By Moin Qazi*
One of the most challenging problems of our times is homelessness. While we continue to record improvements in dealing with poverty, homelessness has been plagued with an unimaginative response from policy pundits. The apathetic approach of successive governments is symptomatic of the disease that ails India’s housing system.
Housing is often the bedrock of other development interventions: owning land boosts health profiles, educational outcomes and gender equality. Decent housing is a rising tide that lifts all boats. The converse is equally true. India’s slums are horribly chaotic and sickening. Inmates live in cramped shacks made of rotting wood with rickety corrugated roofs. They are not only visual eyesores but also emblems of raw inequality.
Moreover, the slums are unhealthful and physically dangerous. Hygiene is worse. These slums do not just breed physical illnesses but are also home to social ills like gambling, stealing, domestic violence and worse, sexual assaults. The standard model of progress for these people, repeated millions and millions of times over the decades, is to get a better livelihood outside the ghetto and then decamp for a nicer part of town.
The challenges for India are daunting, and homelessness has become a powerful monster. An estimated 65 million people, or 13.6 million households, are housed in urban slums according to the 2011 Census. It also showed that an additional 1.8 million people in India are homeless. The key constraint in providing shelter is that people do not have proof of being owners of the land on which they live. Being “invisible” in land records strips them off their access to basic rights and services
India is urbanising fast. Around 38 percent of India will be urbanised by 2025. This would mean that some 540 million people will be living in urban areas by the said year. Experts estimate that 18 million households in India are in need of low-income housing. This, paired with a shrinking supply of land and high construction costs, is leading to a growing slum population. It is also estimated that by 2025, more than 42 percent of India’s population will be urban.
Currently, the level of public services offered in slums is severely deficient. Around 58% of slum areas have open or no drainage, 43% transport water from outside communities, 34% have no public toilets, and an average of two power outages occur each day. Providing stable and affordable housing would be the first major step towards establishing and sustaining a basic standard of living for every household. Several attempts to relocate slum dwellers to the city’s fringes have gone in vain because the location restricts the residents’ access to employment, schools and other amenities. Slum-dwellers prefer upgradation of existing facilities and secure tenancy. Evictions from slums and demolition of settlements have risen, as cities expand and are brought under programmes that aim to create centres similar to those in western countries.
The policy solutions can be loosely labelled; the government should improve the legal and regulatory environment and increase the supply of affordable, legal shelter with tenure security and access to basic services and amenities. The state should undertake physical upgradation of informal settlements, which can be accompanied by the provision of public services such as access to roads, electricity, water supply and sanitation. These services create a high level of perceived tenure security without a formal change of the legal status and have encouraged local improvements and investment.
The social consultancy firm Facility Solutions Group (FSG) says that up to 37 million households—a quarter of India’s urban population—live in informal housing, including slums. It recommends giving them basic property rights. The report argues that this would encourage residents to invest in home improvement and encourage municipalities to provide infrastructure and better services. The research specifically focuses on owner-occupants, those who don’t pay rent and are not investing in improving their homes because of fear of eviction.
There are various categories of slums in India: unidentified, identified, recognised, notified and unauthorised housing. The report divides informal housing into three segments: insecure housing (unidentified slums) where people have no property rights and are most vulnerable to eviction; transitional housing (recognised slums and identified slums) which exist in government records and are gaining de facto rights; secure housing (notified slums and unauthorised housing) where people have some property rights and can’t be evicted summarily. In India, slums classified as “unobjectionable” are eligible to be upgraded. These are in non-residential zones, on low-lying lands, or where roads and other public infrastructure have been proposed.
Conventionally, property rights mean the right to use, develop and transfer property. The researchers suggest a different set of property rights for informal housing, one that gives the owner-occupant mortgageable status. The government could also permit the owner-occupant to have only the right to use the property and access basic services as in public housing. Alternatively, it could give property rights on lease. It could restrict use and exchange of such property to the low-income groups. In other cases, it could integrate outlying informal settlements through a process of mutual compromise. This can bring unplanned settlement into acceptable relation with the planning norms. Titles could be regularised in exchange for acceptance of agreed upon urban planning guidelines.
The policy pundits and legislators are finally waking up to the seriousness of the issue. The Odisha government recently took a revolutionary decision by providing urban poor residing in 3,000 slums land rights for residential use that are heritable, mortgageable and non-transferable. Endowing slum dwellers with mortgageable titles can open gates to many opportunities for improving health, education, employment and providing entitlements to social programmes.
The low-income households cannot afford resources for constructing a full unit. To manage this situation, the poor build their homes bit by bit over time as funding becomes available. Families might reinforce the walls or the roof to prevent seepage of water. They might replace a dirt floor with a tiled surface. Once the housing needs are suitably met, they focus on sanitation and water supply; they construct a toilet, bathing place and maybe even a well. These can be financed as one individual module at a time. This method of improving housing one step at a time is called “incremental” or “progressive building”.
A shorter-term loan would enable different parts of the house to be built over a suitable period of time. A modular loan with shorter payback period is a better fit for their income pattern than a long-term mortgage. Access to capital for housing investment, simplicity, flexibility and speed of disbursal are the important factors in a householder’s decision to borrow. Interest rates are important but secondary. Housing investments can also generate supplementary income for rentals, additional space for home-based businesses to name a few.
Low income clients also need technical advice. While they know what kind of house they would like to have, often times they cannot figure out the series of improvements that are logical, structurally sound and affordable. This lack of expertise typically leads poor families to focus on the cheapest, most available fix rather than on the improvements that are part of a long-term housing development plan. It also can increase the default risk for the financer.
The stresses on account of homelessness are rising and we face a mountain of challenges. Solutions will come from pairing passion with entrepreneurship and digging deep into the challenge at hand. Those tasked with devising and producing housing policies need to work within stringent timelines with transparency and accountability.
*Author of ‘Village Diary of a Heretic Banker’