People and their cities: Of mice and women


By Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing

By unofficial counts 5,000 women are homeless on any given day in Delhi. Being homeless for anyone is a cruel reality. In Delhi it is even worse as we live in a hostile city. New Delhi’s high crime rate and unsafe streets make homeless women and children particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, rape, abuse, and oppression. Interviews conducted by civil society organizations with the homeless women reveal a startling picture of gross negligence by society that has lead the homeless women and children to this state. And also a justifiably incredulous loss of faith in governments at all levels at having failed them so completely. The questions repeatedly asked by the homeless women are: Who is responsible for our being in this state? Why this continued inaction? Which government office can we go to seek redress for our situation? Who in the government will listen to us?

There are various international human rights obligations of the Government of India, in particular those under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The Indian government has repeatedly failed to meet these in a timely manner or to meet its commitment to report to the UN Committees that are monitoring the implementation of these instruments. The issue of housing and homelessness comes most directly under our obligations to the ICESCR.

The last report of India on the right to housing, for example, to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that monitors ICESCR was in 1983. To gauge the full extent of state failure to deal with the problem of millions in the city having to live in inadequate and insecure housing, one only needs to look at how many people have been summarily evicted from their homes in the recent past in Delhi. From February to April 2004, slums were demolished and approximately 130,000 people were forcibly evicted from Yamuna Pushta. Disturbing reports indicate that the majority of these families have still not received alternative housing, compensation or appropriate rehabilitation, and many have been forced to return to the streets, thereby compounding the already grave situation of homelessness in the city. In the past three years, 300,000 to 350,000 people have been evicted from their homes in Delhi. Only some of them have been moved to resettlement colonies, some as far as forty kilometres from the original homes and workplaces. The housing and living conditions in these colonies are dire. According to Sajha Manch, a coalition of civil society groups working on housing and related issues of the urban poor in Delhi, twelve children died due to water borne diseases in Bawana resettlement colony in a three-month period after being resettled from Yamuna Pushta.

In the resettlement colonies, lack of potable water, exorbitant electricity prices, insecure tenure, non-existent or inadequate education facilities, and lack of employment force the vast majority to live in conditions worse than before — thereby violating a basic principle of resettlement as spelled out in international human rights guidelines. To solve the crisis of millions in India who are forced to live in inadequate and insecure housing conditions, forced evictions are not the solution. The following principles must be kept in mind:

  • First, states must ensure, prior to carrying out any eviction, that all feasible alternatives are explored in consultation with the affected persons, with a view to avoiding, or at least minimising, displacement
  • Second, legal remedies or procedures should be provided to those who are affected by eviction orders, along with adequate compensation for any property affected.
  • Third, in those cases where evictions are considered justified, they should be carried out in strict compliance with the relevant provisions in the Indian Constitution and international human rights law and in accordance with the general principles of reasonableness and proportionality. Additionally, evictions should never result in rendering individuals homeless or vulnerable to the violations of other human rights. Governments must therefore ensure that adequate alternative housing or resettlement is available for all those affected before executing an eviction order.