Habitat II Conference

Unlike the meets on environment, population, poverty and women, the UN-sponsored Habitat II conference on human settlements, this time in the historic city of Istanbul, was a low key affair. Though not quite an international media-blitz like Beijing, it had all the ingredients of the earlier conferences. There were the 'officials', the summit-savvy bureaucrats and heads of governments with their retinues using the muffled jamboree more for political lobbying over other contentious issues, and then the 'un-officials', the NGOs and the voluntary groups scrounging for more funds. Nevertheless, this too was a million dollar extravaganza, ostensibly to change the poor man's world.

"Adequate shelter is a basic human right", the main resolution passed in the earlier habitat conference twenty years back came in for much ink slinging. One view, projected by the US, pressed on clubbing the question of shelter with adequate standard of living only to delink it from any basic human right. Other developed countries also joined in the chorus. Vastly disparate living standards between the developing and the developed worlds poses the question of shelter without being a basic human right, squarely in the latter's favour. Growing beyond their limits, the West's urban habitats are unmanageable time-bombs that are ticking away. And by avoiding the question of rights, the governments have steered clear from any responsibility of sorting out this urban mess. So when a collective Third World voice, so unfamiliar in global summits nowadays, gunned for defending the earlier resolution, a hectic debate ensued which ended up with a compromise formula.

And what happened was another sad replay of a splintered Third World unity with many developing nations falling in line with the dominant countries. Understandably, the initial cosmetic opposition to the US-line gave way to its eventual acceptance because most of these governments under SAP prescriptions are themselves withdrawing the state from social welfare and infrastructural sectors including human settlements. India let down its Third World sister countries by not even sending its concerned minister to the Conference. Obfuscating with words, the final resolution that was accepted is a watered down version of the earlier one. It talks about "the full and progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing as provided for in international instruments" but steers clear from any commitment of individual governments to make the right enforceable or justiciable. The otherwise vitriolic NGO caucus, this time failed to mount pressure on the officials to declare housing as a human right.

Another clause passed in the conference and which appears in the "Global Report on Human Settlements, 1996", released on the occasion, that received much flak, this time from the NGOs, was on "forced illegal evictions". While it says that protection shall be provided against all such cases, it is highly unsafe to leave the judgement of "illegal" to the governments who are the chief perpetrators of forced evictions. Additionally, as has been the experience in India and other countries, underworld goons and slum lords enjoying the patronage of the ruling parties operate unhindered in the metros to grab slum lands. Any talk of protection means nothing without targeting these vested interests. Interests of slum dwellers are in any case insecure in front of the nexus of development authorities, real estate agents and underworld operators. Instead of directing governments to provide ownership rights to slum dwellers which is a substantive alternative to secure their interests against this nexus, the document stops short at enlisting ineffective dos and don'ts for the governments in avoiding unwanted evictions.

The uncontrolled and unplanned growth of cities today, are outcomes of skewed and imbalanced planning. In India, according to the last census, about half a million households were without any house and another 11.5 million households that lived in "non-serviceable' kutcha structures. It is a common ruse of all governments to duck from its commitment of providing adequate housing, by showing its helplessness to do so in the face of increasing population and more and more migrants flooding the cities. At the same time cities too have grown and spread out and new residential areas have also been developed. But the growing mass of workers, the ones who need any permanent form of accommodation the most, are the ones deprived from all such government housing policies. However, any such discussion was missing from the conference proceedings.

One often wonders after yet another UN-sponsored social-conference, what good do such international meets hold for the poor. While the UN looks out for another venue and another problem to talk about, countless many continue their womb-to-tomb march under the open sky.