The unprecedented displacement of people across the country following the pandemic has challenged us with a new set of priorities. While lives have to be saved, equally critical are protection of livelihoods and shelter.
COVID-19 has shown that population density, lack of access to clean water and sanitation and other urban realities combine with the inadequate risk management capacities to create conditions for an outbreak to become an epidemic, a pandemic – and, ultimately, a economic and social catastrophe. India has been facing a mounting housing crisis for very long and it has been procrastinating reforms at its own peril. If we were blind to these faults before, it is hard not to see them now.
The high density of settlements, unventilated rooms and lack of basic facilities worsened the situation for urban poor. The very system they had helped to erect turned against them. Since these inhabitants were informal, casual workers they could not expect any official help, nor did they have any social protection.
Today, as we grapple with a huge population uprooted from its habitat of several years, we have to rethink the ongoing strategies for housing. While seasonal workers may not return, construction workers may, once the sector recommences economic activity. In both these cases we have to seriously plan for durable shelters so that migrants are not left to a cruel fate in future. The government will have to address it side by side with other issues arising out of the Covid crisis.
The central dilemma of poor housing has been wonderfully captured by Jacob Riis in his inimitable style: “The sea of a mighty population, held in galling fetters, heaves uneasily in the tenements… The gap between the classes in which it surges, unseen, unsuspected by the thoughtless, is widening day by day. No tardy enactment of law, no political expedient, can close it. Against all other dangers our system of government may offer defence and shelter; against this not. I know of but one bridge that will carry us over safe, a bridge founded upon justice and built of human hearts.”
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 by an unimaginative response from policy doctors. The apathetic approach of successive governments is symptomatic of the disease that ails India’s housing system.
A decent habitat for the poorer sections of society will not only contribute towards their well-being and real asset creation, but also catalyse overall social and economic growth. The priority for housing ought to be higher than education and health. For many people in the developing world, the land on which they live is their only asset. If that property is not publicly recognised as belonging to them, they lose out on social benefits.
Many who live in slums have little to no control over or ownership of the property they live on. The formal financial sector is unable to serve them. Once titled, they could obtain access to several public benefits including loans. Housing is often the bedrock of other development interventions: owning land boosts health profiles, educational outcomes and gender equality. The converse is equally true.
The challenges for India are daunting: An estimated 65 million people, or 13.6 million households, are housed in urban slums, according to the 2011 Census which estimated that an additional 1.8 million people in India were homeless. There is extensive need for repair of dilapidated housing stock and the provision of essential services.
India is urbanising fast. Around 38% of India will be urbanised by 2025. This would mean some 540 million people will be living in urban areas by 2025. 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. Experts estimate that by 2025 more than 42% of India’s population will be urban. Currently, the level of public services offered in slums is seriously deficient. An estimated 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 occurs each day.
Providing stable, affordable housing is a major first step to establishing and sustaining a basic standard of living for every household. Several attempts to relocate slum dwellers to the city’s fringes have been botched because the location restricts the access of residents to employment, schools and other amenities. Slum-dwellers favour 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.
There are various suggestions from experts that can serve as useful markers for policymakers. One, the Government should improve the legal and regulatory environment and increase supply of affordable, legal shelter with tenure security and access to basic services and amenities. It should undertake physical upgradation of informal settlements, sometimes 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 legal status and have encouraged local improvements and investment.
The social consultancy, 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 focuses specifically 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 do have some property rights and can’t be evicted summarily. In India, slums classified as “unobjectionable” are eligible for upgrading. 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 advise 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 only between 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 agreed urban planning guidelines.
Endowing slum dwellers with mortgageable titles can open the gates to many opportunities for improving health, education, employment and providing entitlements to social programmes. The stresses on account of homelessness are mounting. Solutions will come from pairing passion with entrepreneurship and digging deep into the challenge at hand.
As we grapple with the disruption and upheaval wrought by COVID-19 and attempt to shape the emergent reality with an eye towards a sustainable world of peace and prosperity for all, we will have to optimise resources and become more unified as a community than ever before. It will certainly require levelling of inequalities that are so stark particularly in the shanties of the poor which stand in the shadows of the magnificent buildings of the affluent.