By PSN Rao
The urban housing shortage is around 18.78 mn dwelling units for the 12th Plan period. While the Centre’s intent to provide ‘housing for all’ is laudable, the various issues and problems that dog the sector makes the task daunting
Urbanisation is inevitable. At the time of India’s independence, the urban population was a mere 14 per cent of the total. Today, after sixty years, it has more than doubled. However, we may not have to wait for sixty years for the present figure to double. It may happen in much less time. Nevertheless, even with a mere 30 per cent urban population, we are faced with many problems, the most complex being — housing. The ramifications of the housing problem are multifold. At the same time, housing is the way forward to boost the economy; the backward and forward linkages which the housing sector has are with as many as 260 industries. Housing construction is a major employment provider and any boost to the housing industry in India can go a long way in spreading prosperity, particularly for low-level workers.
Land : A key resource
The key to meeting the housing shortage challenge lies in the manner in which policy is articulated. The first challenge is that of land and the government is trying its best to negotiate the land issue and make land acquisition law more development-friendly. Land is the basic resource input for housing development on a mass scale and without resolving the land issue, affordable housing for all will only remain a pipe dream. Besides, there are other factors too which play a crucial role in the housing industry.
Infrastructure and Connectivity : the life links
One of the main reasons as to why earlier efforts did not yield the desired results was on account of the fact that the housing complexes built were too far off from the parent city. With little or no infrastructure and poor connectivity, it becomes very difficult to convince people to shift. The absence of adequate infrastructure makes the suburbs dependent on the parent city. In many cities in India, flats are lying vacant.
According to the Census of India 2011, the vacancy rate for Mumbai is 10 per cent while that for Delhi is 9.6 per cent. Given the total population size, this number is a huge one.
Housing Technology : the speed governor
In order that the housing shortage gap is filled up, speed is essential. The conventional ‘handicraft’ technology of ‘a la carte’ construction will not take us anywhere. We need to standardise, rationalise and speed up housing construction. For this, we need to use prefabrication technologies which can help us build at a very fast pace. The only way in which we can achieve the goal of ‘housing for all’ is with high speed.
For example, a building comprising of 300 apartments can be easily completed in a period of 6 months i.e. at the rate of 1.5 houses per day per project. For this, we need to import the latest housing prefabrication technologies from advanced countries who have tried and tested methods of rapid construction methodologies.
As a matter of fact, a few European and South East Asian technologies have already been experimented with in India and very high speeds of construction delivery have been demonstrated. Further, the latest technologies also save huge quantities of water which otherwise is wasted during curing. In many cities of India, ground water extraction has been banned as the height of ground water table has been falling.
Construction workers often are wary of using recycled sewage water for construction and curing. In all such cases, these modern ‘green’ technologies need to be taken up. Mechanisation and factory moulding of prefabrication panels impart very good quality, finish, standardisation and accuracy in construction.
Advantages of Prefabrication Technology : speed and savings
One can summarise the advantages of prefabrication technology in terms of speed, environmental friendliness, savings, better finish and standardisation. Overall scale of economy can be achieved and housing on a mass scale can be developed. However, all these are possible only when developers, either government or private, make substantial initial capital investments in prefabrication plants. But once such plants are established, they can service a large number of housing projects since the housing components manufactured can be easily transported from one place to the other. Thus, the cost of manufacture per unit can be evened out over a period of time.
What should the Government do?
The key challenge being faced by the Centre is to make this happen. Firstly, the government needs to give concessions in terms of customs and excise duty exemptions for importing the machinery. Secondly, in order that more and more entrepreneurs make a foray into this segment, corporate income tax holidays need to be given to this business. Thirdly, ‘affordable housing construction’ needs to be declared as an ‘industry’ so that more cost effective loans are available to the entrepreneurs to set up plants and start prefab housing production.
Among other things, while key input resources such as cement and steel can also be made available to prefabrication housing production companies at concessional prices, the service tax on affordable housing also needs to be exempted completely. The government can also look to reduce the home loan rates for affordable housing segment.
In addition to all the above, there is a need to completely revamp the institutional architecture of housing development agencies in the country — State Housing Boards, Slum Clearance Boards and to some extent even the Development Authorities.
Therefore, while some of these are better shut down (which is of course a decision state governments need to take ), the national government can certainly set up an apex housing construction corporation as a public sector undertaking of the Government of India. Such a corporation can take focused action on ‘housing for all’ in a mission mode and start actually building. This kind of central government corporation can be hired by any state government and can deliver housing units all over the country in various cities.
(The author is head, deparment of housing, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi)