Slums in India: Tracing the Contours of Human Rights Obligations


JURIST Guest Columnists Milind Rajratnam, a second-year law student, and Shivang Yadav, a third-year law student, both at the Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University in Lucknow, India, discuss human rights violations against people living in slums and potential legislative action…

Please note that “slum-dweller” as used in this piece is not intended to be offensive and is intended only to refer to individuals living in housing lacking proper sanitation, drinking water, and transportation facilities.


Due to rapid urbanization and lack of a proper housing scheme in India, slums have become a dumping ground for the surplus urban population. These slums are regarded as illegal from the point of view of city planners. The total number of slums in India amount to more than 65 million, of which around 11 million are in Maharashtra, followed by Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh. These slums lack basic amenities, such as safe drinking water and sanitation.

In order to remove these slum dwellers, the government authorities resort to “forced evictions”, which results in serious violation of their human rights. This article is an attempt to analyze the rights of these slum dwellers.

Previous approach regarding the Human Rights of Slum Dwellers:

The accumulation of a large population in a small area (slums) with an inhabitable infrastructure leads to the inadequate distribution of resources among the people making them more vulnerable and ultimately leading to the infringement of human rights. Living in slums leads to a lack of proper sanitation, clean drinking water, and transportion facilities. Slum-dwellers often face poor economic conditions and thus have little power to oppose big companies who often encroach on their rights.

Most slums are located on the government’s land. Evictions from this land used to take place without even providing alternate housing to the slum dwellers leaving them to live at road paths with no other option. The court’s decisions would often favor the government and disregard the serious human rights violations the slum dwellers would face. But more recently, as more non-profit organizations have begun spreading awareness of human rights violations, the trend has started to change.

International Stance

Human Rights are termed as the “basic parameters” which assure the integrity of individuals are met for their overall development and that their rights will be protected against the more powerful entities. The section of society that is most vulnerable to having their rights infringed upon is the poorer section, which works in an unorganized sector and lives in a self-made informal structure, also known as slums. To provide more adequate housing, several treaties, laws, and legislations have been laid by several different nations.

The major laws that deal with the protection of slum dweller’s human rights are:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): Article 25 of UDHR states that every individual has a right to a satisfactory standard of living, along with the enjoyment of clothing, food, and medical care. Special care is to be taken of women and children. It also covers the right to security in the event of unemployment.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR): Article 11 of the CESCR recognizes the right of adequate housing to everyone with a focus on continuous improvement in living conditions. It also ensures the right to remain free from hunger (identified as a fundamental right) for every individual and commands the state to take adequate measures to ensure that these rights are not infringed.

The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families – Article 43 in the convention discusses the right to access housing of migrant workers and their families. It also provides them protection against rent exploitation.

The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – Article 21 states that the most possible and favorable atmosphere is to be provided to refugees along with other adequate and basic requirements.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child – Article 27 states that appropriate measures should be taken to provide adequate housing, clothing and nutrition along with material assistances and support programs.

The primary goal each of these regulations is to provide shelter and immunity against encroachment on basic human rights of the aggrieved population.

The largest problem of slums arises in the densely populated states or the under-developed states lacking the resources to provide accommodations in habitable atmospheres to their economically deprived community. Some of the largest slums in the world are located at Khayelitsha in Cape Town, South Africa with 400,000 inhabitants, Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya with 700,000 inhabitants and Dharavi in Mumbai, India: 1,000,000 – all of which fall under the above-mentioned criteria.

Apart from the legislation, there are several governmental and non-governmental organizations, such as UN-Habitat and GPRBA, which deal with the issues in slums and provide alternate shelter to dwellers.

Indian approach towards securing the rights of Slum Dwellers:

The Supreme Court of India has held that the right to life of human beings is not limited to mere animal existence and extends to the right to live with human dignity, including shelter, clothing, nutrition. The Court has also interpreted the right to be a fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 19(1)(e) and 21 of the Indian Constitution.

There is no specific law in India that deals with the removal of slums. For the purpose of eviction, the government resorts to laws dealing with property and cleanliness, which are distinct from forced eviction laws. Also, none of the provisions from the Public Premises Act or the Land Acquisition Act discuss the forced eviction of slum dwellers.

The Supreme Court of India declared in Ratlam Municipal Council vs. Vardichand that ensuring the public health of slum dwellers is the statutory duty of municipal corporations. The Court has also recognized the slum dweller’s right to life is not limited to a mere roof over their heads, but extends to the right to water, food, education, medical care, and sanitation. The question of whether the forced eviction of slum dwellers is a human rights violation came before the Supreme Court in Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corpn, where the Court held that eviction would amount to the violation of the right to life, and although Article 21 of the Indian Constitution does not give slum dwellers the absolute right to reside anywhere, the eviction process should be just, fair and reasonable and the dwellers must be relocated to other suitable places.


There is a need for a shift in perception regarding slum dwellers when it comes to town-planning. The international obligations regarding the rights of slum dwellers must be followed in order to prevent human rights violations. It must not be forgotten that the slum dwellers, who constitute major part of the population, are human beings and should be provided the basic amenities of life, as well as resources to be able to contribute towards the economy. The problems faced by slum dwellers must be solved by the government with the help of long-term solutions. More non-governmental and governmental organizations must come forward to eradicate this issue and protect the human rights of slum dwellers.

Milind Rajratnam is currently in his second year at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow. He takes an active interest in Criminal Law and Constitutional Law. He is associated with various organizations that work for creating legal awareness in the society.

Shivang Yadav is currently in his third year at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow. He is interest in international relations and has been a part of multiple projects relating to international criminal Law and international humanitarian law.

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