May 30, 2021

What Happens next to Housing

Romi Khosla

HUMAN suffering is regarded as a secondary issue in our country.  We listen to  fake  history  spread through the media by  our rulers that are intended to   praise  our ancient past  and to also to re-write our history  so that it is  sanitized of  any traces of our socialist, secular and democratic character of our constitution. They regard this as a purification for our people. Indeed our rulers are convinced that the really serious infection in our land is one that not only originates in but has been spread by our constitution for  promising us a socialist society with the ideals of equality.

Covid seems to represent less danger for our rulers whose level of educational and scientific understanding of our reality has been severely handicapped.  This means that the government does not regard justice, economic and political liberty, and equality as ideals for all our citizens. As rulers, they have shut themselves off from the world of poverty where loneliness, weakness from starvation, fear, and shame haunt and torment almost half our population. We have rulers who can no longer see how, for generations,  the poor have sat around their twig fires staring into the surrounding darkness – hoping for change. Our entire machine of governance has become deaf to the voices such as the one from a Kalahandi village in Odisha cries “ My hunger is not only for food but also for love. I am scared because we live alone”. Her pain and despair is not hers alone but spreads beyond her family as a profound collective experience of the hopelessness of the poor. How can we be expected to have any faith in our governance which has, today,  singularly been responsible for the destruction of entire communities of poor as well as the well-off on a scale that is genocidal? 

Perhaps the State and the privileged class, who have gathered around it, seem to believe  that it was in mythical times, when historic events took place  that made these people poor and  for which they bear no responsibility. Poverty, for many of our leaders, has come down to us from times forgotten, beyond  generational memories, at a time when  our epics were created. Our rulers believe that  poverty  and caste are  a  part of our heritage and they see no reason why  our State today should become responsible for generations of suffering.  On the contrary, our rulers believe that there are more important ‘higher’ tasks that are more urgent and also more lucrative to perform.

While these higher tasks are being carried out, such as erecting statues and the Central Vista Project,  the toiling classes can remain in poverty while  encouraging them in continuing  their efforts to catch up to mainstream society. Today, those ‘higher classes’  groups have continued to increase in girth and wealth. More recently, however, once the effort to socialise our national assets has been set aside, our leaders have begun to  search for and cultivate a new generation of cronies who can assert their claims  on  our  national  resources, collective  wealth and  land  ownership being passed onto fewer and fewer hands. 

In this context of a national policy of deliberate callousness towards our poor, there is no place for any social safety net being stretched for our population.  The centralised governance approach of tackling our most recent crisis of the pandemic of Covid has clearly established that the priorities for important government values do not include the health of the community at large. Indeed it has become increasingly clear that our population of migrant workers, self-employed entrepreneurs and farmers are all supposed to fend for themselves. There is no support that should be expected from the government even to prevent dead bodies from floating down the Ganges. It is therefore a perilous and futile task for us to ask the rulers to give value to human life and livelihood, to good health and education, and to give value to providing our poor with a roof over their heads.

A recent government advisory that 10 metres distance must be maintained to ensure that the virus does not infect people by properly maintaining ventilation in houses is rather a pointer to such an outlook. The advisory further suggested that houses should be properly ventilated, exhaust fans should be used and the air conditioners must be run by keeping the doors and windows open. It seems that the government has forgotten which section of the people is it addressing, a better few in urban centres who have all such facilities not realising that a large section of the people live in a one-room house and many of them do not even have a roof.

We know from the census that almost 18 lakh people are homeless – without walls or a roof, living and sleeping in inhuman conditions.  For those who are fortunate enough to have some sort of  a roof over their heads, more than half of them belong to families which are crowded into two-room dwellings. One can give statistics, but as I shall argue later, this is not a problem of evaluating statistics that will give us a solution. For instance, out of the 24.8 crore households that comprise our population, over 75 per cent(90 crore people) of India's households in two rooms or less, nearly 30 per cent (eight crore households) live in one-room dwellings. Now the average size of the Indian family is just over five persons, so one has to imagine the enormity of our housing deficit, the unacceptable level of standards for the living environment, the lack of ventilation, privacy, toilets, the high risk of infections etc., – one could go on, listing the risks to which crores of our population are subjected to during their day-to-day life.

To understand such a deficit of housing and its inhuman conditions, one has to regard statistical quantification as less of an issue than the problem of fixing those persons who are responsible for such a situation. Who is responsible for this terrifying situation? That is the question one must ask. The answer is not far to find – the central government and more specifically the ministry of housing and urban affairs. This is the ministry responsible for the slums in our cities and for the rapid spread of the pandemic in those cities. Any defense put forward about the lack of funds is complete nonsense. How come we have lots of funds for bullet trains, statues, and the Central Vista Project?

Having apportioned the blame for our terrible housing conditions to the central ministry, we need to work out solutions that empower those most affected by the tragic situation. Let us first understand that, while the ministry is responsible, we have the other problem to deal with which is the complete lack of capacity, knowledge, and capability of the central ministry to administer some 28 states and nine union territories in which almost five crore people need housing. We have a situation where there are almost 800 districts and 230 municipalities  and about 2.5 lakh panchayats which are the locations of this shortage and cause of human suffering.  Which minister/government can think of a magical solution across such a wide country of ours? Each district has its own climatic conditions, its own levels of building skills as well as the availability of its own basic building materials. A house in Ladakh has to withstand minus 20-degree temperatures in winter whereas a house in Rajasthan gets summer temperatures that rise to 50 degrees C.

There is no one housing solution to fit all of India. How does one envisage a solution to such a complex problem? Based on the experience of having  constructed houses in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Lakshwadeep, Delhi, Kerala, Bihar, Goa, and Punjab across  both urban and rural environments  over a period of some 50 years, I would like to offer the following directions  as a basis for discussion to find solutions to our housing crisis.

1.  Inventory of Housing The responsibility for providing houses must be de-centralised and moved away from a dysfunctional apex central ministry towards the districts and panchayats as well as the municipalities and blocks. Each unit of local governance will need to prepare a report card which records, in their jurisdiction, the housing condition data, the number of rooms and the number of homeless persons within their juridisdiction. (A separate report card will be required for public health conditions too but that is not dealt with here). Each local governance jurisdiction will need to deal with two aspects of their housing shortage – the need for new houses and the need to expand existing houses.

2.  Access to Building Material. Each district will need to prepare a list of acceptable building materials that can be used for such a scale of housing construction with the limitations of the environmental conditions of the region which will determine that list.  Access to funding mechanisms will vary for each family and availability of suitable material too. Both are the responsibility of the local government.

3.  Design. Every house is made up from five components. (i) Structure. (ii). Roof. (iii) Walls. (iv) flooring. (v) openings – doors and windows. There is a need to separate out the first component (structure) from the other four components. The roof, walls, flooring, and openings will be influenced by local materials and the skills of the craftsmen who build in each region. The construction of the skeleton load-bearing structure needs to move away from reinforced concrete which is slow and unreliable without close supervision, to become a mass-produced bolted steel frame standard system.  In other words, in order to tackle the immense scale of the housing shortage, it is proposed here that standard steel bolted members be made available for the entire country to erect a new structure or an extension of each house regardless of which region the frame is being erected. This is called a pre-engineered housing structure that is mass-produced at decentralised mills and transported as lightweight components to the housing site. Such pre-engineered steel structures are capable of single as well as multi-floor construction.

4.  Construction. Once the skeleton steel structure has been erected at the site as a safe structure, then the other components - the walls, flooring, windows and doors, and roof can be put in place according to the availability of the materials in the region and the skills of the craftsmen and the needs of the user and their financial capacities. 

5.  Supervision. To affect such a large scale programme of housing in a reasonable time,  each  state will need to set up  a state-level volunteer /mandatory housing service in which civil engineering and architecture graduates are required to be employed to serve for the period of two years as an experience requirement  for  graduation. (A similar two-year service would be needed for the public health project of the district).

In conclusion, it should be emphasised that any arguments the central government makes about  the  inability to start such a housing project  because of the difficulties of high cost  to solve the massive need for basic housing, should not be allowed to derail our discussion.
Housing is a humanitarian requirement that must be given the same priority as health and education.   A house in Himachal has a completely different cost to one in Rajasthan. The need of the hour is to accept the urgency of the situation and the commitment to provide the pre-engineered housing frames to the far corners of all the states to all homeless or overcrowded families within a certain time span. Such a pre-engineered frame generally should cost between 20- 30 per cent of the cost of the house and must be provided for every homeless family now.

Just issuing advisories to people from the power corridors will not help. Not realising that India desperately requires a strong stimulus for housing as a public good and which should not be left for the market forces to fill in the gap.