A brief look at housing rights in the Asia-Pacific Region -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A brief look at housing rights in the Asia-Pacific Region

By Wong Hiew Peng

The reality

While the right to housing is recognized in most Asian constitutions, the lack of an enabling law means that housing rights remain unrealized in the face of well-defined property laws. In countries where enabling laws have been legislated, implementation is quite poor, according to a paper by the coordinator of Eviction Watch, a regional program of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights.[1] This was the conclusion drawn by a group of housing activists and development workers in 2003 when they assessed the Philippines’ Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992.

An individual’s ability to realize his/her housing right continues to depend largely on household income, political connections, gender and ethnic or religious identification. It is also largely dependent on government policy and political will.[2]

In countries where governments have made a concerted effort to improve housing conditions, great inroads are made. All too often, however, any commitment to adequate housing is sacrificed in favor of other goals, such as urban redevelopment or beautification projects.[3]

Mega projects also lead to eviction, as can be seen in Three Gorges Dam project (China), and Bakun Dam project (Malaysia), and the Mekong River development programs (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam), and Manila Northrail and Southrail Projects (the Philippines), Kolkata Environmental Improvement Project (India) and Jakarta Bay Reclamation Project (Indonesia). When the urban poor communities being evicted sought legal recourse, courts generally would rule in favor of the landowners, whether government or private persons. The right of the urban poor to due process and alternate housing was seldom recognized, except in rare cases in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. [4]

Rapid urbanization in Asia also affects the people’s right to adequate housing by limiting their access to land and basic services, and security of tenure. Most of the urban growth in the world over the next 25 years will occur in East and South Asia. By 2030, 2.65 billion people, more than half the world’s projected five billion urban population, will live in Asian cities, based on United Nations estimates. As a large part of the future urban growth will be driven by the poor[5], it is worthwhile to examine their experiences in the arena of adequate housing.

India

Take India, for example, which is home to 22 per cent of the world’s poor. The South Asian country needs some 50 to 60 million new housing units to meet the total shortage. In its latest five-year plan that covers 2002 to 2007, the India government acknowledged that about 90 per cent of housing shortage pertains to the economically weaker population. Hence, there is a need to increase the supply of affordable housing to this group of people through allocation of land, extension of funding assistance and provision of support services.

In addition to government policies, Indian courts have supported the relation between the right to housing and right to life as guaranteed by Article 21[6] of the Constitution of India. For instance, in 1996, the Supreme Court stated in a ruling that “shelter for a human being, therefore, is not a mere protection of his life and limb. It is home where he has opportunities to grow physically, intellectually and spiritually. Right to shelter, therefore, includes adequate living space, safe and decent structure, clean and decent surroundings, sufficient light, pure air and water, electricity, sanitation and other civic amenities like roads etc. so as to have easy access to his daily avocation.”

But judicial support seems to have weakened in later years. In a 2000 ruling against slum dwellers being given alternative sites, the Supreme Court stated: “Rewarding an encroacher on public land with free alternate site is like giving a reward to a pickpocket.” [7]

Evictions also threaten the people’s right to adequate housing. Estimates from Hazards Centre, a professional support group and resource center for urban housing issues in New Delhi, show that between the years 2000 and 2006, over 100,000 families were forcibly evicted from their homes in Delhi. [8]

In addition, rapid urban growth resulted in India having a slum population that now exceeds the entire population of Britain. The India government announced in May 2007 that the country’s slum-dwelling population had risen from 27.9 million in 1981 to 61.8 million in 2001, when the last census was done[9].

Given the immense need for decent housing in India, Habitat’s approach goes beyond just undertaking its own building programs. It also acts as a catalyst for improving housing conditions by offering Habitat’s support, expertise and experience to other groups and partners. Habitat’s work in India comes under the umbrella of IndiaBUILDS, a strategic initiative to serve 250,000 people with improved housing and related sanitation over five years, as well as mobilizing one million volunteers in the process and raising capital toward this goal.

The Philippines

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines offers interesting insights in the provision of adequate housing. In contrast to the less urbanized India, the Philippines has more than half of its population living in urban areas. The Philippine capital, Manila, with its population of over 10 million people, is among the world’s megacities. Nearly 60 percent of Metro Manila’s residents are squatters, who often live on low-lying floodplains, precarious slopes, exposed riverbanks, and within highly toxic zones close to highways and railways. They also face fire hazards.[10]

Although housing rights are protected legally by both the Philippines’ Constitution and the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992 (UDHA), the reality is less comforting. According to the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), there has been a significant increase in the number of evictions in Metro Manila since early 2005 due to the rehabilitation of the Philippines National Railway system, known as the Northrail and Southrail Projects. A COHRE report in 2006 revealed that the Northrail-Southrail Linkage Project would be responsible for the forced eviction of 400,000 people (80,000 families) – the largest planned displacement of people in the history of the Philippines. To date, nearly 29,000 families (145,000 people) have been moved to several relocation sites, about 40 km from Metro Manila. COHRE’s research reveals that dwellers at most of the relocations sites are plagued by a lack of potable water, electricity and sanitation facilities. While the adverse impact of mega projects such as the Northrail-Southrail cannot be denied, the government provides for shelter improvement for low-income people in some ways. For instance, several state agencies provide or support housing finance with the National Housing Authority being concerned with socialized housing[11].

In housing finance, the state’s role is that of a primary lender. Many of the government’s efforts to address poverty housing have reportedly become decentralized, encouraging participation at the community level.[12] Between 1993 and 2001, nearly one million people became homeowners through the National Shelter Program that assists with resettlement, core housing and proclamations of government-owned lands for housing the poor. The government also set up the national Community Mortgage Program to provide low-income financing to individuals and communities facing eviction or lack of tenure security to acquire an undivided tract of land. Between 1989 and 2003, the mortgage program helped more than 140,600 low-income households to secure housing and tenure rights.[13]

In the Philippines, Habitat is also taking an active role in providing urban housing solutions by building medium-rise units in Taguig City, easing the need for houses amid scarce land supply and a growing urban population.

Both India and the Philippines represent the diverse challenges that Habitat faces in providing adequate housing in the Asia-Pacific region. While the need remains great, Habitat continues to create opportunities for its home partners to grow physically, intellectually and spiritually, thus fulfilling what is proclaimed in the Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Wong Hiew Peng is a writer and editor with HFH Asia-Pacific. She worked in the newspaper industry in Singapore before joining HFH in 2006. She may be contacted at: HPeng@habitat.org


[1] Struggling for Housing Rights in Asian Cities, Ted Anana, Eviction Watch, published in Vol. 34 of FOCUS Asia-Pacific Newsletter, December 2003, available on HURIGHTS OSAKA website. http://www.hurights.or.jp/asia-pacific/no_34/02.htm
[2] A Right To A Decent Home – Mapping Poverty Housing In The Asia-Pacific Region by Jennifer Duncan, published by Habitat for Humanity International, Asia-Pacific Office, 2007.
[3] Ibid
[4] Struggling for Housing Rights in Asian Cities, Ted Anana, Eviction Watch, published in Vol. 34 of FOCUS Asia-Pacific Newsletter, December 2003, available on HURIGHTS OSAKA website. http://www.hurights.or.jp/asia-pacific/no_34/02.htm
[5] State of the World’s Population, 2007, United Nations Population Fund
[6] Article 21 of the Constitution of India states that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.
[7] Almitra H. Patel v Union of India, case quoted in The Human Right to Adequate Housing and Land, by Miloon Kothari, Sabrina Karmali, Shivani Chaudhry, 2006, National Human Rights Commission (New Delhi, India) http://nhrc.nic.in/publications/housing.pdf
[8] The Human Right to Adequate Housing and Land, by Miloon Kothari, Sabrina Karmali, Shivani Chaudhry, 2006, National Human Rights Commission (New Delhi, India) http://nhrc.nic.in/publications/housing.pdf
[9] Indian slum population doubles in two decades, The Times Online, 18 May 2007. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article1805596.ece
[10] Understanding Asian Cities: A Synthesis of the Findings from the City Case Studies, D. Satterthwaite, October 2005 (Asian Coalition Housing Rights) available at www.achr.org
[11] Under the Urban Development and Housing Act (UDHA) of 1992, socialized housing is the state’s primary strategy in addressing homelessness through programs and projects on providing either house and lot packages or home lots for underprivileged people nationwide. Under UDHA, developers may comply with the 20 per cent socialized housing requirement through either developing new settlements, undertaking slum upgrading, renewal of areas for priority development, joint ventures with either local government units or governments housing agencies as well as participating in the community mortgage program (CMP).
[12] A Right To A Decent Home – Mapping Poverty Housing In The Asia-Pacific Region by Jennifer Duncan, pg 94, published by Habitat for Humanity International, Asia-Pacific Office, 2007.
[13] Ibid