Policy slogans are usually fragments of a sentence. Make in India. Housing for All. Swachh Bharat. What’s usually missing in the fragment is that the verb has no subject to agree with. For slogans to become statements, missions, policies and actions, someone has to make in India, keep it swachh and build the housing. The big elephant in the room is: who?
For housing, this is a particularly important challenge. The numbers are daunting: there was a shortage of 18.78 million housing units in 2012. Over 95 per cent of this shortage was for low-income households that earn less than Rs. 2 lakh as total household income per year. Taking the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation’s own formula — that a household can afford a house five times its annual income — this means ‘Housing for All’ needs to make nearly 17 million houses, all under Rs.10 lakh. That’s the finish line.
Who should build this housing? One way to answer this question objectively is to see who has built affordable housing at scale and under Rs.10 lakh so far. Three candidates emerge: the government, private developers, and communities of the urban poor themselves. Government output has risen in the past two decades but remains woefully inadequate. In Karnataka, one of the better functioning States, all arms of the government built, under both State and Central schemes, 3,60,000 dwelling urban units or sites in the last 15 years. The current urban shortage in Karnataka is one million units. Even if this shortage doesn’t move an inch and no new demand appears, the government, acting alone, would need nearly 30 years to catch up.
What about private developers?
There has been an increase in the production of affordable housing by private developers in recent times, whether unaided or through public private partnerships in exchange for incentives such as transfer development rights. Market studies by firms such as Monitor Inclusive Markets and KPMG suggest, however, that private developers cannot enter the market unaided for below Rs.5 lakh housing, and will require significant incentives to build units between Rs.5 lakh and Rs.10 lakh. Most of the market, they argue, is in the Rs.10-20 lakh bracket. This is undeniably an important category, and one that is arguably underserved in the present housing market. Yet it cannot make a significant dent where it needs to, in order to make a dent in ‘Housing for All’.
Where developers can make housing below Rs.5 lakh is through slum rehabilitation schemes such as in Mumbai or Ahmedabad, building vertical rehousing. Leaving aside the debate on the efficiency or appropriateness of that verticality, the more important obstacle for housing policy is that these schemes can work at scale only in large metropolitan cities where markets for tradable development rights exist. The majority of the shortage, however, lies outside these major metros. Private developers have a role to play in affordable housing, but the limits of the market must be recognised clearly so that policy can regulate and direct the market effectively.
This leaves us with our final category: communities and urban poor residents. In Karnataka, even if we just count the officially categorised “slums”, there were 7.5 lakh of them in 2012. There could be an equal number that fall outside the official category. The figure is worth pausing to think about: people themselves have built, brick by brick, nearly three times as many houses as the government has, usually over 10-15 years and often on land they do not own but claim. They are affordable and accessible for the poor. Electricity, roads and water came later, layers of a slowly emerging urban life. Yes, for years this housing is deeply inadequate materially, and vulnerable to eviction. But it is also dynamic. It may not meet the paper standards of planning norms immediately, but almost all these slums become neighbourhoods, if given time and support. A generation of migrants begets one of urban residents.
We thus reach the paradox of India’s urban housing shortage: affordable housing when built at scale is done best by the people themselves, but is often inadequate and vulnerable, both materially and legally (in terms of security of tenure). And secure housing built by formal state and market actors is deeply insufficient in number, and almost entirely unaffordable for those who need it the most.
Recognising this paradox must change the way we approach the idea of ‘Housing for All’. The slogan’s fragment must become not one but a set of complete sentences that recognise different roles for different actors. Private developers must be enabled as well as mandated to build houses below Rs.15 lakh, but we must recognise that they cannot address the majority of the shortage in the category below Rs.5-10 lakh. The government must continue to play a strong role in providing low income housing, but recognise that it is unlikely that it will, even with the best of intentions, be able to scale its capacity to deliver enough units.
Upgrading built houses
This leaves us with trusting the only actors that have so far performed at scale: the people. If the inadequacy of these self-built, auto-constructed housing can be addressed, housing shortage can be dramatically reduced without building a single new unit. Upgrading existing but vulnerable and inadequate housing has a long history in global housing policy. It is indeed the only way that many countries that share our income profile and inequalities — Thailand, Brazil and Egypt, for instance — have made a significant dent in their housing shortages in one generation.
Upgrading has several advantages. It is significantly cheaper than building new housing units. It can be done with low-cost and easily available technology. It changes the role government and policy to one of simply providing settlement-level services such as internal roads, sanitation, drainage, and electricity, tasks it is mandated to do anyway. The multiplier effects of such upgradation for human development outcomes are enormous, and way over the economic gains of a city that reaches new households with networked infrastructure and services.
Most of all, working with existing settlements means that no new land has to be found. The work of occupying land and slowly making it habitable has already been done. The challenge is making that land legally available for use. There are many ways to do this, whether the land is publicly or privately owned, but it requires an enabling national policy framework that sets a precedent to find ways to protect what people have made rather than seek to evict them in order to maximise economic rent from the land. It is this that ‘Housing for All’ must do if it is at all serious about turning the fragment of a slogan into a statement of effective action. It must secure the land under the feet of those who have built our cities and their own homes so that another generation can inherit the gains of their sacrifice rather than the continued vulnerability of their lives.
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