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India in Transition

A New Language for Housing Justice?

Sushmita Pati
July 3, 2023

If you’ve been following the news in India, there is a slim chance you’d have missed the ongoing demolitions. The pace picked up in 2022, when the state used demolitions to deliver majoritarian forms of “justice.” While they have taken a particular form in Uttar Pradesh, the same methods have been deployed in Delhi, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, and Assam. On one hand, the charges of “illegal construction” are being directly used against Muslim minorities to further disenfranchize them. On the other, the reckless speed of infrastructural development threatens both urban foliage and the urban poor.

But we all know that demolitions did not begin with the Narendra Modi regime. Ever since the imagination of modern urban planning, anything deemed unsightly or outside the neat little plans drawn up on planners’ boards have always been subjected to demolition. From Baron Haussmann in Paris to Jagmohan in Delhi, ruthless attempts to reproduce the city in the image of the “plan” have always left death and destruction in their wake.

Why is it that the housing question has barely found a foothold in India? The first instances of such demolitions in Jehangirpuri, seen as a communal move, were met with a lot of civil society anger. But as months have passed, we do not see these demolitions abating. Residents of Tughlaqabad in Delhi and in Sonitpur, Assam are currently battling the consequences of demolitions. The working class facing displacement are no longer just poor Muslims. The public anger that erupted last year seems far more subdued and dissipated as the demolitions have gained traction. Even at the start of the pandemic lockdown when we witnessed hundreds of thousands of migrants simply taking to the road on foot to go back to their villages, it was horrifying, but also, at the same time, equally confounding. While American cities were spilling over with protests around canceling rent, the middle classes struck by job losses barely uttered a word about the need for canceling rent in dire times. The broader civil society, from policymakers to activists to academics, had little to say beyond demands for rehabilitation and welfare.

This is in no way meant to disparage the work of housing rights activists, but an acknowledgement of the difficult space in which they work. Housing rights have never been acknowledged as a constitutional right in India (despite an ill-fated attempt in the 1980s to draft a bill by a coalition of different organizations under a National Campaign for Housing Rights banner). Courts, as well, have been less than favorable in chalking out an articulation for housing rights. As the onslaught has become more spread out and sporadic, making it hard for people to organize, the state is also no longer the only location of power. The housing rights question has historically been unable to translate itself into a political question in India, while the “Right to the City”—argued for by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in the throes of the 1968 Paris movement—has become one of those rallying cries in urban movements world over, allowing local contexts to shape what the “rights” would be. As a result, the “Right to the City” framework has been used to demand affordable housing, rights for undocumented workers, and much more. Introduced into the Indian context by the UN Habitat, and organizations like Action Aid, the “Right to the City” and, by extension, housing begin to be articulated within the language of efficiency and accountability and, most importantly, an individuated right.

What are the historical roots of this difference? While in the US, the housing question has been central to the civil rights movement since the 1960s, in India, the indigenous, homegrown political movements did not quite consider housing as a political matter. While housing is at the heart of both labor and caste in India, both labor movements and caste movements have seen working class neighborhoods as only the “site” but never really the “object” of their movement. Apart from sparing moments in the 1970s, when both labor and Dalit movements paid some attention to housing in varying degrees, housing has remained peripheral to politics. The housing question in India, therefore, fell between the cracks of social movements. The housing question entered India well into the 1990s, when the political landscape had already changed with international organizations entering the arena of social justice. Given the lack of any clear articulation of a “right to housing for all,” housing has been reduced to policy matters, where it becomes yet another governmentalized object measured in numbers and charted in graphs. In the absence of a clear political framing of the “urban poor” who remained, this unmarked, vague figure afflicted by poverty has also not been very helpful in making the housing question in India political.

The counter to this policy-dominated, governmentalized discourse has come from what has largely been understood as occupancy urbanism or autoconstruction. These positions argue, quite convincingly, that the poor have always lived beyond both urban plans and policies, where they have incrementally built their homes. While they may be considered illegal, these quiet encroachments are not only resistance but also the only practical solution to the housing problem in our cities. In the impossibility of the state addressing adequate, suitable, and affordable housing solutions for the poor, it should ideally go about regulating and improving slum settlements rather than rebuilding them.

This valid argument is one that has been held by several housing rights activists for many years. Though it has been engaged with policy, this position has been refused to be seen as the only solution to the problem. But in the face of violent dispossession, the kinds that we see underway now, the absence of vocal, political language for housing rights has been debilitating. The fact that these acts have not been met with widespread protests but weak appeals and mostly submission is a reflection of this absence of a clear political language. Quiet resistance has been a useful strategy, but in situations in which state and capital violence has reached new heights, these organic, quiet resistances have not really added up to a radical critique. Without that, we have no clear way of articulating these demolitions, or the lockdown as a clear violation of rights.

Owing to a particularly aggressive turn by the state, most political movements in India have suffered setbacks over the last two decades. Many other movements, including the feminist movement, are now at a crossroads and are rethinking their relationship with the law and the state. At this point, there is nothing more important than creating an intersectional language that creates a counter-discourse around a meaningful language of justice that can bring together the concerns of labor, class, caste, gender, and beyond. In this regard, a politically articulated demand for housing rights is uniquely placed to be able to speak against minority and institutional violence, and brings concerns of labor rights and gender justice to the forefront. Housing justice could, therefore, provide that space and language that social movements in India are in need of—one that could possibly regenerate new political futures at this particular juncture.

Sushmita Pati is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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