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Housing in cities: Adapting the Singapore script for an India story

As the two countries deepen their bilateral engagement, and India going for a massive overhaul of its urban infrastructure, especially housing, there are many valuable lessons it can learn from Singapore.

Written by Shalini Nair | Singapore |
November 14, 2015 12:58:05 am
singapore, smart cities, singapore smart cities, smart cities singapore, singapore news, smart city news, india news Singapore is presently involved in creating the master plan for building Amaravati – the proposed capital city of Andhra Pradesh.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Singapore later this month, the two countries will elevate their bilateral relationship to the level of strategic partnership focused on, among other select areas, sharing urban planning solutions.

Singapore is presently involved in creating the master plan for building Amaravati – the proposed capital city of Andhra Pradesh.

Once the strategic partnership pact is inked, it would pave the way for importing numerous concepts in urban planning to Indian cities. Such a collaboration assumes significance at a time when the NDA government has earmarked Rs 4 lakh crore for its three urban planning and housing missions: Smart Cities, AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) and Housing for All.

Presently Singapore’s engagement with cities of India, in planning of Special Economic Zones, residential, commercial or industrial zones, has been through its leading international consultants Jurong and Surbana. The last time in recent years the country came up with a concept plan for a major Indian agglomeration — its Surbana International developed a blueprint for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region — it didn’t account for much on ground. The plan centred on extensive land reclamation along Mumbai’s coasts, an idea that didn’t go down well with several planners and environmentalists in India’s financial capital.

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While Singapore’s land reclamation and dense high-rise constructions have until now been held up by the Indian real estate industry as the prototype of how cities must be allowed to developed, the real story of the city-state’s impressive and green urban-scape is, however, that of the intense state involvement in the process of housing and planning.

Of course, the 710 sq km city-state owes much of its planned urban growth trajectory to the fact that almost all land in Singapore is owned by the government.

Immediately after it split from Malaysia to become an independent state, it enforced the Land Acquisition Act of 1967 which allowed the government to forcibly acquire land for public interest projects or for residential purpose among other things. “Some of it has been sold to private developers. However, say for instance, if land along the waterfront is sold, the money earned is earmarked for the very purpose of protecting the waterfront areas,” said a senior government official. This uniquely Singaporean mix of free trade and state intervention has been famously described by Cambridge University-based development economist Ha-Joon Chang as an economy that “combines extreme features of capitalism and socialism”.

Not just housing for all but public housing for all

Sepia-tinged pictures of Singapore’s central China town area in the 1950s and 1960s tell a story of urban decay and squalor that is no different from the slum sprawls in most Indian cities of today. The city-centre was cramped with rows of low-rise shophouses that doubled as work and living spaces for a majority of citizens.

Khoo Teng Chye, executive director at the Centre for Liveable Cities under the Ministry of National Development, points out that even with a smaller population of 1.6 million people, Singapore then was far more crowded than the country of today with its 5.4 million population.

“The city-centre was congested with these shop houses, traffic jams, polluted rivers and absence of sewer system. As cities develop, slums crop up because there is usually no planning for housing the workers and migrant labour. Hence Singapore decided that the first thing to focus on is housing. If you don’t solve housing problem the city cannot move ahead,” he said.

The colonial government had constructed 2,000 houses over a two-decade period in a futile attempt to stem the proliferation of slums. Post self-rule, in 1960 the Singapore’s set up the Housing Development Board (HDB) that soon became instrumental in crafting the country’s urban success story. It immediately took up the task of constructing 44,000 houses over a five-year period.

Since the time Prithi Suvarna moved to Singapore from Mumbai seven years ago, she has been living in a HDB house, first on rent and then in her own home bought after she got a permanent residency status in the country a couple of years ago. Prithi is among the 9 per cent Indians who live in the country. “The spacious three bedroom home cost me and my husband about 40 per cent of the price of a similar sized condominium in a private project. For those who are citizens, the price is even lesser. Today, even in towns along the periphery of Mumbai, a more modest house costs over Rs 1 crore,” said Prithi who lives in the 844 hectare Punggol residential estate created by the HDB.

From studios custom-made for the elderly to two room apartments for singles and three to five room homes for families, the HDB caters to the entire spectrum of the country’s demographics comprising of ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian populations.

Home buyers are allowed to use their central provident fund savings to meet the cost of a house while the HDB offers loans at nominal 2.6 percent interest for eligible candidates.

Till date, the country’s public housing authority has constructed over a million affordable homes that house roughly 82 per cent of the Singapore’s people. The HDB was set up more or less around the same time as bodies that create public housing in large Indian cities such as the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) or the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). However, MHADA has constructed merely 0.2 million units that doesn’t house even a fraction of Mumbai’s 12 million people while DDA’s 0.36 million apartments don’t account for much considering the capital city’s 16.75 million population.

The role of the state in providing affordable housing in Indian cities has shrunk further over the years. The government’s recently launched ‘Housing for All’ mission provides for merely a tenth of the funding required for its intended target of constructing 20 million houses by 2022. The rest is expected to be generated largely from private real estate and investments, a tall order considering the sector’s past track record of staying away from affordable housing provision.

From Urban decay to rejuvenation

Ang Kah Eng, from Singapore’s national land-use planning agency-the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), recalls how in order to decongest the city centre, ample public housing was created along peripheral areas so that people could relocate from their shophouses to living in better sanitary conditions. “It was decided that the urban shophouses in the city-centre must be preserved as they gave the area its unique identity,” said he said. The URA has over the years conserved and maintained more than 7,000 buildings in Singapore including 60 national monuments. The trade-off, however, included allowing skyscrapers to dot the area surrounding the conserved historic precinct. “This may not be ideal from the heritage conservation point of view but we found it necessary from the perspective of urban economics,” said URA officials.

In addition to housing, the state has also heavily invested in the urban planning, conservation and infrastructure creation. It has created an extensive transport network of mass rapid transit modes, buses, cycling towns, walkways aimed at a ‘car lite’ Singapore where public transport caters to 75 per cent of peak-time travel.

Moreover the country today recycles 100 per cent of its sewage water and supplies it for industrial use. Flood prone areas in the island were reduced from 3,178 hectares in 1970s to 49 hectares now.

Another project that the Singapore government plans to share with its Indian counterpart is its river clean-up. A cesspit for receiving all kinds of waste, the Singapore River was taken up for clean up in 1977.

Polluting industries were relocated, the port moved away and strict rules were enforced for maintaining waterfront areas as a green zone lined by buildings. Within a record ten years, the river was restored to its pristine state.

“We hope to share our experience in the river clean-up project with India especially in view of Prime Minister Modi’s Ganga Rejuvenation project,” said officials.

The correspondent was in Singapore on the invitation of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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