates their right to shelter guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. In these circumstances, removal of their jhuggies without ensuring their relocation would amount to gross violation of their Fundamental Rights. ...
55. We find no difficulty in the context of the present case, and in the light of the jurisprudence developed by our Supreme Court and the High Court in the cases referred to earlier, to require the respondents to engage meaningfully with those who are sought to be evicted. It must be remembered that the MPD-2021 clearly identifies the relocation of slum dwellers as one of the priorities for the government. Spaces have been earmarked for housing of the economically weaker sections. The government will be failing in its statutory and constitutional obligation if it fails to identify spaces equipped infrastructurally with the civic amenities that can ensure a decent living to those being relocated prior to initiating the moves for eviction.
56. The respondents in these cases were unable to place records to show that any systematic survey had been undertaken of the jhuggi clusters where the petitioners and others resided. There appears to be no protocol developed which will indicate the manner in which the surveys should be conducted, the kind of relevant documentation that each resident has to produce to justify entitlement to relocation, including information relating to present means of livelihood, earning, access to education for the children, access to health facilities, access to public transportation etc.
57. This Court would like to emphasise that the context of the MPD, jhuggi dwellers are not to be treated as 'secondary' citizens. They are entitled to no less an access to basic survival needs as any other citizen. It is the State‟s constitutional and statutory obligation to ensure that if the jhuggi dweller is forcibly evicted and relocated, such jhuggi dweller is not worse off. The relocation has to be a meaningful exercise consistent with the rights to life, livelihood and dignity of such jhuggi dweller.
58. It is not uncommon to find a jhuggi dweller, with the bulldozer at the doorstep, desperately trying to save whatever precious little belongings and documents they have, which could perhaps testify to the fact that the jhuggi dweller resided at that place. These documents are literally a matter of life for a jhuggi dweller, since most relocation schemes require proof of residence before a 'cut-off date'. If these documents are either forcefully snatched away or destroyed (and very often they are) then the jhuggi dweller is unable to establish entitlement to resettlement. Therefore, the exercise of conducting a survey has to be very carefully undertaken and with great deal of responsibility keeping in view the desperate need of the jhuggi dweller for an alternative accommodation. A separate folder must be preserved by the agency or the agencies that are involved in the survey for each jhuggi dweller with all relevant documents of that jhuggi dweller in one place. Ideally if these documents can be digitalized then there will be no need for repeated production of these documents time and again whenever the jhuggi dweller has in fact to be assigned a place at the relocated site.
59. Each member of the family of the jhuggi dweller is invariably engaged in some livelihood from morning to night. It is, therefore, not uncommon that when a survey team arrives at a jhuggi camp, some or the other member may not be found there. By merely stopping with that single visit, and not finding a particular member of that family, it may not be concluded that no such member resides in that jhuggi. Such an exercise, if it has to be meaningful, has to be undertaken either at the time when all the members of the family are likely to be found. Alternatively there should be repeated visits by the survey team over a period of time with proper prior announcement. If jhuggi dwellers are kept at the centre of this exercise and it is understood that the State has to work to ensure protection of their rights, then the procedure adopted will automatically change, consistent with that requirement.
60. The further concern is the lack of basic amenities at the relocated site. It is not uncommon that in the garb of evicting slums and 'beautifying' the city, the State agencies in fact end up creating more slums the only difference is that this time it is away from the gaze of the city dwellers. The relocated sites are invariably 30-40 kilometers away from a city centre. The situation in these relocated sites, for instance in Narela and Bhawana, are deplorable. The lack of basic amenities like drinking water, water for bathing and washing, sanitation, lack of access to affordable public transport, lack of schools and health care sectors, compound the problem for a jhuggi dweller at the relocated site. The places of their livelihood invariably continue to be located within the city. Naturally, therefore, their lives are worse off after forced eviction.
61. Each of the above factors will have to be borne in mind before any task for forceful eviction of a jhuggi cluster is undertaken by the State agencies. It cannot be expected that human beings in a jhuggi cluster will simply vanish if their homes are uprooted and their names effaced from government records. They are the citizens who help rest of the city to live a decent life they deserve protection and the respect of the rights to life and dignity which the Constitution guarantees them.
Being of this view, the High Court also gave directions to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to provide for alternate sites for the slum-dwellers according to the Master Plan of 2021. 

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