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  5. Struggling for Housing Rights in Asian Cities

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FOCUS December 2003 Volume 34

Struggling for Housing Rights in Asian Cities

Ted Anana

3.2 billion or 52% of the world's population live in Asia. Urban population may constitute anywhere from 25% to 70% of the population in the region. And between 30% to 50% of the urban population reside in slums, where social facilities are either poor or lacking.

Due to economic growth and globalization, business and other economic activities are on the rise, and construction of buildings and other infrastructures takes place in many parts of the cities. The need for labor as well as the economic opportunities offered by the cities accelerated rural to urban migration.

Globalization translates into government privatization of public assets and services. This includes selling or leasing of government lands to business groups and property developers. Large tracts of government lands (including former military bases) in Metro Manila, for example, were sold or leased. Thousands of urban poor families who squat on these lands were forcibly evicted and transferred to distant resettlement sites where job opportunities, basic infrastructures such as water, electricity, and roads, and social facilities like schools and medical clinics do not exist. As a result, many of the resettled families eventually went back to the city.

Globalization supports decentralization that provides local governments with more power to raise revenue, tap investments and make their own development plans. In the most infamous case, the city government of Jakarta enacted a local regulation (Perda No. 11) authorizing the demolition of the houses of the urban poor and also the destruction of their means of livelihood, such as vending and pedicab driving. The Indonesian national government professes it cannot intervene to stop these brazen violations of human rights which attracted international condemnation because of the so-called decentralization law.

Globalization meant welcoming foreign investors usually to modern, well-developed urban centers where two cities co-exist: the area of the rich and middle class people (exclusive subdivisions, high rise buildings, well-lighted parks, offices and malls equipped with the latest information technology gadgets, etc.), and the congested slums that do not have the most basic services such as clean drinking water, electricity, sanitation, schools and clinics.

Governments provide easy and cheap money to developers who build houses for the rich and middle class in many Asian cities. In the Philippines, 80% of the government's housing fund went to the so-called economic (non-poor) housing projects and only 20% for social housing and resettlement program. The government housing finance institution went bankrupt twice because it could not collect the loans from the developers. On the other hand, amortization payments by poor families were as high as 80%.

When the financial crisis hit Asia in 1997 the cities were strewn with many unfinished and unsold condominiums and high-rise buildings, while distant resettlement sites were half-empty as well.

The continuing migration to the cities, the natural growth of the urban poor population, and the massive forced evictions created the phenomenon of thousands of families living under bridges and fly overs, along railroad tracks and pavements, in cemeteries, and on riverbanks and canals in Asian cities.

Governments generally neglect, and at times even show open hostility to, the plight of the urban poor.

Mega Projects

Massive forced evictions are also occurring in Asia due to big projects like the Narmada, Three Gorges, and Bakun Dams, and the Mekong River development programs whose objectives are irrigation, flood control and the generation of hydro-electric power for the ever-increasing demands of the cities. Many peasant farmers migrate to the cities as a result.

In South Asia many urban evictions are due to infrastructure projects, such as the construction of new roads and expressways, road widening, canal improvement, flood control projects and beautification clean-ups to make the city attractive to tourists. Thousands of poor families are evicted without sufficient notice, consultation, compensation, and provision of alternative housing.

Massive infrastructure projects and beautification clean-ups in the urban centers restarted in Southeast Asia with the recovery of their economies. This in turn resumed demolition of slums.

Some of the big projects that will evict thousands of people are the following: Kolkata Canal Improvement Project, Lyari River Expressway, Dhaka Slum clearance, Surabaya Normalization Project, Jakarta Bay Reclamation Project, Manila North and South Rails, Pasig River Rehabilitation, Laguna Lake Ring Road, and Camanava Flood Control Project. The Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation fund many of these projects.

Slums are likewise destroyed by fire of suspicious origin. Fires displace thousands of poor people as what happened in Phnom Penh and Metro Manila recently. Fire is a cheaper and less politically controversial way of removing urban poor settlements.

In the prosperous countries of Northeast Asia, while house demolitions have generally disappeared, homelessness continues to persist. The number of homeless people increased as a result of the 1997-98 economic crisis.

Many poor people live in cages in overcrowded tenements and on top of high rise buildings (Hong Kong). As homeless people, they live on the sidewalks, train stations, subways, parks, and under bridges.

Development projects, including construction of facilities for the 2008 World Olympics, expose thousands of migrant Chinese peasants and their families as well as those who have lived in the cities for generations to forced eviction.

Eviction of migrant workers

Prosperous urban centers in Asia such as Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore evict thousands of foreign migrant workers from time to time. In Kuala Lumpur, houses of local squatters are demolished along with those of the migrant workers.

Housing rights activists, community organizers and leaders, and city planners noted in a meeting in Bangkok in July 2003[1]that urban and rural evictions are increasing and likely to continue in the coming years. They also pointed out a disturbing trend on increasing evictions due to armed conflict in some Asian countries such as Burma/Myanmar, Philippines (southern region), Nepal and Indonesia (Aceh).

Right to adequate housing

Right to housing is recognized in most Asian constitutions. But without an enabling law, this right remains unrealized in the face of well-defined property laws. In countries where enabling laws have been legislated, implementation is quite poor. In the Philippines, an assessment in 2003 of the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992 by a group of housing activists and development workers shows that while the law is good, implementation is very poor. The Japanese parliament enacted Special Measures to Support the Self-reliance of the Homeless in 2002. Opinion regarding this law, however, is divided. The law's recognition of the housing right of the homeless is considered positive. But many organizations of the homeless and non-govern-mental organizations (NGOs) say that it has so many weaknesses that can be used to evict homeless people.

Courts generally decide in favor of the landowners, whether government or private persons, on land issues and rarely would recognize the right of the urban poor to due process and alternate housing, except in rare cases in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. At times, urban poor communities use the legal process to stay the eviction, a stopgap but expensive measure.

Urban poor movement

Urban poor movements are alive in the urban centers of Asia, struggling and working for the recognition and realization of their housing rights that they consider as indivisible from and interconnected to other human rights (rights to livelihood, education, health, water, etc.). Their miserable condition and struggles have attracted the concern and support of members of the academe, activists, NGOs and some sympathetic government officials. The urban poor movements in various Asian countries have developed their own methodologies and strategies, some of which are presented below.

In Pakistan, young professionals, members of the academe, and urban poor organizations work together in combining the people's experience and the technical knowledge of the young professionals to come out with their own plans that are technically good and even superior to government plans. The plan could be on sanitation, housing, and community education. They also take advantage of the government's "regularization" program that provides long-term lease on government lands to urban poor families.

The urban poor, activists and young professionals also research on government projects that cause displacements and organize public meetings to present their findings and alternative solutions. The media cover these activities. In this way they, for example, were able to stop a light-rail project that would have destroyed thousands of shops and houses in Karachi.

Groups in the Philippines, Indonesia, India, South Korea, and Hong Kong engage in issue-based organizing of communities. People's organizations are eventually created as communities act on their issues. Various people's organizations come together as an alliance to generate bigger number to fight for bigger issues, such as holding off implementation of big government projects or a city's beautification drive. This work is combined with winning allies in the media, the middle class and government.

Savings organizing involves bringing people together to generate capital that can be used to buy land or raise additional capital from public or private entitites for their housing and other needs. The savings organizations in Asia and Africa have formed the Slum Dwellers International.

In many urban centers in the Philippines, people organize themselves to buy the land they are squatting on, or some other piece of land. Once the owner agrees to sell the land, they secure a loan from the government's Community Mortgage Program (CMP). The government pays the landowner and the people pay back the government over a period of 25 years. The CMP groups in the Philippines lobby the government to allocate more funds for social housing and to lessen red tape that prolongs loan processing.

Others do surveys of lands in the city, especially government lands, that are available for their housing project. They also organize house construction exhibitions to show that poor people with the help of some young professionals, usually architects, can build houses that are often cheaper and better made.

In many Asian cities, governments accuse urban poor communities of dumping garbage into canals and clogging them, thereby causing or aggravating flooding. In some urban areas in Thailand, urban poor communities negotiate with the government to allow them to continue staying in their location, with a proposal that they will organize themselves to undertake projects, with the assistance at times of an NGO that will keep their environment clean, including keeping the canals free of garbage.

People organize themselves with the help of a crisis intervention worker, either a leader or an organizer, to stop demolitions and to negotiate for better resettlement or compensation terms. This is fast or sweeping organizing since demolition notices are usually very short-term, 3 to 5 days. The work when successful can result in the delay or postponement of the demolition and the holding of negotiations.

In all this, Asian women are in the forefront not only by their presence but also by their courage and leadership as well.

While mainstream media (broadcast and print) are still influenced by middle class bias against the urban poor, urban poor organizations and NGOs realize the value of gaining public sympathy and understanding through the media. The work of people's organizations and NGOs in building contacts among media practitioners, providing them good, timely, reliable and newsworthy information, or having their own radio programs to directly reach the public have borne fruit in the form of favorable news reporting, feature articles in the newspapers, and favorable television episodes or stories.

The common thread that runs through these strategies and methodologies is organizing. Unorganized urban poor people have lower chances of resisting evictions. Organized groups aside from lobbying or leveraging government also organize demonstrations to get the attention of government. However, their capacity for mobilization, as ascertained in the Bangkok meeting, is still largely at the local and at times city level.

The experience of organizing and mobilization, however, has taught them another lesson: it is not enough to oppose, it is equally important to propose alternative solutions that are not only acceptable to the people but technically feasible and even superior to government plans. Alliance between urban poor organizations, NGOs and good technical people such as researchers, urban planners, architects and engineers help them a lot.

Urban poor organizations and NGOs engage governments at different levels, national and local. They lobby national and local legislatures for favorable legislation or ordinance, get information on government policies, programs and projects, and establish contacts with government personnel who can help them get a fair hearing on their issues and proposals. They also lobby governments for more housing funds for the poor.

Actions at the regional level are still largely meant to support domestic or local issues and actions. The Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), for example, organizes fact-finding missions and solidarity letter-writing campaigns. Most governments seem impervious to such pressure tactics and may stop evictions for a while to let the publicity generated by the fact-finding mission to cool down. Aside from ACHR, the South Asia Regional Program of the Housing and Land Rights Network, a thematic committee of Habitat International Coalition and the Asia and Pacific Program of the Center for Housing

Rights and Eviction (COHRE) also conduct similar activities.

Asian cities, rapidly growing, urbanizing and attracting more migrants from the rural areas, will continue to be the arena of the poor's struggle to assert their rights, including the right to adequate housing and the right to live in the city. The odds seem stacked against them.

Organizing of communities, using whatever useful and effective methodologies and strategies, has to be pursued in order to create a massive force that governments cannot refuse to heed. This is supported by links with sympathetic people in the media, academe, and government, and support from other social movements. Spread out in most Asian cities, such a force can create a regional impact that can oblige governments, intergovernmental institutions and donors to heed the urban poor.

Ted Anana is the Coordinator of Eviction Watch, a regional program of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights.

For further information, please contact: Eviction Watch, c/o Urban Poor Associates, 25-A Mabuhay Street, Barangay Central, Quezon City 1100 Metro Manila, Philippines, phone (632) 4267615; fax (632) 4264118, e-mail:;


1. This is the "Regional Conference on Forced Evictions and Housing Rights" (25-27 July 2003, Bangkok, Thailand) jointly organized by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) and the Center of Housing Rights and Eviction (COHRE). Participants came from Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Japan, Switzerland, and Australia.