September 17, 2021

Deficient Housing for the Urban Poor

A simple definition of space is an expanse which is free, available, or unoccupied. Throughout history and with the changes in time, culture, the people and the world at large, we have come to understand that space holds a lot of power. It is an evidence of luxury, it is a source of scientific research, it results in monetary benefits for governments and companies worldwide, and sometimes it is a result of unauthorised law enforcement.

The lack of space or the unorganised use of space, be it for agriculture land, to build public parks, to construct a skyscraper or to build adequate houses for the inevitable growing population results in the control and institutionalisation of this ‘space’. But the disparity starts right here, with the very basic human necessity, shelter.

World over, there is a consequential deficiency of houses and shelters for the urban population with low or zero income, who in most countries, especially developing countries, are the larger percentage of people living in a city. Hongkong, which is one of the most affluent cities in the world, has completely run out of space for its poor population. This does not mean that there is a lack of space, but it reasons with the fact that there is no space that is affordable to the daily wage workers or the poor in Hongkong. They seek refuge in ‘Coffin Homes’[i] which are a three by six feet area which they now call home. These spaces, are not very cheap, are usually cramped with millions of people, are highly unsanitary and a public health hazard.

Almost on the same side of the spectrum, India, has an urban poor population of approximately 50% per city (one in six people), who live in informal settlements with no access to basic services: water, sanitation, power and waste management.[ii] What is more frightening is that these cities are already on the verge of involuntary ‘coffin home’ constructions within the city limits due to the prevalent exigency of shelter. Randeep Ramesh in his article, draws a comparison that “According to the latest Indian government figures, people in its cities have just 5.5 square meter per person – the minimum specified for US prisons.”[iii]

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the Right to Life. This article also includes the Right to Shelter, and has been held to be a fundamental right which springs from the right to residence secured in article 19(1)(e) and the right to life guaranteed under this section.[iv] To make the right meaningful for the poor, the state has to provide facilities and opportunities to build houses.[v] In the case of Chameli Singh v. State of U.P[vi], the Court held that “Shelter for a human being, therefore, is not mere protection of his life and limb. It is, however, where he has opportunities to grow physically, mentally, intellectually and spiritually. Right to shelter, therefore, includes adequate living space, safe and decent structure, clean and decent surroundings, and other civic amenities like roads, etc. so as to have easy access to his daily avocation. The right to shelter, therefore, does not mean a mere right to a roof over one’s head but right to all the infrastructure necessary to enable them to live and develop as a human being.” The reasons identified for the lack of space by scholars technically lies in the growing population of the country, the liabilities and inadequacies of the government and eviction and displacement of people from their homes due to numerous private construction works arbitrarily allowed by the government.

But the efforts of the government should not go unnoticed, as the World Economic Forum, identified the measures initiated by the government to tackle this situation, like the Smart Cities Mission enforced in 2016, which aimed to identify and roll out smart cities in order to drive economic growth, strengthen governance, as well as enhance the quality of life for people.[vii] Other schemes such as Atal Mission for Urban Rejuvenation and Transformation (AMRUT) and Housing for All have been drafted in a way that gives due consideration to the needs of society’s most vulnerable. Furthermore, Housing for All or Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana scheme was launched with the sole purpose of providing a roof on each head by the year 2022. [viii] But there have been several loopholes and problems identified with these schemes, the basis of which starts at implementation. One of the few defaults of the Smart Cities Mission, is the lack of proper legal enforcement when handling the housing systems for the slum areas in many cities. In Patna, the city administration often demolishes slums without following due process of law in order to seize the land in the name of beautification and development. [ix] The question to be asked is who speaks for the marginalized poor. These challenges are not restricted to one city, claims Sujeet Kumar, who explains that, in the name of smart and developed cities, the government is not only taking over urban land where millions of poor have lived for decades but is also acquiring fertile land and violating constitutional rights of farmers, tribes and other indigenous groups.[x]

The key to unlock this issue is not very simple, as it involves a long overgrown process of increasing the efficiency of the government to, one, stick to their word, and two, ensure the implementation of the law. Dennis A. Rondinell in his article, writes that “Public housing, sites-and-services, slum upgrading, and government assisted self-help programs have failed to provide sufficient housing to meet the needs of the poor. These must be supplemented by programs that reduce the costs of housing construction and increase the participation of com- munities, the informal sector, and private enterprise in providing low-cost housing. Analysis of the results of conventional government housing programs offers little hope of an adequate amelioration of the problem.”[xi] What this means is that the government has already solved half the problem by charting out the causes and effects of their actions. What needs to be done further is, the improvement of the rural sector employment, the judiciary to prohibit forceful eviction, the government to meet demands for shelter in a manner that adheres to the population without damaging the social environment, the citizens to voice their opinion when the mechanisms of the government are shaping out to be that of an Orwellian state and finally, for India to be ready to prevent and eradicate the inhumane system of ‘Coffin Homes’.


[i] Taylor, Alan. “The ‘Coffin Homes’ of Hong Kong.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 2017,

[ii] Ratan, Neel. “These Are the Challenges Faced by India’s Urban Poor – and How We Can Solve Them.” World Economic Forum, 2016,

[iii] Ramesh, Randeep. “India’s Urban Poor Are Being Squeezed for Living Space.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2008,

[iv] Article 21, The Indian Constitution 1949.

[v] U.P. Avas Vikas Parishad v. Friends Coop. Housing Society Limited (1996) AIR 114.

[vi] Chameli Singh v. State of U.P (1996) AIR 1051.

[vii] Ratan, Neel. “These Are the Challenges Faced by India’s Urban Poor – and How We Can Solve Them.” World Economic Forum, 2016,

[viii] Ratan, Neel. “These Are the Challenges Faced by India’s Urban Poor – and How We Can Solve Them.” World Economic Forum, 2016,

[ix] Kumar, Sujeet. “India’s Smart City Scheme Has No Space for the Poor.” Quartz India, Quartz, 2019,

[x] Kumar, Sujeet. “India’s Smart City Scheme Has No Space for the Poor.” Quartz India, Quartz, 2019,

[xi] Rondinelli, Dennis A. “Housing the Urban Poor in Developing Countries: The Magnitude of Housing Deficiencies and the Failure of Conventional Strategies Are World-Wide Problems.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 49, no. 2, 1990, pp. 153–166. JSTOR,

Author Details: Navami Krishnamurthy (OP Jindal Law School)

The views of the author are personal only. (if any)


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