Visions of social transformation and the invocation of human rights in Mumbai: the struggle for the right to housing.

Author:Hohmann, Jessie M.

The struggle for access to and control over a space in which to live has made housing a central issue for the city of Mumbai. The city's history is one in which human rights and, in particular, the right to housing have played an important role. This article examines the Indian Supreme Court's development of the right to housing as an aspect of the right to life, placing this unique jurisprudence within the complex reality of life for Mumbai's inhabitants. The article traces the growth of this expansive human right through the Indian jurisprudence and then contrasts the housing rights case law with more recent litigation on the environment, urban growth, and rural development, in which the housing rights of marginalized communities have been radically refigured. The analysis reveals competing visions of how human rights should be interpreted and whose interests these norms should protect. In fact, as the article exposes, the contested interpretation of the right to housing is caught up in competing visions of India's social transformation into a new, "modern" state and the place of its marginalized citizens within that state. In this context, the right to housing emerges as a site of struggle through which the meaning of urban citizenship, participation, and the future of the city itself are contested. The article closes by offering some conclusions on the factors underlying the shift in popular and judicial human rights discourse, showing that competing visions of social transformation have had concrete impacts on the human rights of India's most marginalized citizens.


    Like many cities across the world, Mumbai shares in the pressures, pains, and pleasures of rapid urban growth. Mumbai's role as India's financial capital makes it an attractive destination for migrants who seek both to escape rural poverty and to remake their lives in a city of opportunities. As its growing population has overwhelmed its infrastructure, fifty to seventy-five percent of the city's inhabitants now live in informal settlements or slums, where they are subject to dire physical conditions and lack crucial legal protections. This struggle for access to, and control over, a space in which to live has made housing a central issue in Mumbai. Both despite and because of the city's housing inadequacies, a strong housing rights movement (1) has developed in which claims to the human right to housing have played a central part. The resulting body of jurisprudence on the right to housing is analytically distinct from other legal responses at the domestic, regional, and international level, and the movement has fostered a strong rights consciousness throughout society and a high level of activism around housing and the social goods related to its enjoyment.

    However, the struggle for housing in Mumbai is one in which changing interpretations of human rights have played a major role. Focusing on the Indian jurisprudence on the right to housing, this article reveals how efforts to control physical space are caught up with divergent visions of the future of Mumbai, and of India itself. In one vision, Mumbai is cast in the image of a city in a socialist state, in which substantive equality and social justice are achieved through the promotion of pro-poor policies and the careful provision of basic goods to the marginalized. The other, quite different, vision of Mumbai is as a "world class" city, the city of the elite, participating freely in the global economy through private initiative and entrepreneurialism, thus spurring economic growth and development across India.

    The role of housing in these contrasting futures emerges as conspicuous and conflicting. On the one hand, housing is presented both as a matter of basic physical need and as a right of urban citizenship. On the other hand, planned housing development is envisaged as a tool of social design for an aspirant society. As such, the struggles over housing in Mumbai emerge not merely as matters of survival or material comfort, but are invested with issues of belonging, entitlement, worth, and citizenship.

    The article traces this complex web of competing visions, illustrating the tensions between and among them, through the changing interpretations of the right to housing in the Indian courts. First, the article examines the cases on the right to housing, examining the development of the distinctive human right to housing in India. Next, the article contrasts the housing rights jurisprudence with more recent case law on the environment, and urban and rural development. These more recent cases re-characterize informal settlers as encroachers and polluters, and represent a diminution in human rights protections for these citizens. Third, the article critiques judicial participation in the State's changing vision of its own role and the future of Mumbai in a modernizing India, locating reasons for the changing discourse of human rights.

    The article shows that, while human rights offer a powerful discursive and political tool for the marginalized, these rights are subject to radical reinterpretation in ways that can disempower, as well as empower. The meaning of human rights is never finally settled, and these rights must be claimed and reclaimed in any battle for just social change. The struggle to control the right to housing in India illustrates the practical implications of social, political, and legal conflicts for the control of human rights, and thus contributes to an understanding of the role of contested human rights in social change beyond, as well as within, India.

    In Part II, the article outlines the housing conditions extant in the city of Mumbai, drawing a complex picture of the political, social, and physical terrain onto which the struggle for housing and space is mapped. In Part Ill, the article situates the struggle for housing within the growth of a housing rights movement in the city. Part IV then examines the judicial protection of the right to housing through Indian Supreme Court jurisprudence. Part V explores the legislative responses to this line of cases, which include the concept of rehabilitation and compensation and the "cutoff date." In Part VI, the article analyzes how the legal protections guaranteed in the housing rights cases are being challenged by new applications of human rights to the environmental movement, including cases in which informal settlers and the poor are being re-characterized as encroachers and polluters. VI.A examines the impact of the right to a clean environment, VI.B focuses the analysis on rural development cases, and VI.C considers the influence of the discourses on remaking Mumbai as a "world class" city. Having traced these changing discourses, Part VII sets out two reasons behind the radical shift in human rights discourse. The concluding Part VIII offers some analysis of the impact of this changing terrain for the realization of human rights in Mumbai.


    In this section, the article contextualizes the housing situation in Mumbai, elucidating the physical conditions which characterize life in the city. This unique contextual background is crucial to an understanding of the struggle for the right to housing in Mumbai, as this is the complex physical, social, and political landscape on which the struggle for control of human rights is played out.

    Originally, the land on which the city of Mumbai now sits did not exist. Several low-lying islands, the site of small fishing villages, reached out from the mainland towards the sea (2) Under the control of colonial powers, however, Mumbai began to grow as a metropolis, (3) taking in Bombay and Salsette Islands, and then spreading out into a suburban area on the mainland, simultaneously reclaiming land from the mangroves and the sea. (4)

    As an important port and India's financial and trade capital, (5) Mumbai has long been a lure for migrants. They are drawn to the city by its glitter and possibility, (6) while crushing rural poverty pushes many to seek a new life in the metropolis. (7) As a result, the "pace and sheer scale" (8) of urbanization has overwhelmed Mumbai's infrastructure and its political organs. The city, (9) which occupies just over 400 square kilometers of land, (10) has a population of some 18 million. (11) Over half of the residents live in informal settlements of one kind or another, including slum settlements, run down and crumbling chawls, (12) or the pavements themselves. (13) There are around 2500 individual slum settlements, which sit on just 6 percent of the city's land but housed 5.5 to 6 million of its inhabitants in 2003. (14) Almost 80 percent of the city's population live in substandard, inadequate and unsafe housing, (15) subject to an "ever-present threat of displacement." (16)

    It is tempting to say Mumbai is a city defined by its slums, but the word slum is misleading in two ways. First, as discussed in greater detail below, not all of those who lack adequate housing in Mumbai live in slums--there are other forms of informal or illegal settlement, and other gradations of homelessness, that define the lives of Mumbai's inhabitants. Second, the word slum connotes physical squalor, social dysfunction and economic stagnation. (17) These stereotypes are often inappropriate to describe the homes and neighborhoods of informal settlers in the city. Mumbai's informal settlements are instead highly organized and energetic communities. They are not only integral to the functioning of the city, but contribute cultural, economic, and social vibrancy to it. (18)

    The largest group of the informally housed are generally referred to as "slum dwellers." In common Mumbai usage, the word slum refers to a settled area, inhabited by people who do not have formal ownership of the land on which they live, and who have, without legal title, moved onto this land and built their dwellings there. (19) However, the legal...

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