nulawlab Project

Legal Access in Urban India

The NuLawLab is sponsoring two paid international co-op placements in support of comparative research on the potentially protective effects of access to legal information and services on conditions of housing security in urban India.  The study builds on research currently underway on residential informality, evictions, and housing rights activism in the cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengalaru, and Hyderabad, conducted by Assistant Professor of Sociology and Fulbright Scholar Liza Weinstein.  The NuLawLab is joining the study to examine the explicitly legal context of residential evictions in these cities, drawing on Professor Martha Davis’ expertise in human rights law.  Funded by a University grant program dedicated to multi-disciplinary research, this study asks whether residents with greater access to legal information and services are able to attain deeper and more stable forms of housing security than those without.  The comparative nature of this research allows for an examination of the varying impacts of legal access across institutionally and socially diverse urban spaces.  While these findings will be most relevant for the Indian context, the objective is to develop a framework for understanding broader relationships between legal access and housing security.

Residency documentation in Chilla Khadar - July 19, 2014

With more than a billion people worldwide lacking stable and secure housing tenure, nearly one-seventh of the world’s population lives under the persistent threat of eviction. Housing insecurity is a longstanding problem in India and the situation remains severe despite India’s strong democratic and legal institutions and nearly two decades of sustained economic growth. Yet while the problem is pervasive, with more than 93 million residents of Indian cities lacking legally recognized housing tenure, not all of India’s informal urbanites experience this insecurity in the same way. Evictions and clearance campaigns are carried out unevenly and inconsistently, and the recourse available to residents varies markedly between (and even within) cities. While some informal residents manage to remain in place, others are facing relocation or uncompensated eviction. When residents are displaced, they experience loss of assets and diminished access to livelihoods and employment, resulting in severe economic insecurity and other forms of instability.

The law, meanwhile, is a double-edged sword for India’s informal urbanites. With squatters and unauthorized residents lacking legally recognized tenure, it is often within the rights of governments and private landowners to evict. Yet India’s courts have routinely (although not consistently) affirmed the housing rights of informal residents. In a unanimous opinion of the Indian Supreme Court in 1985, for example, the justices wrote that to evict slum residents and pavement dwellers, whose livelihoods depend on access to shelter near their places of work, denies them their livelihoods and Constitutionally-guaranteed right to life. Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, 3 S.C.C. 545 (1985). Yet several key rulings have since challenged or qualified this idea, and the courts remain a contested site in which struggles over shelter are waged. In fact, in the past decade, elite resident groups have increasingly used the courts to press for the clearance of open spaces and roadways, claiming that the appropriation of these spaces by squatters deprives law-abiding citizens legal access to public space.

To further examine this orientation and the broader legal context of housing security, the research team will employ interdisciplinary methods to collect information and systematically analyze the legal context of housing security in the cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Bengalaru, and Hyderabad. The two main components of the research are archival work and interviews. For the archival piece, the team will collect and analyze key case law on evictions, squatting, and other issues of tenure security in each of the cities. Alongside the judgments, the team will examine contextual details, particularly those relating to the legal services available to unauthorized residents involved in the cases. Second, the team will conduct interviews in a number of key informal settlements in each city, inquiring about residents’ knowledge of and access to relevant legal services and information. The team will conduct a second set of interviews with legal professionals in each city, including those engaged in public interest law and tenants’ rights cases in order to garner their perspectives on legal access.

The data collection period in India will take place from July 1 through late December 2014, during which time Dr. Weinstein will be based at the University of Delhi under a Fulbright Scholarship. To carry out the explicitly legal research, Dr. Weinstein will be joined for two one-month periods by co-op students from the School of Law. The law student co-ops will take the lead in collecting the relevant case law and archival legal materials. They will also help conduct interviews with residents and lawyers in the four cities, with the support of a translator and research assistant.

This interdisciplinary research will make important contributions to understandings of housing security and legal practices of the urban poor, with an overall objective of promoting economic security. Although issues of housing security are grounded in the complex interplay of social and economic context, political institutions and interest, and legal frameworks, our study represents one of the few truly interdisciplinary inquiries in this area. The project is important and innovative, not only due to its interdisciplinary design, which draws upon expertise and insights from both the fields of law and the social sciences, but also the pressing challenges posed by rapid urbanization across the Global South.

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