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Beyond the right of mere existence: From the lens of slum dwellers

The recent observations of the Delhi High Court in Samar Pal versus Union of India urge us to ponder whether the right to life of slum dwellers deals with mere existence or includes the right to livelihood within its ambit.


BEYOND the skyscrapers and posh lifestyle of cosmopolitan cities of India lie the lives of millions of slum dwellers. According to the 2018 report of the World Bank, 35 per cent of the urban population in India has been living in slums. These slum dwellers merely exist in society without having access to basic human rights. Society and the State often turn their faces away from this harsh reality. These circumstances provoke us to question if slum dwellers are any less human beings and citizens of this country.

The Delhi High Court’s judgment last week in Samar Pal versus Union of India sheds light on the crude life of slum dwellers, and raises the pertinent question of whether the right to life can be separated from the right to livelihood. The petitioners, in this case, were forced to move from one slum area to another owing to the development activities being undertaken by the Railways. As a result of displacement, these slum dwellers found it difficult to find work and consequently, they faced difficulties in sustaining themselves.

Slums are often located at those sites which can provide opportunities for them to earn a livelihood by doing odd jobs. With a shift in their residential area, they are separated from their source of income.

While the Supreme Court in the seminal case of Olga Tellis versus BMC (1985) expanded the ambit of the right to life to include the right of livelihood, millions of slum dwellers in India continue to face financial hardships because of forced eviction from their dwellings. Slums are often located at those sites which can provide opportunities for them to earn a livelihood by doing odd jobs. With a shift in their residential area, they are separated from their source of income. This issue needs scrutiny not only from a constitutional perspective, but also from the lens of human rights.

Also read: Slum Dwellers Evicted by Court have Nowhere to Go

Right to livelihood: a facet of the right to life

Life is sustained through means which ensure a dignified existence. In the case of slum dwellers, it is the work which they carry out to earn a living in the vicinity of their slums. They deliberately choose certain areas as their home to be near their source of income, since they do not have the resources to travel long distances and search for work. Furthermore, the nature of work is informal and the source of income is unstable.

According to a research paper titled Living standards and health problems of lesser fortunate slum dwellers: Evidence from an Indian city, most slum dwellers are working as rickshaw pullers, tonga pullers, industry workers and construction workers, and are largely involved in street vending, hawking, petty shop keeping and selling handicrafts. Since most of them are involved in vending activities, they often face the threat of being evicted from their shops.

The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 was meant to ensure that registered vendors are not evicted from their shops; however, it has been noted that many street vendors have not registered themselves. Additionally, the notion that street vending is illegal has continued to be the norm, resulting in harassment of the vendors. Such a situation also results in the encroachment of the right to livelihood.

Lower levels of economic earnings degrade the living conditions of slum dwellers. This naturally means that their dwelling has to be near their makeshift homes. Without such facilities, they would be left devoid of any source of income and be pushed to penury.

While the Constitution explicitly recognizes the right to life, judicial interpretation in a catena of cases has affirmed that the right to life is intertwined with the right to livelihood. The Supreme Court in Olga Tellis remarked:

“The sweep of the right to life conferred by Article 21 is wide and far-reaching. It does not mean merely that life cannot be extinguished or taken away as, for example, by the imposition and execution of the death sentence, except according to procedure established by law. That is but one aspect of the right to life. An equally important facet of that right is the right to livelihood because, no person can live without the means of living, that is, the means of livelihood. If the right to livelihood is not treated as a part of the constitutional right to live, the easiest way of depriving a person of his right to life would be to deprive him of his means of livelihood to the point of abrogation.”

While Article 39 of the Constitution casts a duty upon the State to ensure that all citizens have adequate means to have a livelihood, in the case of slum dwellers, by evicting them from their present location to another, municipal authorities put an impediment for them to find new sources of income which, in turn, runs contrary to Article 38, which prescribes that the State must provide for adequate opportunities and take steps to enhance the quality of life.

detailed study in this regard shows the inadequacy of the steps taken by the Government. It also points to the poor implementation of such schemes at the grassroots. The findings of this study affirm that slum dwellers bear escalated costs and have insufficient income opportunities post-rehabilitation. The inaction of the Government in this regard also falls foul of the Constitutional idea of ensuring social, economic and political justice.

Slum dwellers bear escalated costs and have insufficient income opportunities post-rehabilitation.

The 138th Law Commission Report also highlighted that slum dwellers must be offered alternative accommodation which reduces the commute to their place of work, and secures their right to livelihood. This recommendation, however, has not received due attention from the authorities. Various schemes introduced by the Union Government such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and the Rajiv Awas Yojana for rehabilitation of slum dwellers have missed this detail. These schemes did not provide any protection for the livelihoods of slum dwellers.

Also read: Kolkata: Slumdwellers Getting Together to Thwart Illegal Land Transfers, ‘Forced’ Evictions

Human rights and constitutional courts

International human rights law also envisages a secured and dignified existence for all. Article 3 read with Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be expansively construed to include the right to livelihood. The recognition of this human right was reaffirmed in 1996 by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (‘ICESCR’) under Article 11. Furthermore, it must be noted that the right to work is deeply interconnected with the right to live in the realm of the international human rights regime. Article 6 of the ICESCR affirms this notion.

Besides this, these international human rights conventions elaborate upon the idea of ensuring inclusivity, and providing adequate housing and means to earn livelihood to those residing in informal settings such as slums in urban settings. According to a working paper released by the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, the government and urban planning agencies must consult with them to ensure that urban development measures do not adversely affect them.

It is pertinent to note that experts have acknowledged the vital role played by people residing in slums in keeping the economy of the cities robust by rendering important services. Hence, they have advocated for incorporating policies which keep their source of livelihood intact even while upgrading or shifting the slum areas.

The constitutional courts of the country have often delved into the progressive judicial pronouncements made by foreign constitutional courts and incorporated their interpretation into the Constitution. In Ajay Maken & Ors. versus Union of India & Ors. (2019), the Delhi High Court addressed the forced eviction of 5,000 of a jhuggi jhopri near the Madipur Metro station in Delhi. The court referred to International conventions such as the UDHR and ICESCR to bring home its point on the right to adequate housing.

Further, it referred to the South African case of Government of the Republic of South Africa versus Irene Grootboom (2000) under which the Constitutional Court of South Africa outlined the scope of the State’s obligation under Section 26 of the Constitution of South Africa. The Court held that everyone was entitled to have access to adequate housing, which should be inclusive of the right to  a livelihood.

While it is necessary to provide slum dwellers with adequate housing that sustains them throughout the year, the State should ensure that these dwellings are provided keeping the livelihood of slum dwellers in mind. Bereft of the latter, their right to life shall be rendered meaningless.

Experts have acknowledged the vital role played by people residing in slums in keeping the economy of the cities robust by rendering important services. Hence, they have advocated for incorporating policies which keep their source of livelihood intact even while upgrading or shifting the slum areas. 

Apart from the right to life and the right to livelihood, the Bangladesh Supreme Court, in the case of Ain o Salish Kendra versus Government and Bangladesh & Ors. (2001) dealt with the confluence of the right to life (and livelihood) and dignity of the slum dwellers of Dhaka city. The petitioners had been evicted without notice, and their settlements were demolished.  The court recognised the violation of the right to life, and ordered the government to take corrective action by providing alternative accommodation to the affected. Through the Bangladesh Constitution, the court ensured the basic human necessities were provided and the dignity of the slum dwellers was protected.

Also read: Slum dwellers’ right to the city: could the High Court have done more?

Way forward

It must be noted that slum dwellers endure living conditions without basic amenities such as sanitation, and therefore, concentrated efforts are required to be made to upgrade their conditions. However, while doing so, the government must give a wholesome interpretation to the right to adequate housing and work to ensure that their source of livelihood is not snatched away in this process.

Moreover, it has been noted that relocation policies do not solve the problem of informal dwellings. Therefore, it is required that governments discard relocation policies and adopt measures which provide for in-situ rehabilitation of slum dwellers. This will not only protect their livelihoods but also contribute to the development of the city.

report by American non-profit organization Habitat for Humanity lists a number of successful projects across many countries which have adopted the above-mentioned approach. India must imbibe these learnings, and develop a unique and participatory program for the rehabilitation of slum dwellers. If such measures are not taken by the State, the continuous violation of fundamental rights will not cease and the problem of slums will persist.