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Many of the government’s large-scale building projects have visibly foundered. Let’s hope they get low-cost housing right

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
June 19, 2009 1:34:25 am

Some years ago a government engineer won a competition for an ideal house for India with a cement and bamboo structure that cost only eight thousand rupees. The engineer’s proposal won solely on the thrift of its construction. That the structure was ill-lit and poorly ventilated,and entirely unsuited to the needs of its residents didn’t matter. When built in several districts in Rajasthan the houses were never occupied; most were used as storage bins for fodder.

Some of the government’s largest and most visible follies are related to large scale public projects. Ordinary utilitarian buildings such as post offices,bus depots and railway stations are of repeating designs regardless of whether they are built in the deserts of Rajasthan or the peaks of Himachal. Housing work related to the earthquakes of Bhuj,the tsunami in Tamil Nadu,or flood relief in Andhra are invariably over budget. After several years of publicly promoting a national competition for best design the External Affairs building in New Delhi,was eventually awarded to the CPWD. In project after project there are gaping flaws related to design,engineering,construction and finance.

Government intervention in low cost housing is invariably viewed as nothing more than a roof over peoples head. An inept bureaucratic imagination,reigned in by stifling rules,limited budgets and a lack of interest in the sociology of lifestyles has left its mark on some of the country’s most dire and dismal forms of real estate. You see them in virtually every city: peeling plaster cubes,shabby,dispirited and treeless,stretching in an endless smudge across the horizon. An informal slum replaced by a formal one.

While President Patil’s proposal to make India slum-free in five years needs to be lauded,it does raise questions about the government’s capacity to take such a big leap. The idea of spending over Rs 5000 crore on an effort that has so far yielded no dividends for the poor requires a serious realignment of strategy and purpose. given the shortfall of 25 million urban homes.

How do you create affordable houses at a national scale without resorting to formula solutions? Trivandrum-based architect Laurie Baker was one exception. Concerned that low cost in most minds translates into poor quality,he spent a lifetime creating unique settings for all his varied clients. Whether a fisherman’s house,or one that belonged to cartoonist Abu Abraham the ideal was pursued with strict consistency. What made his work even more remarkable was the way he drew creative sustenance from his client’s requirements,bringing half-forgotten patterns of traditional construction to those dislocated by the unsuitable concrete slab designs of the city. All this was achieved at a fraction of the cost of a conventional house.

As with all good things,the government chose to ignore the enormous potential Baker’s work held for low cost housing. An unimaginative and elephantine bureaucracy,wasteful time frames and budgets,antiquated norms,and the vast array of middlemen involved in construction ensured that low cost housing was a profitable business for all involved. An adoption of Laurie Baker’s iconoclastic and frugal methods by the government would have threatened the very system that made low cost housing,well,low cost. Even government housing in his home state of Kerala accepted none of the principles he incorporated in his buildings.

It is indeed unfortunate that the more formidable challenges of urban housing for the poor have so far been ignored by private builders. But in the absence of a more egalitarian public land policy,the parcelling of expensive prime land to private developers has led to a lopsided urban development. With builders expecting larger profitable returns from luxury housing — Belvedere Parks and Malibu Townes — it is but natural that the urban poor remain in slums or beyond the boundaries of large towns.

Only now,given that the recession has cut into the profits from luxury apartments,some builders have embarked down a more socially conscious road. Most recently,the Tatas have announced plans to extend the idea of Nano into housing.Their usefulness and quality are still parameters that will become apparent in the longer term of their occupancy.

The president’s proposal for a slum-free India is certainly heroic,but its execution must be guarded and carefully monitored. Reclaiming people’s lives for the purpose of improving them is one thing,but doing so for improving the city is entirely another. It would be interesting to see which of these is the motive for the president’s call.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect.

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