Written by – Anshal Dhiman
It was in 1986; more than three and half decades ago when the Supreme Court of India recognized the rights of pavement/slum dwellers in Olga Tellis & Ors v Bombay Municipal Council  2 Supp SCR 51, Housing, Rights. Since then many people have promised reforms, legal protection to the slums, but the truth remains that the rights of people in pavement dwellers are still not recognized by the government and majority of the population, due to various factors. The question is more social and moral than legal because pavement dwellers already have legal backing by the way of the Olga Tellis judgment of the Supreme Court. Despite that judgment, pavement dwellers have still been evicted from their houses by legislative and executive actions, and unfortunately in a few cases, through judicial orders too.
Indian Courts were very late in recognizing social, cultural and economic rights of citizens of the country and to include them under the ambit of right to life as given under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. These second generation rights were brought into public limelight only after the 1970s, when Indian courts started taking a more humanistic approach. People in pavement dwellers are already pretty much far away from using both their first and second generation rights as provided by the Constitution. Most of these pavements and slum dwellers are found in urban and metropolitan areas. These people do not migrate to cities because of the limelight and dreams, but they are forced to migrate far from their homes to such cities because of the economic situation. These people suffer from social exclusion the moment they step into the big cities, where most of them are not welcome even though most of the big cities work on their backs. Many questions arise as to their exclusion and involvement in the big cities, but another big question that arises is why they are deprived of their rights. Their social and financial background is one such factor which influences public attitude towards them. But regardless public attitude and their social exclusion should not limit their access to their legal and constitutional rights. The Indian courts have observed that right to housing and right to livelihood are under the ambit of right to life. This is important to know also because if the law cannot provide an individual with the right to life, it should also not be able to take away the right to housing and livelihood too, as the former is of no use without the latter.
The pavement and slum dwellers of India continue the face the worst realities possible in the modern world because of government ignorance towards them. Slums are destroyed and people on the pavements are booted out because of political and legal reasons. But what the governments fail to realize is that these dwellers represent their failures. Despite of any person’s social or economic background, one must have access to housing, and government policies play a big role in that. Another issue faced by dwellers in their housing problem is their population. Even in urban areas pavement and slum dwellers constitute a big part of the population, leave alone towns and villages. To accommodate such a big part of population in a good societies and permanent houses is a big task faced by the government, but not bigger than the issues faced by the pavement dwellers.
The Supreme Court rulings are only useful if executive action is taken to make lives of pavement and slum dwellers better. The need to recognize their rights is immense, but the need to educate them to make them aware about their rights and their duties is also big.