Sustainable Housing Can't Slip Under the Radar Once the COVID-19 Crisis Subsides

For too long, development authorities across India have ignored the adverse impact of 'densification' and deplorable health and environmental conditions on people’s lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled us to critically review various long term measures that relate to a host of other matters with an objective of bringing about significant change.

One such matter that would require critical review and change is the state of housing that is intimately intertwined with the state of health and quality of life, particularly of the millions of working-class people and daily wage earners who live in slums.

As a matter of fact, dignified housing and conditions in which people live are an integral aspect of a sustainable health-care infrastructure. It is in this context that one can review the current state of housing, with reference to slums in particular, and discuss possible alternatives for the future.

Question of density and housing

For too long various development authorities across India have continued to ignore the adverse impact of densification on people’s lives. Density is a key aspect of housing and must be critically reviewed, particularly in the assessment of the state of housing for the poor and middle class.

In order to understand density and its impact on the quality of life and environment, we can consider the case of Mumbai, possibly the most densely populated city on earth, as an example. Any discussion regarding the state of housing in Mumbai will, hopefully, resonate with experiences in many other cities, thereby enabling dialogue across India.

The city of Mumbai has a total land area of 454 square km, out of which only 274 square km is considered habitable, with another 140 square km of natural areas and 40 square km area under airports, railways, defence and ports. A population of 13 million lives and works in this habitable area of 274 square km with a density of around 47,500 persons per square km (or 123,000 per/square mile). Of these 274 square km, only about 40% i.e. 110 square km is the approximate land area under residential occupation. Accordingly, the density in residential areas is about 118,000 persons per sq.km.

Also read: As Mumbai Seals Slums, Residents Face Struggle to Access Basic Necessities

Of the 13 million population of the city, over 6 million, without whom the city cannot function, live in congested slums, in deplorable health and environmental conditions, with no access to safe drinking water, amidst garbage pile-ups, overflowing drainage, inadequate sewage network, highly inadequate and substandard common toilets that seldom have water connections for use and maintenance.

In most instances, the 80-100 square feet one-room houses are cramped with six to ten people living in shifts. But, during a crisis, as in the current COVID-19 lockdown period, they are all bundled together for days and months. Such conditions would be fairly true for slums across major cities in India. In the case of Mumbai’s slums, besides the poor, a sizeable section of the middle class also resides in them as they simply cannot afford to buy houses that are available in the open market. The idea of social distancing in these congested settlements is indeed a tall order.

In the slums in Mumbai, these six million people live in a land area of 30 square km or 3000 hectares. The average density of the slums is 200,000 persons per square km or 2000 persons (400 tenements) per hectare. But, through the current state government policy for slums redevelopment, we witness the density in rehabilitation projects being raised to over three times, to about 6,500 persons (1300 tenements) per hectare— 25-30 storied high-rise buildings without open spaces and amenities that jostle with each other.

A woman sits on a ladder installed outside her house, during a nationwide lockdown in India to slow the spread of COVID-19, in Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, during the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Mumbai, India, April 13, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

This is the result of an ill-conceived redevelopment scheme by the state government without assessment of the social, environmental and health consequences. A plan in which people do not matter, as maximum numbers of people are forced into the smallest possible land area without any upper limit.

As a result of such highly oppressive housing conditions, there is growing evidence of fatal lung diseases, besides mental depression and social tension, amongst people living in slums and in such slum rehabilitation buildings. Ignoring such consequences, the state government in Maharashtra, in an irresponsible way, has periodically kept increasing the FSI (Floor Space Index) for slums redevelopment from 2.0 to 2.5 to 3.0 and recently to 4.0, and even to 5.0 for difficult areas such as Dharavi, thereby pushing the density further to a highly untenable and dangerous level.

Time to discard FSI as a tool of planning

Across India, developments are regulated by Floor Space Index (FSI) or Floor Area Ratio (FAR) as a tool of planning. FSI is the ratio between the total area that can be built upon a specific area of land. In simple terms, if an FSI of four is available on a piece of land admeasuring 100 square metres, you can essentially construct four times the land area, or 400 square metres on that piece of land.

Also read: Indian Cities Have Been Reduced to Just Real Estate

The formulation of FSI as a tool of planning is rooted in the idea of tradability and maximum profit. FSI is fundamentally a financial model in the interests of real estate business, but tragically, runs contrary to human development interests—one example being the total disregard towards densification or the number of people who would reside in any particular area, that too without adequate amenities and open spaces.

As a result, various development works including housing, are considered a commodity rather than a social good. Accordingly, in the housing complexes for the poor and the lower middle class, houses are densely packed without adequate light, ventilation and privacy. The idea of the ‘commons’ which include amenities and open spaces is entirely overlooked, as witnessed in the slums redevelopment projects.

It should be realised that a given land area can have many more smaller houses, therefore more number of people, than the number of bigger houses that would be possible in the same land area, having lesser number of people. Therefore, in the larger interest of justice and equality, it is numbers of people that must form the basis of the development strategy for land use and housing, and the concept of FSI should be discarded.

Way forward

Sooner than later, it will become critical for various state governments to undertake comprehensive planning of slums land in their respective cities with a new parameter, based on density rather than FSI as a planning tool. Such an approach will have to be people-oriented and a more humane way of defining housing projects. A paradigm shift in the very conception and understanding of housing is urgently required, instead of insisting on an ill-conceived, unplanned, piecemeal, fragmented and disparate, project-based approach that is fuelled by the short-term business interest of builders and developers.

High-rise residential towers under construction are pictured behind an old residential building in central Mumbai. Photo: Vivek Prakash/Reuters

The current slum redevelopment program in most cities is leading to anarchic growth and further ‘slummification’ of the city—only the slums are moving skywards. Total and dedicated dependency of governments on free-market led development has been a failure, considering the past 30 years’ outcome, since 1991, the year of liberalisation when the government backed out of its commitment to being a welfare state.

The government’s expectation that markets will perform the work of the state is a myth that has been adequately exposed. As a matter of fact, it is the failure of the market in promoting social housing that has led to the proliferation of slums. In any case, builders and developers cater to just about 10-12% of the city population but keep clamouring for further concessions and financial support from the government. It is high time that governments get out of such a failed arrangement and resort to undertaking the responsibility of promoting social housing.

Also read: The Murky Underbelly of Sanitation During the Pandemic

In the case of slum land redevelopment, it will be necessary for the government to initiate comprehensive and integrated planning on a participatory basis – a role that they have abdicated under the guise of privatisation and their commitment to follow the path of neoliberal globalisation. Master planning of slum land in each city will enable the government to regulate a maximum sustainable density across different slum pockets, while enabling individual slum redevelopment to proceed independently within the framework of the respective city slums redevelopment master plans.

There is huge potential of generating additional housing stock through the redevelopment of slums, old buildings and neighbourhoods, including vast stretches of land that have been entrusted to various state housing development agencies.  Such comprehensive planning exercises would enable the enhancement of internal efficiency—health, environment, land use and density, and would present an opportunity to re-envision cities and towns on equal and just terms.

Once the COVID-19 emergency subsides there are chances that such issues will take a backseat and authorities will withdraw into the usual state of indifference and complacency, ignoring the much needed long term interventions that are required in order to achieve just and equitable development.

In the larger interest of housing for all, various governments and peoples movements can and should collectively and collaboratively focus on the many endemic social, political and environmental (including our attack on nature and the threat due to climate catastrophe) conditions that people are subjected to in their daily lives in the city.

Governments will have to guarantee reliable access to health care and housing for all. Otherwise, the resulting threats due to growing polarisation of people and communities, exclusion and deprivation, denial of access to dignified housing and amenities and, above all, the appalling conditions of living that are leading to immense suffering and ill-health, will further erode our current capacity and capabilities in dealing with progress, thereby destabilising cities further.

P.K. Das is a Mumbai based architect and housing rights activist.