Status of slum dwellers under our constitution
Noor Jahan Punam
Every day we see thousands of children, women and men begging on the streets, working at garment factories, etc- where do they live? Not certainly, in shiny multi-storied houses like you and me. They live in places called slums and the concept of living in slums is nothing new to us. But what are the dwelling rights of these slum dwellers? Their rights are entailed in our Constitution itself. By virtue of Article 31, any citizen of the People's Republic of Bangladesh is entitled to protection of law. In that, it is stated that- 'To enjoy the protection of the law, and to be treated in accordance with law, and only in accordance with law, is the inalienable right of every citizen, wherever he may be, and of every other person for the time being within Bangladesh, and in particular no action detrimental to the life, liberty, body, reputation or property of any person shall be taken except in accordance with law'. Further in Article 32, it is stated that, 'No person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty save in accordance with law'. When these articles are read in lieu with Article 15, it can be said that any citizen of Bangladesh has a right to dwelling. Article 15 provides for provision of basic necessities whereby the basic necessities of life, shelter, medical care, etc. are secured.
When we have got such securities within our Constitution why does the question of eviction of slum dwellers arise so often? Why is it so that the people leaving in slum express their view about their dwelling in the following way: "Aj ache kal nai, ai amago boshoti." There have been several cases on the matter of slum eviction but there has been no practical development. Several cases have upheld that slum dwellers cannot be evicted without sufficient prior notice. Slum dwellers' right to shelter was seen with a sympathetic view in the case of Kalam and others vs. Bangladesh and Others [21 BLD (HCD) (2001) 446]. It was stated that people living in slums could not be evicted without prior notice. The Court observed in this case that, 'Bangladesh came into being as a fulfillment of the dreams of the millions of Bangalis so that they can breathe in an independent country of their own. They knew that their country is not rich, but expected that social justice shall be established and the people shall be provided with the bare minimum necessities of life'. The court also duly pointed out that God provides all the amenities such as air, water, sunshine, etc for rich and poor without any discrimination. And our Constitution has also promised us equality in the eyes of law thereby making us entitled to equal rights in all spheres of life with regard to food, shelter and other necessities of life. The court also emphasised on the fact that it is not the fault of slum dwellers that the government of their country is not providing appropriate shelter for them and stated that, 'they are only struggling a losing battle to earn for themselves and to care and provide the bare minimum necessities of life to their children, which are the primary objectives of any democratic government. After all, the slum dwellers, poorest of the poor they may be, without any future or dreams for tomorrow, whose every day ends with a saga of struggle with a bleak hope for survival tomorrow, but they are also citizens of this country, theoretically at least, with equal rights. Their fundamental rights may not be fully honoured because of the limitations of the State, but they should not be treated, for any reason, as slaves or chattels, rather as equal human beings and they have a right to be treated fairly and with dignity, otherwise all commitments made in the sacred Constitution shall prove to be a mere mockery'. The court has not however, directed the government on the matter but assured the rehabilitation of the slum dwellers involved in the case.
The case shows how judiciary upheld the true interpretation of the Constitution and also how it supports the work of the NGOs with respect to the dwelling rights of slum dwellers. We hope that slum dwellers will not face such harsh eviction but rather the government will take a step towards rehabilitating the poor.
The writer is working with Law Desk, The Daily Star.