Social housing could provide a measure of social protection to millions of low-income households.
During the Great Indian Lockdown Walkathon, many workers left the cities not only because they had no jobs but also because their landlords refused to waive off their rents. However, the housing crisis caused by the pandemic is not yet over. It is expected that in the months ahead millions of middle-class Indians employed in the organised sector (in both manufacturing and services) will find it tough to pay rents or EMIs as their employers will be in a solvency crisis caused by lack of working capital to pay salaries.
India’s approach to housing since Independence has focused on private ownership of houses. Even public institutions as Development Authority (like Delhi Development Authority or Jaipur Development Authority) or housing authorities (like Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority or UP Awas Vikas Parishad) have focused only on self-financed private houses.
According to Census of India 2011, the country had 246.74 million households of which 78.86 million were categorised urban. Over 80 per cent of urban households have more than four members, and a quarter of all urban households have six or more members. Also, in 68 per cent of urban households, the houses were considered to be in good condition.
The Census of India 2011 also determined that nearly 40 per cent of all households lived either in one-room or no-exclusive-room structures, while up to three-quarter of all households had two or fewer rooms. It also found that over 50 per cent of the households did not have a toilet.
In 2012, a Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortage (TGUHS) constituted by the National Building Organisation of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation estimated a shortfall of 19 million houses. While making this estimate, the TGUHS took into consideration obsolescence, congestion (including aspects as a married couple sharing a room with other adults) and homelessness (including single migrants). Of these 19 million houses, the deficit for economically weaker sections (households that earn less than a Rs 5,000 per month or Low Income Groups which earn between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 per month) was 18 million.
Amongst migrant workers, the men usually tend to live away from their families. Their dwellings are either their workplaces or slums. If they have stable livelihoods, their families join them. But the living conditions of squalor and sickness do not change. Even among the middle class, the young men and women migrating to bigger cities for education or employment face challenges of quality and price while searching for independent housing.
These statistics are almost a decade old. To remedy the situation, houses in urban India have been constructed under diverse schemes like Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, Rajiv Awas Yojna and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna. But this has hardly managed to bridge the gap and we frequently come across bad experiences related to housing, including the recent exodus of migrant workers from the cities.
Housing, thus, is India’s biggest constraint to social mobility and equity. The “own your own house” model not only is unable to address the housing shortage due to its pricing but is severely stressed due to the economic downturn.
It is time now for India to move towards social housing. Such housing — owned by the government, usually the municipal body — could rent out all kinds of housing – from dormitories to one, two or three-bedroom houses to those in need.
Western nations have experimented with social housing in a big way. One of the oldest models that is still in use is the 16th-century Fuggerei in Augsburg, Germany. Western European countries saw significant social housing developments as they industrialised in the 1800s and in the aftermath of World War II.
In Germany, the principles of equal access to Licht, Luft und Sonne (light, air and sun) and the social effects of a state-guaranteed Existenzminimum (minimum subsistence level) became a matter of popular debate between the war years. In the post-war UK, council housing comprised almost 50 per cent of the total national housing stock in the 1960s. Later in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher introduced ‘right to buy’ for council housing. In the US of 1990s, the Federal government provided housing to about 4.3 million low-income families and recognised the need for housing for four million additional families from similar backgrounds.
In recent years, Brazil has constructed and distributed 4.5 million homes by 2018 under Minha Casa Minha Vida (my house, my life) while in 2015, Indonesia started an annual One Million Houses programme for low-income families targeting 10 million homes.
India also has had a fairly varied social housing experience. Chawls were constructed in abundance during the early 1900s in the textile mill areas of Mumbai and Ahmedabad to provide cost-effective housing to mill workers. They were later built for migrants working in other manufacturing industries as well. Post-independence, many industries, and research and academic institutions established townships to provide low rent housing to their employees. However, India’s experiments with social housing did not go far. Town-planning completely ignored the housing needs of low-income households. Low Income Group (LIG) housing is limited, often out of reach of such households and very far from places of work and designed to create a poverty ghetto.
Singapore got this fundamental fact right early on. In 2018, nearly 80 per cent of Singaporeans lived in public residential developments, ranging from studio units to executive condominium. Their housing estates were carefully designed with mixed-income housing, each having access to high-quality public transport and education, and the famous Singapore hawker centres where all income classes and ethnicities meet, socialise and dine together.
Given India’s existing unmet housing needs, increased rate of urbanisation, an uncertain economy and the fact that the country will add half of its current population by 2050, India needs to embark on providing social housing to its many millions. And as a start, the target should be to establish 50 million housing units comprising of one, two or three rooms. These may be augmented with dormitories for workers and students in industrial estates and other urban areas. Such housing units need to be constructed not only in large metro cities but also in its district and block towns. Social housing units should be owned by urban local bodies, managed by contracted not-for-profit organisations and should be available on a long-term lease.
Across the world, social housing has set limits to the rent that can be charged. More often it is up to 30 per cent of the household’s monthly income. Similar norms should be set in India. Also, modern building materials and techniques that provide thermal comfort, natural light and ventilation should be used while constructing such units.
Social housing could provide a measure of social protection to millions of low-income Indian households. They could also simultaneously provide a fillip to economic growth. It will enable India to meet the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 of building sustainable cities and communities — a key part of which is high-quality affordable housing.
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