Corporate Land Grabs Make More Homeless

By N. Gunasekaran

In September 2010 the United Nations plans to review progress towards Millennium Development Goals at a high-level meeting. Only five years remain before the 2015 deadline. So far, progress towards the declared goals is very pathetic.

The Millennium Declaration promised “a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slums dwellers.” But governments across the world could not prevent the growth of slums. According to the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT), the slum-dwelling population is constantly increasing and will double to 2 billion people from the current level of 900 million.

Still worse is the ever-increasing number of homeless people. A homeless person is the one who lacks “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” as was defined by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Across the globe, homelessness is spreading alarmingly and the number of homeless people is officially stated as 1.6 million. Now it is not just an urban phenomenon. It has spread to rural and suburban areas also.

Affordable housing is still a distant dream for the poor. Governments of many countries are lagging behind in terms of providing basic housing services. Instead of undertaking speedy action to provide housing to their subjects,they pursue policies that uproot working people from their land.

Global agricultural policies imposed by the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund aggravated the agrarian crisis and forced heavily indebted peasants to leave their land. Hundreds of peasants committed suicide. Agrarian crisis has accelerated the mass exodus of landless and small farmers, both women and men, from their native villages to seek jobs in the cities. So the present housing problem is closely related to the rural turmoil. Granting large-scale land leases to foreign companies to acquire land, water and other food producing resources by the governments, and large-scale land acquisition by the corporations deprive the farmers the right to food along with the right to shelter. This is happening in many countries, such as South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Ethiopia and East Timor.

Governments of many poor countries in Asia and Africa have allowed massive Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in real estate sector. It has resulted in massive concentration of urban land in the hands of domestic and foreign real estate firms. Since land became a costly commodity, the poor male and female workers, employed in uncertain jobs in informal sectors, were unable to pay housing costs and were compelled to seek cheaper housing and forced to live under precarious conditions. Most of the workers have to spend a large portion of their meager earnings to meet the housing costs.

In India, the Special Economic Zones Act of 2005 has opened a royal road for big corporations to grab both agricultural and urban land in huge quantities. More than 500 Special Economic Zones (SEZs) have been established in all major Indian cities and towns. Such kinds of land grabbing were patronized by the government while the poor were suffering from lack of decent homes. The Indian government has already admitted that India’s slum-dwelling population had risen from 27.9 million in 1981 to 61.8 million in 2001 and currently exceeded the entire population of Britain. Needles to say, this was the period when the neo-liberalism went into intense action in India.

The African political economist, Samir Amin, observed, at the time of UN Millennium Declaration, that the corporate capital was trying hard to subject the land to “the general law of market.” It was a concrete reality in recent years. The process of destruction of peasant societies leading to the mass emigration to urban slums was under way in many of the Third World countries, including the big Asian countries like India. The well-proved formula of neo-liberalism was to pauperize the vast majority of disadvantaged working masses, while nurturing a small minority with super profits, both in countryside and in urban cities. Unless neo-liberal policies serving the interests of the corporate capital are reversed, the goal of providing decent housing for the poor would be a rhetoric. Will the UN take into consideration this underlying real cause that obstructs all efforts for common good?

The deprived people cannot wait for the grace of the UN. The right to shelter is an important human right. This right had already been enshrined in the constitutions of many countries. They have every right to demand their ruling establishments to reverse the so-called structural adjustments policies, which forbid public spending for the essential needs of the poor. And they must, united, ask the governments for increased financial allocation for public spending on housing in rural and urban areas. Expansion of public spending on the housing sector would also revive the employment-oriented construction industry and improve the general housing conditions of the poor.

N. Gunasekaran is writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 1, 2010

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