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Unequal burden

By Malavika Vartak

Children are amongst the worst sufferers when entire communities are evicted from their homes and lands. Surveys of 299 families living in New Harsud after displacement by the Narmada project, showed that 25% of children had dropped out of school after displacement

'He was born into struggle and has left us in struggle' read a note mourning the death of one-month-old Imran on July 29, 2006. Imran was born, and died, in Azad Maidan as his parents protested, along with several other families, against their brutal eviction and the demolition of their homes in Mandala in Mumbai.

Over the last two decades, the forced eviction of entire communities from their homes and lands in favour of large development and infrastructure projects, urban renewal, restructuring or beautification programmes has become commonplace (1). Dispossessed, dispersed and compelled to live in sub-human conditions, lakhs of evicted people face a steady erosion of their basic human rights not only vis-à-vis housing but also livelihood, food, health, education and physical security.

While forced evictions affect the entire community, the impacts vary tremendously as individuals and families within communities enjoy unequal access to power and resources. As a result, within a displaced community, women, children, dalits, adivasis, sexual minorities, the elderly and the disabled, to name a few, are further marginalised and differentially affected by involuntary displacement and lack of adequate rehabilitation.

Children are arguably one of the largest categories of marginalised groups and are an integral part of all communities regardless of caste, class, region, etc. It is, however, important to note that children, like other marginalised groups, are highly stratified along lines of caste, class, gender, age, disability, etc.

Despite their obvious vulnerability, it has been well documented that children are amongst the worst sufferers in eviction cases. For instance, as seen in a number of cases, including in the August-September 2006 Jahangirpuri evictions in Delhi, women and children were prime targets of police violence (2). Reporting on a lathi charge on protestors following the Mumbai evictions in early-2005, Shahar Vikas Manch noted: "Women and children were the main victims of this brutal charge, including five-month-old Rabiya Khatun who was rendered unconscious for several hours as a result. Many other children were beaten, bruised or were estranged from their companions/guardians in this period." Similar stories of violence and vulnerability linked to forced evictions continue to emerge from different parts of the country -- whether in mineral-rich areas of Jharkhand and Orissa, or in Dadri where huge corporate interests are weighed against farmers protecting their right to livelihood.

While the physical violence that often accompanies evictions and demolition drives remains the most visible and public form of rights violations, the loss of a home, livelihood and community affects children in multiple ways. As displacement is not only physical but also economic and social, the demolition of a home or forced eviction often means the destruction of a lifetime's savings, thus shattering not only the present but also making the future insecure. As noted by (Retd) Justice Rajinder Sachar, while UN Special Rapporteur on promoting the realisation of the right to adequate housing appointed by the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, children's rights to survival and development are directly dependent on their immediate environment, and these rights can be severely hampered due to lack of adequate housing. For instance, the high incidence of malnutrition deaths among Korku adivasi children in the recent past has strong links with their impoverishment caused by restricted access to minor forest produce which began when the Melghat area was declared a forest reserve and part of Project Tiger (3).

Forced evictions, which are normally accompanied by lack of adequate rehabilitation, almost always lead to situations of economic and social distress, which often adversely impacts access to healthcare. Imran's tragic death during the demolition drive in Mumbai is the fate of several children who are thrown out of their homes and exposed to harsh weather conditions and illnesses caused by lack of proper sanitation and adequate nutrition. Two children succumbed to the enforced exposure to weather conditions during the Mumbai evictions of December 2004. Further, displacement and forced evictions cause high levels of stress, impacting the mental health of affected communities. Doctors at the Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences noted a significant increase in mental health complaints among women and children after the announcement of a demolition drive in Delhi, in 2006 (4).

For the lucky few families who get 'rehabilitated', housing conditions are often poor and inadequate. The human right to adequate housing represents not only the physical structure of a house but also access to basic services, access to places of work and education, compatibility with cultural requirements, etc. Whether in rural or urban areas, resettlement sites are consistently found to be lacking in basic facilities including water, sanitation, electricity, and street lighting. Until July 2006, several 'resettled' families including over 300 children were living without any form of shelter for months at the Savda Ghevra resettlement site in Delhi as house plots, let alone water, sanitation and roads, had not been provided (5). Within a few months of resettlement at Bawana in 2004, in Delhi, 17 people, 12 of them children, died due to exposure to waterborne diseases caused by lack of clean drinking water, sanitation and solid waste management and lack of access to timely medical attention (6).

As most resettlement sites lack functioning schools, displaced children are often forced to discontinue their education as commuting to schools near their original homes is no longer a viable option. Girl-children are more likely than boys to drop out due to lack of easy access to schools, and safety concerns. In communities where education for girls is not a priority, and in situations of economic stress, it is usually the girl-child who is pulled out of school first. Many girls are also forced to drop out as the domestic workload increases dramatically due to lack of easy access to water, loss of social networks and support systems, and increased time spent away from the home by adults due to greater distances from their place of work.

Families affected by the Mumbai Urban Transport Project complained that despite provisions for the establishment of primary schools in the resettlement policy, none had been set up. The absence of a school nearby increased expenses, for several children had to traverse long distances to attend school. Safety of little children during long commutes was also a matter of concern. Others were forced to send their children to private schools to avoid the long distances, but they ended up paying much higher fees (7). Around 6,000 children used to study in government and private schools in Harsud, one of the major towns in the Indira Sagar dam submergence zone in Madhya Pradesh. Following the forced eviction and demolition of Harsud town in June-July 2004, the town's 14 government schools were accommodated in two buildings and a few tin sheds at the resettlement site in a nearby village. Surveys of 299 families living in the five sectors of New Harsud showed that 25% of children had dropped out of school after the displacement (8).

Even as the body of literature on the impact of loss of homes and livelihood on vulnerable and marginalised groups, including children, grows, there is little consideration for these groups in the laws, policies and programmes dealing with eviction and rehabilitation.

Under these circumstances, using provisions available in international human rights instruments like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 11.1), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Articles 16.1 and 27), both of which India has ratified, could help bridge the gaps. General Comment 7 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on forced evictions is particularly significant in this context. Also useful are the recent Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement, prepared by the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing presented to the 2006 Human Rights Council (9). These guidelines are a further development of the UN Comprehensive Human Rights Guidelines on Development-Based Displacement (10).

The Basic Principles, whilst stating that evictions are acceptable only under the most exceptional circumstances and after all alternatives have been explored, are extremely detailed in their articulation of the nature and extent of State responsibility with regard to development-based evictions. Recognising the specific vulnerabilities of children along with other marginalised groups, the Basic Principles detail a variety of measures that may be adopted from the earliest stages of displacement in order to mitigate the adverse impacts. Recognising that the processes of eviction often lead to heightened levels of insecurity and deepened existing socio-economic and political divides, the Basic Principles lay down practical measures by which the rights of disadvantaged groups can be respected, protected and fulfilled at the level of planning, during the eviction, in the immediate aftermath, and at the time of rehabilitation.

If incorporated into law and implemented in practice, such principles, read with other human rights instruments, could go a long way in ensuring that forced evictions are minimised and their impacts do not lead to further human rights violations of marginalised and vulnerable sections of our society, including children.

A large part of the information used in this piece was collected while researching for a Handbook on Children and Housing for Haq Centre on Child Rights, New Delhi

(Malavika Vartak is an activist and researcher based in Ghana and has been a WISCOMP Scholar of Peace Fellow. She works in the areas of housing rights and gender and displacement)


  1. There are more and more instances of communities being forcibly evicted due to sectarian and communal violence, ethnic tensions and in the wake of natural disasters. Evictions under these circumstances, though not significantly different in their impact but possibly in their scope and nature, are not within the purview of the present paper
  2. A fact-finding report on the Jahangirpuri evictions prepared by the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi
  3. Aparna Pallavi, 'Why their kids are dying', India Together, September 2004,
  4. Bindu Shajan Perappadan, 'Increasing cases of depression anxiety due to demolition drive', The Hindu, September 22, 2006
  5. A forthcoming report of the Stop Evictions Campaign in Delhi highlights the dismal living conditions at Savda Ghevra, where residents of Nangla Machi, Balbir Nagar and Indira Nagar have been relocated
  6. Bindu Shajan Perappadan, 'Unsettled Life in Bawana Resettlement Colony', The Hindu, July 6, 2004
  7. Simpreet Singh and Namita Singh, Draft Report 'MUTP: Connected Roads and Disconnected Lives', August 2007
  8. 'Savaging a civilisation: NHPC and Madhya Pradesh government at Indira Sagar dam'. A report on violations of human and legal rights of Indira Sagar dam oustees, Madhya Pradesh, August 2004. Jan Sangharsh Morcha, Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh, SANDRP, Delhi Manthan, Badwani, Sandarbh, Indore, Abhivyakti, Nashik
  9. E/CN.4/2006/41
  10. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/7

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008