Cities & Architecture

This is Not the Right Way to Think About Housing for All

The integration of ‘housing for the poor’ and ‘housing for the rich’ is the only proposition that will produce ‘housing for all’ and direct the occupants of both to a common goal, and a lifestyle that gains from each other’s proximity.

A resident of a Mumbai slum. Photo by Adam Cohn, CC 2.0.

A resident of a Mumbai slum. Photo by Adam Cohn, CC 2.0.

The Modi government’s mission to create 30 million houses by 2022 as part of its poverty alleviation program can only be lauded for its magnanimous intent. However,  the delivery of such large housing numbers is unrealistic, and charged with a misguided optimism. Even the debate on the subject is as irrelevant as the debate on poverty. In the nearly seven decades since independence, successive governments have made as much progress on the provision of housing, as they have on eradicating poverty.

Cities without Slums by 2012. A Million Homes a Year. Roofs for the Roofless Millions, the Low Cost Urban Home: new phrases are invented everyday at housing seminars. In the past 50 years, every government has come up with catchy slogans on housing. ‘A House for All by 2000’ had once been a Congress ambition, under Rajiv Gandhi, an idea that had directed all major housing providers – the state housing boards, the urban development authorities, HUDCO, NBO etc – into action, but provided little results.

Housing for the poor in India has been an unfortunate numbers game, an unfulfilled prophecy that can never be achieved under conventional conditions. Its history is a graveyard of failure.

The National Building Organization projected a figure of 2 crore units as the housing need in 1990. After a substantial input from government housing agencies and years of political slogan mongering, almost a crore units were built, but the requirement doubled a decade later to 4 crore. Though the failure of housing provision has a great deal to do with the antiquated bureaucratic nature of solving problems, the greater inability stems from the rising demand itself. The growing population has made many government ideas dysfunctional. Today when the actual housing demand stands at nearly 6 crore units, the only method out of the madness is a shift to an altogether different strategy. In the absence of a clear direction, the country needs more urgently than ever to embark on a housing course correction through ideas and innovation – a comprehensive approach that re-examines notions of land ownership, home requirements, design and domestic energy.

The Indian home today, whether house or apartment, luxury or low cost, rural or urban, seems destined for some misinformed cyclical changes and muddled perceptions, emerging as it does from the present confusion of borrowed Western design and the ‘2BHK/3BHK’ of builder terminology. Do these trends signify an altered architectural belief in the making, and an eventual definition, of some new and precisely defined place for the Indian family? In the current crossfire of green building, reduced carbon footprints, environmental consciousness, low cost, user friendliness, the endless debate deflates the design process into a strait-jacket of thoughtless but convenient categories. Tried, tested and rusting models, pretending change, but coated in the superfluous sheen of newness.

In the many decades of work on low-cost housing projects throughout the country, there has never been an attempt to define in clear simplified architectural terms the kind of lifestyle possible and desired by the average family in India. The government has set no standards or benchmarks in design, no structural innovation, or changes to ownership rights or finance, that would make low cost housing possible.

Entrance to Dharavi, Mumbai. Photo by  Jon Hurd. CC 2.0.

Entrance to Dharavi, Mumbai. Photo by Jon Hurd. CC 2.0.

To make affordable housing in the city, private land ownership and long-term leasing on property needs to be strictly curbed, and a new system of housing exchange and rental proposed. The idea is not to use the middle-class definition of home-life reduced to low cost consumption, but an altogether new form of architecture, that embodies a sense of hope, idealism and a return to a collective pride of place. The importance of understanding and stating very clearly a precise lifestyle is a crucial first step in defining a low cost home.

Urban housing moreover requires serious zoning review. The abysmal social conditions in the city have been formed out of conflict: the divisions between excessive wealth and hopeless poverty, the syndrome of us and them, and the fear that one day the lines will – God forbid -cross. Any future attempts at public housing must first and foremost confront the evils of such divisive living. The integration of ‘housing for the poor’ and ‘housing for the rich’ is the only proposition that will produce ‘housing for all’ and direct the occupants of both to a common goal, and a lifestyle that gains from each other’s proximity. Can people live in a single high rise building that is as much low cost housing, as high income apartments? Without motivating the residents to live together in ways not imagined before, the urban housing model will doubtless fail. The new smart city will not tolerate the current divisions of city life.

Certainly the optimistic ring of Har Parivar Ko Ghar (a house for every family) should not be allowed to die out; but in truth, its message stands greater possibility of being realised were Narendra Modi the prime minister of Fiji – a country with a small manageable population, adequate building resources and available land. India defies all odds, and makes it impossible to think in conventional terms. A house on a piece of land owned by the resident is an archaic 19th century ideal. To build afresh, the Prime Minister’s initiative needs a dose of clear 21st century thinking.

Gautam Bhatia is an architect and writer who lives in New Delhi

 

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