Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Being Illegal is Bad for Your Health

This paper, Off the map: the health and social implications of being a non-notified slum in India
- the result of a collaboration between the Mumbai NGO PUKAR, the Harvard School of Public Health, and NYU (the lead author is Ramnath Subbaraman) - graphically illustrates what has been obvious for a long time: living in a non-notified slum is bad for your health. The article focuses on the health indicators of one non-notified slum in Mumbai, Kaula Bandar, to argue that its poor health performance compared to notified slums can be directly linked to how these residents are deprived of city resources because of their legal status. Borrowing Arjun Appadurai's phrase the residents of Kaula Bandar are essentially "citizens without a city". Specifically, the article looks at how their legal status affects these residents access to water, sanitation and solid waste removal, electricity, municipal schools, official documents (like ration cards), and compensation after disasters, as well as challenges created by forced eviction.

The article argues these residents non-notified status furthers a form of structural violence by which the Indian state is quite literally sickening and killing residents of these slums. The authors argue that India needs to fulfill at least minimum humanitarian standards (such as those applied to refugee camps) for residents in these slums. Unfortunately, the government is not currently doing even this.

Obviously, the issues involved in how to best deal with illegal slums are complicated. What is clear though is that these slums current status of not being notified is systematically killing and disempowering Indian citizens. I do think studies like this one will be important in challenging and reforming the status quo. More generally, there is a current deficit in Indian legal scholarship on how laws and rules affect those living in slums. I think such a scholarship would have to be inter-disciplinary and draw heavily not only on the public health literature (like this article), but also public policy, economics, and sociology/anthropology. It seems likely that even small rule changes could dramatically improve lives of those living in some of the worst conditions in the country.
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