January 09, 2022

Housing for All: A Basic Need but a Pipe Dream for the Majority in Rural India

Vikram Singh

AT least 50 anxious people gathered near the village pond in Chotahi village, Samastipur district of Bihar. They had gathered to save their houses which were declared illegal as the area was developed as a green belt by the state government of Bihar under the project ‘Jal Jeevan Haryali’.

Soon they will be forced to leave their houses; most of which are kutcha built with earthen mud and clay. They have spent decades in these dwellings. Almost all of them are agricultural workers belonging to schedules castes and economically deprived.

This is not an isolated case. This is the fate of millions of landless people in India, who do not have even a small piece of land to construct a roof to cover their heads.

According to the 2011 Census, the average individual in rural India consumed 40.03 square feet of space, the average person in urban consumed 39.20 square feet. In the rural areas, a family of five live in a somewhat larger house, though the difference is insignificant. The lack of land cannot be the primary reason why people in rural region live in small dwellings. Rather it is the unequal distribution of land and lack of resources among the poor.

There is no concrete data of the people without homes in India. The last official estimate for India's homeless was 1.77 million according to the Census-2011. This number has undoubtedly increased in the last decade as countless people are displaced due to numerous reasons but primarily due to the land grab by corporates or by the government for constructing projects.

The problem of housing is one of the primary issues of every human being and should be central to any development model. In fact, access to adequate housing is recognised as a human right and the governments are responsible for ensuring adequate housing for all. Internationally, right of housing is recognised as responsibility of the government.

At this point, it is very important to understand what housing means. Normally we visualise housing in narrow terms. When we talk about housing, it does not only mean four walls and a roof. The United Nations states that the right to housing should not be interpreted in a narrow or restrictive sense. It is not merely shelter by having a roof over one’s head or views shelter exclusively as a commodity. Rather it should be seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity. (United Nations 1991, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights).

Despite the perfunctory statements and international commitments, there is huge gap between what is on paper and people’s lives. The Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) scheme was designed to provide, at best, a house structure or building (or part of a building). In 2015, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana- Gramin (PMAY-G, or Housing for All), was launched to provide 30 million houses for the rural poor by 2022.

Recently, prime minister Modi claimed that 10 million houses had actually been handed over to families in rural areas under this programme but since the scheme was launched in 2015, the total number of houses now built-in rural areas stands at just over seven million.

The prevalent schemes do not address the problem of housing.The present schemes do not help the landless, who do not have land to construct a home. In fact, for getting a monetary grant in most of the schemes, one needs to have legal ownership of land.

Though there are ample provisions on papers with the governments to provide land to landless in rural India. There are provisions to distribute village common lands to the landless with a priority to the SCs and STs. But these were not used until and unless, some people’s movement had forced the governments or some sensitive administrative officials  workedto implement the provisions of such laws.

This is one aspect of the problem. There are landless families, having homes but the land does not belong to them. There is always a danger of displacement from their homes by the government or the landowner. Large sections of the tribals are being driven away from their native places. People inhabiting these places face various kinds of humiliations by landowners and government officials.

People of ChottaPanoal village of the Sujanpur area of district Pathankot in Punjab, are living in houses constructed on the lands of a big land lord. Whenever there is a confrontation or tension between local people and workers or family members of the land lord, they block the passages to this basti. Additionally, whenever a family tries to renovate or replace their old building with new concrete construction, the landlord takes them to court adding to their miseries. This is just one example from a long list of problems faced by the people who do not have ownership of land.

Landlessness is the big question to be addressed in India and housing is closely linked with it. It is a real obstacle for ensuring housing for all. According to the India Spend Report (2016), 4.9 per cent of the population hold one-third of India's agricultural land, and a major landowner generally possessed 45 times more land than a marginal farmer does.

The agenda of land reforms and distribution of land is of utmost importance for the political discourse. Some political parties hold the view that the possibilities of land reforms have exhausted and future growth can only come from private investment in the rural areas. In the recent past and especially after the neo-liberal reforms, there is reversal of land reforms. The alarming proportion of land loss can be gauged if one compares the percentage of landless households during the 43rd round survey of NSSO (1987-88) to the 68th round (2011-12).  The landless households in the countryside (possessing less than 0.01 hectare of land) increased from 35 per cent to 49 per cent during this period.

On one hand, the government of India boasts of its working on housing for all but its policies are only limited to some schemes. These policies are in general on the path of new economic policies adopted by the former UPA and present NDA governments, displacing people from their land. Laws such as Forest Right Act, which is supposed to give rights of land to the tribals and traditional forest dwellers, are being used to displace millions of tribals from their land. Thousands of acres of agricultural land are also snatched from farmers in the name of development projects and is handed over to corporates.

According to the recent report of The Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN)on forced evictions in India the central and state government authorities demolished over 177,700 houses in 2017, 2018, and 2019, which means that at least 519 people lost their homes daily, with almost five homes being destroyed hourly, or about 22 people being evicted every hour. Furthermore, nearly 15 million people across India currently live under the threat of displacement. Though deeply disturbing, these figures are conservative, as they only reflect cases known to HLRN, and thus present a partial image of the true scale of this grave but unreported national crisis. Even during the pandemic, state authorities in India forcibly evicted at least 20,000 people from their homes (between March 16 and July 31, 2020), as recorded by HLRN.

‘Do waqt ki roti and sir chipanekeliyechhat’ (two times food and a shelter for housing) is considered bare minimum to live but in India when we are celebrating 75 years of India’s independence, people of India are still struggling for bare minimum. India has ranked 101 in the hunger index; millions are starving in a nation where food corporation of India is stocking double the required food grains. Similarly, the dream of own house is a dream too big to become true for millions despite availability of land. The policies of the successive governments controlled by corporate-landlord nexus are failing India, not dearth of resources. India is blessed with rich resources in but the development model followed by the government is depriving the majority and benefiting a few.