Home :: Blog :: A Human Rights Approach to Housing and Homelessness in India: A Note on Recommendations by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing

A Human Rights Approach to Housing and Homelessness in India: A Note on Recommendations by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing

By: Ashwin Parulkar

May 4, 2016



United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, visited India in late April and recommended that policymakers implement a human rights based housing policy for people in slums and on the streets of cities to address poverty and inequality in this country.  She specifically called for compliance with international human rights laws on the right to an adequate standard of living (General Comment No 4, UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and moratoriums on demolitions and evictions (General Comment 7, UN CESCR). 

She urged the government to implement existing homeless policies, such as the National Urban Livelihoods Mission shelter guidelines, which guarantee people in shelters access to social protection programs.   The government, she also said, should identify housing options to suit needs of people on the streets, such as worker and family hostels.  These options are crucial since many urban homeless people are rural migrants who come to the city to work. 

Ms. Farha’s human rights framework is a reminder that India’s housing crisis is beyond a supply-side problem.  It is a challenge that is also acutely related to barriers the urban poor face in accessing decent housing conditions, basic services and legal justice (particularly, in the event of displacement).  The government estimates the current housing shortage is 20 million units.  97 percent of families affected by the shortage live in dilapidated, obsolescent or makeshift housing.  Most of these people belong to historically disadvantaged groups, such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.   The Pradan Mantri Awas Yojana (Housing for All) scheme is ambitious in its commitment to plug the 20 million unit gap but it does not consider upgrading existing homes or rigorously explore legal pathways to secure tenure for people vulnerable to eviction and homelessness. 

India has the economic capacity to ensure sound infrastructure and access to basic services for its people but the expansion of spaces and opportunities in cities alongside high GDP growth (the economy has grown by 7.3 percent in 2016 and is projected to increase) have not significantly improved living conditions for the urban poor.

Ms. Farha observed that in light of India’s economic success the conditions of urban slum dwellers (20% of the country’s urban population) and homeless people in thriving megacities are stark indicators of India’s inequality.  This inequality is rooted in existing forms of discrimination experienced by historically disadvantaged groups, such as Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) Muslims and women in these groups.  The share of SCs, STs and Muslims who are poor is larger than their percentage in the general population and they are thus more likely to suffer poor housing conditions.  The 2014 Centre for Equity Studies India Exclusion Report, for example, revealed that higher percentages of SC and ST and female headed SC and ST households, compared to other groups, live in ‘kaccha’ housing, or homes made of makeshift materials other than brick or concrete, like grass and thatch.  Slightly more than half of all households in India do not have toilets compared to two-thirds and three-quarters of SCs and STs households, respectively.   

A human rights based housing policy is essential to acknowlege and address these inequalities.  It is also necessary because India’s ongoing urban development is, in part, driven by slum demolitions and evictions of people from informal settlements for private real estate and beautification projects.  Bhan and Shivanand showed that 218 slum demolitions took place between 1990 and 2008 in Delhi.  60,000 families were displaced and as of 2013, half of the affected people had not obtained plots in rehabilitation colonies.  Demolitions and evictions are, at once, an engine of urban development and a direct cause of homelessness. 

A March report by Ms. Farha to the UN Human Rights Council focused exclusively on the rights of homeless people.   She recommended governments adopt international rights laws to an adequate standard of living and non-discrimination to address homelessness, based on (a) deprivations people on the streets experience as a result of not living in a house and (b)  forms of discrimination and ill-treatment they experience from the stigma of being homeless.   

Identifying homelessness as a social condition, in my opinion, is apt since people on the streets are denied a range of rights other than housing.  Homeless people in India experience high rates of mortality, physical violence, sexual abuse, restrictions from public places and risks to being detained in custodial centres under beggary laws.  These conditions imply violations of the right to life, of  security of person and of freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment.  A key point Ms. Farha makes in her global homelessness report is that these injustices are the result of the socially accepted notion across countries that homeless people – perhaps because they are homeless - do not have rights.  ‘The link between the denial of rights and a social identity,’ she says, ‘distinguishes homelessness from deprivations of other socio-economic rights,’ giving the example: ‘People denied water or food are rarely treated as a social group in the way homeless people are.’

In India, the current homeless policy is technically rooted in a human rights based approach.  The shelter policy designed by the Supreme Court in 2010 acknowledged that homeless people have the right to sleep in shelters because it is inherent to the Constitutional Right to Life (Article 21).  Those rights were acknowledged due to wide scale deaths of homeless people on the streets, which persists today.  The policy is presently not implemented in most major cities, such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore.  The failure to implement a policy intended to prevent unnecessary death indicates the lack of understanding – or acknowledgement – of the rights to life of people who belong to poor and excluded social groups.  What does it mean to ensure the right to life of a person who lives on the street?  Who, as importantly, is accountable for the violation of that right when such a person dies? 

Ms. Farha’s recommended three dimensional approach to homelessness reflects her view that the problem is beyond a housing issue.

It is as follows:

(1) Absence of a home: How is a ‘home’ different from a ‘house’? Ms. Farha uses the definition of ‘minimally adequate housing,’ recently defined by the Institute of Global Homelessness, which refers to ‘the material aspect of adequate housing’ and the ‘social aspect of a secure place to establish a family or social relationships and participate in community life.’

 (2) Systematic discrimination and social exclusion means ‘recognizing that being deprived of a home gives rise to a social identity through which the homeless is constituted as a social group subject to discrimination and stigmatization.’ This understanding implies that that governments have obligations to nullify laws and policies that create and criminalise homelessness.  In India this would mandate nullifying Supreme Court ordered demolition drives and beggary laws.  The latter give powers to public officials to detain people on the streets in remand homes. 

(3) The recognition of homeless people as rights holders places positive obligations on states to ensure access to shelters, housing and social protection programs.  It also implies the assurance of access to legal justice often denied to homeless people due to discrimination or the lack of identification, information and proof of residence. 

High rates of homelessness and slums in Indian cities reveal a housing crisis while the causes for and conditions of destitution in which such people live, at a time of growing prosperity, is also a visceral and constant reminder of eggregious and deeply entrenched inequality.   Policymakers must address material deprivations in mind of corresponding social divides by focusing, in equal measure, on infrastructure gaps and the barriers faced by dispossessed people to adequate housing, shelter, social protection programs and legal justice.


Useful links

UN Special Rapporteur’s End of visit press statement, New Delhi, 22 April 2016


Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context


Media articles









This Blog topic was posted in Legal Reform,Homelessness and Housing,National Shelter Policy.


Slide to Unlock