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Foundations Of Our Lives


We had not understood what a fundamental and formative role housing plays in all our lives...
Foundations of our lives
How to stop being an architect and start learning about people’s housing needs...
Calcutta campaigner Jai Sen recalls how the scales fell from his eyes.

‘How could they destroy our homes, our belongings, our lives – and then want to plant trees in their place? Which are more important – trees or people?’ – Reena Halder, community leader and mother of two, after the demolition of her home in Rabindranagar, Calcutta, on the early morning of Saturday, 18 June 1983.

The year 1983 marked a major change in my life as an architect. I was driven by the force of what I experienced – yet another wave of evictions and demolitions in Calcutta, where I live and work – to realize that there was little point in my continuing to be concerned merely with perfecting the design of the foundations of people’s houses. I realized that I had to start helping them to build the foundations of their lives.

Bypass squatters not to be tolerated For the ten years prior to that I had worked with communities of the labouring poor in Calcutta – including ‘squatters’ and ‘refugees’ from civil and communal strife in Bangladesh – trying to help them improve their housing and living conditions. In 1977, some friends and I had set up an organization to do this work more solidly. Called ‘Unnayan’ – meaning ‘development’, in Bengali, though not in the dominant and now-devalued sense, but rather of ‘unfolding, self-realization’ – our ambition was to provide a comprehensive range of services which could support the labouring poor in their struggles to build their lives and homes.

Over the years, we did many things towards this. Working through community housing and craft organizations, we helped people build self-managed health and schooling services. We documented and researched people’s living and working conditions, published reports and undertook public campaigns. And we developed appropriate technologies, in housing (improved techniques for building with bamboo and split plywood), crafts (pedal-driven potters’ wheels), and even an improved rickshaw. We also engaged in constant and intense reflection to sharpen our understanding of the world around us, of the people we worked with, and of ‘poverty’ itself.

It seems easy now to say this but, burdened as we were with a whole set of received ideas about the nature and causes of poverty (primarily, that it has to do with work or the lack of it), it took a long time for us to recognize just how important ‘housing’ was in the lives of the people we were working with. After all, some of us in the group had spent many years studying and then professionally working in the housing field, so we thought we knew something about the subject. But we had not understood what a fundamental and formative role housing plays in all our lives – and perhaps especially for the poor.

Aside from material poverty, insecurity of work and exploitation of labour, one of the most persistent conditions that characterized the lives of all the communities we were working with was dwelling insecurity. The first aspect of this was the legal. All those who had been forced to ‘squat’ somewhere by the lack of other affordable options were vulnerable, exposed to constant exploitation by those with power – dadas (local political or gang leaders offering ‘protection’), religious/ communal elements, the police, the municipal authorities and so on. We were dismayed, however, to find that this was almost equally true of those who had formal security of tenure. Those who were poor and relatively powerless faced constant pressure to move on from where they lived – pressure from landowners, from real-estate developers, from neighbouring middle-class communities – until they yielded. And as soon as they were forced to move, their lives disintegrated. As we got deeper into our work this reality kept coming back to us – but we were still not able to recognize what we were seeing.

'Dehousing' as a verb: constant pressure from landowners, developers and middle-class neighbours.

It was a sudden, brutal and city-wide wave of evictions in the city in May-June 1983 which brought us to our senses. What was happening was no accident: the dehousing of poorer people – the seizure of their homes and their domestic security – is in itself a process of relentless impoverishment. It suddenly came home to us that ‘dehousing’ is as real and constant a social process as ‘housing’, and that indeed the two are interlinked.

We also came to understand from the people who faced this insecurity that ‘housing’ to them was not just their ‘hutments’ or buildings but a place in the world where they could live in security and dignity. And we suddenly understood the more basic meaning of the Bengali word that is most commonly used by ordinary people in Calcutta for ‘housing’ – basustan, meaning ‘a place to settle, to live’, as distinct from abashan, which is the term that the planners and builders use and means mere buildings or ‘housing projects’.

(In English, there is perhaps no easy such alternative term to ‘housing’. ‘Dwelling’ perhaps comes the closest. As John F C Turner and others have pointed out, the word ‘housing’ has been completely taken over and commodified in the industrialized world, to mean merely the boxes which are constructed and sold. Partly to overcome this idea, they have argued that ‘Housing is a verb, not a noun’ – like running, or walking. But, despite strenuous efforts to reclaim the word, the dominant sense of ‘housing’ remains.)

These ideas crystallized through work and discussion with people all over the country. The early 1980s were a time of evictions and demolitions right across urban India: Bangalore, Bhubaneswar, Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Madras, Nagpur, Surat, and so on. Organizations challenging them came to know of each other and a process of networking started. For some of us, it was a period of intensive travel and contact, and of extraordinary discovery and learning.

The picture that unfolded before our eyes was that people were being dehoused at a rate that perhaps no society in history had ever seen before. It was not merely a physical event, but a process in which people’s lives and memories had no place, in which their rights and freedoms were not merely violated but deemed not to exist. Even before they were evicted, people’s daily existence was shot through with the violation of their most basic human rights. In urban areas, for example, municipal authorities’ standard practice is to deny dwellers in informal settlements drinking water, let alone sanitation, on the grounds that provision of these services would be used to argue their right to live on the land. Dwellers in most such settlements are denied postal services and some are even denied the vote. People are deliberately kept in an insecure, marginalized state.

500 huts demolished in city The evictions and demolitions were accompanied by two other important processes. One, which we came to recognize only when it was almost over, was the passing in 1983-84 in legislatures all over the country of new laws which changed squatting in urban areas from a civil to a criminal offence. Though this may seem only legalistic, the effect of the change was huge: it made criminals of all the millions of people who had to live in such settlements because of social and economic conditions, and thereby subjected them to a wide range of harsh new powers given to the police and municipal authorities. In reality these were India’s new pro-landowner Poor Laws.

The second key phenomenon was the eviction and displacement of huge numbers of people for large projects such as dams and thermal power stations – and even, later on, for military firing ranges and golf courses. This was nothing new. The drive for industrialization and modernization undertaken by India’s rulers following independence in 1947 has included massive ‘development projects’ at its centre, and it is for this reason that India is the world’s largest dam builder.

But the scale is vast. The most recent estimate, accepted by government, is that as many as 22-25 million people have been displaced for large projects since independence, in rural areas alone. The vast majority of this number have gained no resettlement, let alone rehabilitation: they have simply been rendered homeless and left to fend for themselves. As is self-evident, these numbers are larger than the population of many whole countries.

In some areas people resisted their displacement, as with the Koel Karo dam in south Bihar in the late 1970s and again last year – as well as, more famously, the sustained campaign against the damming of the Narmada River in western India. In most cases people perhaps gave way with less protest. But by the early 1980s, middle-class students, youth and professionals had begun to document and then broadcast these developments. They too started networking.

We equally came to realize that other aspects of ‘development’ not normally related to housing were destroying people’s ability to dwell where they were. The commercialization of agriculture and forests meant that the rural poor lost their customary rights to take thatch and housing timber, lost fodder and grazing areas for their animals; the damming and despoliation of rivers and ponds destroyed their water resources. And it was women who bore the brunt of the new shortages. In the best-known example of this, the women of Garhwal, in the foothills of the Himalayas, were found to be spending ten hours a day collecting firewood where little more than a decade before they had taken only two.

The ‘environmental crisis’ that we were all becoming aware of by the early 1980s thus had a crucial added dimension: rural people were being relentlessly deprived of the resources they depended upon, undermining their ability to live in security and dignity. Commercialization was unplugging people from the life-systems that they knew and what they were being offered in exchange was the market – the one thing they could not afford.

Daily dwelling: an ongoing struggle on the streets of Calcutta over the most basic of resources.

All the networking, coalition-building and overt resistance around these issues – which emerged from our sense that we had to stop merely defending people and instead start setting the agenda – eventually had an impact nationally. The National Campaign for Housing Rights, for example, had a significant influence on the Indian Government’s first national housing policy, finalized in 1992. But it also promoted much more radical ideas: a people’s bill of housing rights, which envisaged the formation of dwellers’ unions to whom planning powers would be devolved. The Campaign argued that the right to housing should be included in the country’s constitution. The idea is not that the State should ‘provide’ housing for all, but that it has a responsibility to work towards and guarantee the conditions – economic, social, and environmental – under which everyone can live in security and dignity.

The wide range of groups involved in the work of the Campaign – women’s groups, trade unions and lawyers as well as dwellers’ organizations – showed the new recognition that housing or dwelling are daily and ongoing struggles over the most basic of all resources. They involve all classes, all communities and also relations between men and women. There are few aspects of our lives that touch so many dimensions.

It is not easy to assess the impact of all this work. The subjects of displacement and rehabilitation have at least now become a matter of wide concern: the Government finally brought out a draft National Rehabilitation Policy during 1994, saying that it was doing so because of the pressure from ‘a coalition of people’s organizations, activists, the press and the courts’. Equally, most political parties in India – previously unquestioning about ‘development’ projects – now at least express concern about unjust displacement and environmental questions, and have started including the right to housing in their election manifestos.

The struggles in India seem to have also played something of a role in reshaping the debate about ‘housing’ at the international level. While the idea of ‘housing rights’ is not new – it was expressed in, say, Britain in the late 1970s – the ideas have changed radically since that time. In 1987 the Habitat International Coalition took up ‘housing rights’ in the new, larger sense as one of its central concerns and it is now lobbying at the UN for a Convention to the Right to Adequate Housing. The UN Commission on Human Settlements (Habitat), which for many years during the 1980s steered carefully away from the subject of housing rights, has now even commissioned a paper on the subject for its world conference next year in Istanbul.

Yet at the same time, despite these gains, both the Habitat Conference in Istanbul and the Indian Government’s recent consultation on rural housing show that government and voluntary agencies alike still conceive of ‘housing’ in terms of housing units and projects. The concern remains, at best, with the foundations of houses and not with the foundations of people’s lives. This basic battle remains to be won.

Jai Sen has taken time out from his community and campaigning work 'to study popular movements in India for a place to live'. For NCHR documents, contact: NCHR Campaign Clearing House, 99/5/6 Ballygunge Place, Calcutta 700 019, India.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 276 magazine cover This article is from the February 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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