Putting rights issues through the looking glass. Not seeking answers, just some food for thought to see whether things could be any different!

Friday, May 18, 2007

The price of being poor: Urbanisation, Poverty and Destitution in India

Karl Polanyi’s reference to the ‘fatal irreversibility of urbanisation’ in the 1940s rings true in the Indian context. With the economic boom in India, its cities are growing faster than the smaller towns and villages. Urban populations are growing at a higher rate than the rural populations. Figures of the Planning Commission of India for 2004-05 indicate that more than half of India’s poor live in five states and that the urban poor constitutes nearly 28 per cent of the total poor population.

Slum dwellers and Housing Rights

The rich, big cities of India have the highest proportion of slum dwellers, living in abject poverty and inhuman conditions. According to official figures, in 2002, there were a total of 51, 668 slums and 42.6 million people constituting 8.2 million households were living in these slums in 640 towns across India (Census 2001 and NSSO 2002). Every seventh person in India is a slum dweller. Mr. Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, has opined that persons living in urban slums are faced with “urban apartheid”, are segregated and ghettoised, which further deepens the physical divides between the rich and poor in urban areas.

The human right to adequate housing is clearly mandated in international human rights law and the Indian Constitution also covers the right to adequate housing under the ambit of the right to life guaranteed by Article 21. The denial of adequate housing also leads to the violation of other basic rights such as clean drinking water, sanitation, livelihood and access to education and health care, as they are pushed outside the policy spectrum.

Governments and local authorities demolish slums or forcefully evict slum dwellers on the pretext of urban planning, beautification of city neighbourhoods and prevention of encroachment, without any care and consideration for their rehabilitation. Strict slum clearance laws exist in many states across India, which legitimise forced evictions and demolition drives. Slum improvement/upgradation is an option only when the land owners/government authorities do not need to reclaim the land in the long term. The Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark Olga Tellis case (AIR 1986 SC) that pavement and slum dwellers cannot be evicted without adequate notice and rehabilitation and the State would violate their right to livelihood, if they do, has not been followed in practice. In the Almitra H. Patel judgment (AIR 2000 SC), the Supreme Court opined, “Rewarding an encroacher on public land with free alternate site is like giving a reward to a pickpocket.” Judicial opinion on the status of slum dwellers has seen a sea change since Olga Tellis; they are viewed as land grabbers and criminals rather than victims of poverty and marginalisation, in the eyes of the law. The housing policies of the government have also failed to take care of the housing needs of the slum dwellers and the draft National Slum Policy of 2001 was never implemented.

Beggary, Vagrancy and Criminalisation of Poverty

The urban poor population is not comprised of only slum dwellers but also of beggars and vagrants; who constitute the poorest of the poor in India’s richest cities. The total destitute population in urban India, as of 2001, is 2,14,655; with 56.03 per cent males and 43.97 per cent females. Destitution involves income poverty on one hand and social deprivation/expulsion, like loss of social protection, access to common property and public good and services, political identity and citizenship, on the other. (Harriss-White: 2003)

The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959, made applicable across eighteen states criminalises beggary and vagrancy in India. The definition of begging includes, among others, the absence of “visible means of subsistence and wandering about or remaining in any public place in such conditions or manner”. Singing, dancing, fortune telling, performing or offering an article for sale also constitutes soliciting for alms as per the Act. In other words, all persons who are unable to secure an adequate means of livelihood for themselves or even traditional artists are deemed criminal. Many beggars who suffer from leprosy or other mental and physical illnesses are also criminalised in the process. The Act gives sweeping powers of arrest without warrant to the police, which they use regularly with devastating effect to terrorise homeless persons living on the streets. The penalty for begging for a first time offender is detention up to a period of three years in a certified institution or a beggar’s home under the Act and for a person convicted for begging on two or more occasions, the detention period is ten years or a prison term up to two years. Most of the cases under this Act are tried in a summary manner and a majority of the beggars are convicted, as they have no access to legal aid and even if they do, they are rarely heard.

Begging rackets or organised begging is becoming increasingly common across India but the Act does not adequately address this problem, penalising those who are the real victims, especially minors, in situations like these. A study by Peoples Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) shows how the anti-begging law operates in Delhi; police constables raid crowded locations like railway stations, bus terminals, temples etc and target those persons who they think are beggars. Most of those picked up by the police are engaged in some kind of active work, whether it be manual labour or as rickshaw pullers or at roadside shops/stalls etc and only few among them beg for a living. The 8 government run beggar homes have a limited capacity of 1810, hardly adequate for the high number of beggars/vagrants in Delhi. These homes are intended to reform the beggars and vagrants by providing vocational training etc but most of the funds allocated to these homes are spent on maintenance and administration. The sub-human living conditions and gross mismanagement at these homes point to the total apathy of the State towards its poor.

India has a total homeless and destitute population of more than 78 million; most of who reside in big cities. A city like Delhi alone has more than 100,000 homeless persons on any given day and there are just 12 permanent night shelters in the city, with the maximum capacity of less than 3,000. The system is that of ‘pay and use’; where in return they are provided with a place to sleep, mats and during winters, warm woollens but these shelters have poor facilities with no toilets, unhygienic living conditions and complete lack of safety. There are only 3 shelters for homeless women in Delhi that can accommodate only one per cent of Delhi’s destitute women. The conditions are worse, especially for homeless women and children who are more vulnerable to illness, physical and sexual abuse and the sheer brutality of street life.

Notwithstanding these grim statistics reflecting total violation of human rights of the urban poor, the Delhi High Court recently directed the Delhi government to control begging in the city streets and ‘rehabilitate’ beggars in detention homes and provide vocational training to prevent them from begging. The Calcutta High Court also followed suit with a similar ruling banning begging and hawking inside trains and railway platforms, labeling them as a ‘nuisance’ that needs to be curbed. The Delhi government and civic authorities have launched a mission to clean the streets of Delhi and rid them of beggars and vagrants before the Commonwealth Games of 2010. We do not need studies to prove that neither beggary nor vagrancy is a matter of choice and stems from conditions of extreme poverty and complete social deprivation. The State’s complicity in the process of destitution is epitomised in its active role in the criminalisation of poverty and destitution and at making these populations invisible.
Rights and Development Bulletin, Vol.1, Issue. 3, at http://www.cdhr.org.in


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