Interview with Shivani Chaudhry: "There is a global housing crisis"

Poverty in Delhi

India has the largest number of homeless and landless persons in the world, as well as the greatest number of urban and rural poor.  But also in the global north, the world is witnessing increased foreclosures and market-driven housing loss and homelessness. Shivani Chaudhry, the Executive Director of Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), argues that the New Urban Agenda must pay more attention to the human right to adequate housing. Interview with Shivani Chaudhry.

You work at the Housing and Land Rights Network. What does HLRN do?
Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) is a human rights organization based in New Delhi, India. It was established in 1999 in New Delhi to address the growing need for research, education, and advocacy on housing and land rights in the region. We work on the promotion, protection, and realization of the human rights to adequate housing and land, especially for the most marginalized. A particular focus of our work is on promoting and protecting the equal rights of women to adequate housing, land, property, and inheritance. We concentrate on issues of forced evictions, displacement, homelessness, land rights, and disasters. HLRN aims to achieve its goals through advocacy, research, human rights education, and outreach through network building at local, national, and international levels.

How would you describe the housing situation in India?
India is a large country with many layers of complexity. The housing situation for the poor and marginalized is inadequate. India is faced with many challenges, and has the largest number of homeless and landless persons in the world, as well as the greatest number of urban and rural poor. Forced migration to urban areas is increasing as a result of displacement, land grabbing, and an acute agrarian crisis. In urban areas, in the absence of affordable housing options, the majority are forced to living in underserviced settlements (‘slums’) without access to basic services. Those who cannot afford to live in such settlements are homeless.  Forced evictions are also prevalent across the country, in the guise of ‘urban renewal’ or ‘slum-free city’ schemes. Increasingly, India’s new Smart Cities Mission is promoting evictions and relocation of the poor to city peripheries.

The majority of those evicted do not qualify for resettlement benefits, as they fail to meet the state’s criteria for ‘eligibility.’ This includes meeting requirements related to number of years of domicile in the city (known as ‘cut-off date’), proof of residence, and possession of various state-issued documents such as voter cards, identity cards or food subsidy/ration cards. For the few families that are declared ‘eligible,’ resettlement is often on the peripheries of cities in undeveloped sites without access to basic services, education, healthcare, and livelihoods. This results in severe long-term losses and severe impacts, which are seldom recognized or addressed by the state.

A major unresolved challenge at the governance level is the apparent dichotomy between the twin goals of trying to achieve high rates of economic growth while attempting to reduce poverty. The former receives precedence in practice while the latter finds more rhetoric in policy. This is visible in parallel schemes of the Smart Cities Mission with large foreign investment promises and the Housing for All–2022 scheme with limited investment and focus on the most deprived and marginalized. While the commitment to provide housing for all is commendable it needs to incorporate a human rights approach. However, a major obstacle in India results from the failure of the state to recognize housing as a human right even though it has ratified international law to this effect.

Land ownership is highly inequitable in the country but land reform is not on the agenda of most state governments. Marginalized groups do not have access to and control over land, further exacerbating their living conditions. Women also have limited ownership over land; only about 13 per cent of women own land in India.

Do you think there is a global housing crisis? What are the major global problems with housing? Why is housing not implemented as a human right?
Yes, I do think there is a global housing crisis, especially with regard to forced evictions, displacement, and homelessness. Unfortunately, issues of housing rights do not receive adequate attention – both within countries and at the international level. Millions of people are inadequately housed and suffer multiple deprivations and human rights violations as a result. Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs and organizations such as the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Housing and Land Rights Network have highlighted the persistent crises, including of homelessness, evictions, disasters, conflict, and displacement.

This is an issue that cuts across the global north and south. In the north, we are witnessing increased foreclosures and market-driven housing loss and homelessness. In the south, we see more of state-driven evictions and land grabbing, but private forces and uncontrolled speculation of real estate are also increasingly contributing to market-driven evictions. These are more insidious and unreported. Since people are forced to leave their homes for economic reasons, and not evicted in the traditional sense of the term, people do not view these as human rights violations, but they are serious violations. The loss of social rental housing and public housing options and budgets across the world are resulting in the number of inadequately housed and homeless people increasing. Land grabbing and alienation of indigenous/tribal/rural populations from their lands is prevalent across Asia, Africa, Latin America and even North America. Indigenous communities in Australia, Canada and the US, and groups like the Roma in Europe still suffer from extreme discrimination and violations of their housing and land rights. Women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities are the most affected by the global housing and land crises.

We, therefore, need more alliances—formal and informal— (such as the Habitat International Coalition) of housing rights organizations and activists working in the global north and south to deal with these issues at multiple levels.

You are also a member of the Habitat International Coalition, an international network that is campaigning for the right to the city. What does HIC do?
HIC works on multiple issues related to housing and land. The ‘right to the city’ is just one campaign of HIC. Habitat International Coalition is a key partner of the Global Platform for the Right to the City. But HIC also works on issues related to gender equality, housing and land rights, the environment, sustainable development, and social production of habitat.

As a member of HIC, you participated in the UN Preparatory Committees which are preparing the drafts of the New Urban Agenda. What is your view on the current version of the NUA? Is the right to housing addressed adequately in the document? Does the NUA mark progress in the international discourse?
HIC was created at the first UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I) in Vancouver in 1976. HIC’s history is thus closely linked with the Habitat process. HIC played a very active role in both Habitat I and Habitat II (Istanbul, 1996) and in the drafting of the Habitat Agenda (1996). Unfortunately neither UN-Habitat nor nation-states have invested adequately in implementing the Habitat Agenda. Twenty years later, we are faced with the next UN conference in October 2016 in Quito. However, the name has been changed to the ‘UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development’ and the Habitat Agenda has been reduced to the ‘New Urban Agenda.’ While urbanization is an important issue, half of humanity still lives in rural areas and cannot be ignored in this conference or its outcome document. The implicit assumption that urbanization is inevitable and beyond the purview of human or policy intervention is also incorrect.

We believe that the Habitat III outcome document should be called the New Habitat Agenda, not the new urban agenda. The latest draft, while recognizing the right to adequate housing, is not very strong on human rights. It also does not address global crises such as forced migration, landlessness, homelessness, landgrabbing, displacement, financialization, and market-driven housing crises.

The greatest shortcomings of the ‘new agenda’ are its failure to: adopt a human rights approach; incorporate legal commitments already made by nation states; challenge the macroeconomic paradigm that pushes for high levels of growth and urbanization through rampant exploitation of resources at the expense of rural habitats and inhabitants; and, recognize the centrality of land and housing to creating an equitable, human rights habitat for all. The draft is also silent on important global issues such as forced migration, land grabbing, and chronic displacement. The refusal to address market-driven housing and financial crises, and to effectively regulate the real estate sector, reflect a wilful denial to learn from the past. Instead of calling for balanced rural-urban development and investment, the draft uses the abstruse term ‘territorial’ for rural. The 2016 agenda needs to uphold the commitment of the 1996 Habitat Agenda to ‘treat villages and cities as points on a human settlements continuum within a common ecosystem,’ and to implement commitments within a ‘just macroeconomic order.

If a global conference on housing and sustainable development/human settlements does not focus on the legal commitment of states to respect, protect, and fulfil the human right to adequate housing, it indicates a failure and also a colossal lost opportunity. Even though the outcome document is not legally binding, it needs to be grounded in human rights approach and reiterate obligations of countries. A blueprint for the next twenty years cannot afford to remain silent on international human rights law and guidelines, nor can it ignore significant housing and land rights violations.

Does the inclusion of civil society organisations work well in the Habitat process? How do you see the role of local governments?
Civil society participation in the Habitat III process has been regulated by the mechanism called the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), which has had its challenges, including alleged exclusion of some constituencies. There have, however, been spaces for civil society input in various stages of the Habitat III process, including the policy unit papers and the various drafts of the agenda. How much civil society inputs are incorporated, and who decides that, are questions that do not seem to have clear answers.

Local governments need to focus on their national and international legal commitments. They also must work closely with local communities, social movements, and civil society organizations. In the absence of participatory democratic approaches, including to law and policy development, local governments will not be able to meet their commitments to promote the human right to adequate housing.

Can you comment on how the new regional Government of Delhi is addressing the issue of housing?
In February 2014, Delhi elected a new government of the Aam Admi Party (people’s party). This brought a lot of hope for the people of Delhi. Most residents of low-income settlements and the homeless campaigned and voted for this party. Soon after it came to power, the government announced that there would be no demolitions on Delhi government land. This move was greatly welcomed by all human rights advocates and the urban poor in Delhi. However, two years after the term of the government, the situation with regard to housing for the poor has not improved.

The living conditions of the homeless continue to be dismal with a shortage of adequate shelters that enable dignified living. Delhi has over 150,000 homeless persons but the shelters cater to only about five per cent of the homeless population. Existing shelters do not provide basic services, adequate space, hygiene, water, provisions for food/cooking, and space for storage. The situation of homeless women and children is the worst, as they suffer extreme forms of violence and abuse while living out on the streets of Delhi.  Money allotted to the Delhi government (Rs 206 million) to build homes/shelters for the homeless has been unspent for the last two years.

The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) is responsible for issues related to housing and resettlement in Delhi. The agency, however, consists mostly of engineers who do not incorporate a human rights approach in their work, nor are they sensitive to the needs and issues of the working poor in the city. Despite the documented failure of the resettlement model (from studies of sites such as Savda Ghevra and Bawana, located on the margins without access to adequate housing and services), the government has constructed large new resettlement sites (such as Baprola) on the city peripheries and has started forcefully relocating the urban poor.

The 2015 resettlement policy of the Delhi government demands large sums of money for alternative housing, beyond the financial means of local communities. While it talks about in situ (on site) upgrading of settlements and increasing the ambit of coverage of benefits/entitlements, in practice it is promoting resettlement to distant locales (20-30 kilometres away), which cannot be considered in situ. A positive move by the government was to extend the cut-off date for low-income communities to 1 January 2015. However, in order to be eligible for resettlement, the settlement in which the community lives needs to have existed before 2006. This again creates a policy dichotomy and excludes many people, rendering them homeless.

A major problem in Delhi has to do with governance. Since Delhi is not an independent state, it does not have jurisdiction over several spheres, thereby limiting the powers and efficacy of the administration. Also, a large part of the land in Delhi is owned by the central government and does not come under the control of the Delhi government. This creates a number of obstacles, bureaucratic hurdles, delays, and inefficiencies. Lately, it has also resulted in increased conflict between the centre and state.

Some people in Delhi, however, still hope that since this government has committed to working for them, including through the provision of adequate housing, it will deliver its promise. For that to happen, the government needs to pay attention to their grievances and take immediate action to protect their rights.

Interview: Sabine Drewes

This article is part of our dossier Habitat III - Sustainable Urban Development.