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Urban spaces need better designed homes and an egalitarian housing policy

Divides between private colonies, flats and government housing reinforce the city’s isolating character. It is no exaggeration to say that housing in India is both inefficient, poorly constructed, thoughtlessly designed, and conforms to outmoded ideas that still hark to the bungalow prototype.

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
Updated: August 2, 2019 12:05:41 pm
Remaking home Is this a sane policy for providing homes? When an idea has failed consistently wouldn’t a different approach make more sense? (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

To say that there is no housing crisis in India is to make a statement of little value. Homelessness is on the rise, and has been for the past half a century. Eight years ago, after the 2011 Census, the demand for new housing was at 25 lakh units. With a great burst of building — mostly sub-standard and low cost units — the central government and state housing agencies added a sizeable number to the mix. But with demand rising exponentially and related to increasing migration numbers, the current requirement for shelter stands at 30 lakh units, more than double from the turn of the century.

Yet, the government’s ineffective home building programmes proliferate. The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana aims to provide cheaper houses quickly to low income groups, with substantial interest subsidies on housing loans. The previous scheme, Awas Yojna, has been attempting the same since 1985 without much success. State housing boards have similar unachievable goals. Every year, more houses are constructed; yet, every year the demand increases.

Is this a sane policy for providing homes? When an idea has failed consistently wouldn’t a different approach make more sense?

In the early 1950s, new houses in most cities relied on the bungalow model — a free standing home, single storied, spread on private land, and bounded by walls. The home’s ownership, independence and property rights were paramount. Nearly 70 years later, despite a 100-fold increase in city population density and land values, little has changed from that ideal. The provision of a shelter is still wracked by the archaic ideal of ownership, still burdened by the unjustified expense of conventional construction, and still stuck to the impracticality of old space and design ideas.

Why is the dream of living in a home tied to ownership? Is the home less of a home if it belongs to someone else? The outmoded notion of a building in self-ownership, as a private family asset, is the primary hurdle in the quest for affordable housing. And in seeking to remedy the situation, four factors need to be evaluated in the search for a new model.

First, of utmost importance is to put a halt to the growing privatisation of the city, which would in effect do away with more private ownership of land and buildings. The current situation creates unfortunate divides between private colonies, flats and government housing — contributing to insecurity and gated colonies. So far, the isolating quality of the Indian city has been reinforced by divisions of profession, ethnicity and economic status. Where is in the world will you find cities with officially recognised subdivisions — Bengalis in their own enclave (Chittaranjan Park), lawyers in Niti Bagh, Jews in Jewtown and Parsis in Parsi Colony. Would white Catholic office secretaries live in their own suburb outside New York, away from Black Presbyterian bus drivers?

By discouraging home ownership, the city becomes more open and accessible to a greater number of new residents, thus creating the potential for a more diverse economic, ethnic and religious mix. Stringent urban land reforms would be the first step in that direction. By making housing part of city infrastructure projects, the government takes away land and construction from private builders and creates diverse pockets of housing in different parts of the city. Short-term rights to a home should ideally be the goal, such that citizens have easy access to subsidised rental housing without legal rights of ownership. Rental units instead would allow residents to live close to office and employment, keeping the neighbourhood changing and dynamic.

Second, it is imperative that a system of tax incentives and new rental regulations be used to achieve that goal. One of the key reasons for a shortfall in middle income housing is the unwillingness of a home owner to rent out when the legal rights grossly favour tenants. Besides obvious change in rental laws, the government needs to examine the current stock of available housing and create an equitable rental policy. The imposition of a high un-occupancy tax on buildings that are vacant will help to inhabit almost a third of private housing that remains empty in most cities. Take, Delhi. The city — including Gurgaon and NOIDA — is burdened with over two lakh unoccupied mid and high income housing. At the same time, there is a desperate requirement for housing three lakh low income and weaker section families. Builders, however, continue to construct upscale luxury apartments because profit margins are enormous. Such insanity can only be curbed when stricter construction restrictions are in place, and the government begins to see housing as a social service and not a business venture. Expanding the supply of low-income housing — something the private developers refuse to touch — will ultimately help the slum-dweller to a natural upgrade.

Third, the current densities of residential space need more efficient modifications. Do living/dining rooms, and private bedrooms have any value in new housing or would a smaller multifunctional and compact unit make more sense? Given the high land values, unless there is an increase in floor area ratio (FAR) with a complementary decrease in a home’s occupancy footprint, economies of scale will never be achieved in city residential areas. In fact, subsidies on efficient space planning, environmental considerations and design that creates shared community spaces should be encouraged and rewarded.

Fourth, because political concerns remain enmeshed in changing civic status rather than demonstrating concerns for physical improvements, the Indian city continues to retain its Third World label. Civic governance structures need to be separate from politics, which is too often a happy and willing partner in bartering civic values for votes. The Delhi chief minister recently announced that 1,800 unauthorised colonies will grant home ownership rights to its residents. The move comes a few months before the assembly elections and demonstrates how the top leadership in the country plays shamelessly with a city’s long range plans for quick short-term gains.

By contrast, Brazil’s intervention in its Favelas or slum tenements upgraded individual houses after a rigorous survey of families, providing design improvements, ventilation, storage space and utilities where needed. Singapore replaced their poorer tenements altogether with a basic high rises of low cost low income housing integrated into the fabric of the city. By such inclusion the poorer sections were no longer relegated to depressed parts of the town but were granted space everywhere. Unfortunately, the Indian concept of “regularisation” works on the tacit admission that the city learn to accept the poor as they are, where they are — in self-created clusters outside the mainstream. They remain socially isolated, and develop outside of the norms of civic life — a necessary evil that can be exploited as cheap manual labour and efficient vote bank.

Isn’t it the combined future of the government, architects, and planners to constantly test new ideas related to local forms of urban living? In Delhi, the new large-scale housing developments of Nauroji Nagar and Kidwai Nagar fall in the centre of the town and could have been effectively used to demonstrate radical new ideas of urban density, landscape, car-less streets, water collection reservoirs, green construction, alternative systems of energy and waste management and a mixed-use home-work-recreation network. Instead, a shabby mix of eight to ten storey tower blocks adds yet another third-rate sight to the already beleaguered city. Easy and quick time-tested commerce has similarly shaped Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex and Indira Nagar in Bengaluru. Over the next decade, as millions of new migrants move to towns, a radical view of the Indian home is the only way to go.

It is no exaggeration to say that housing in India is both inefficient, poorly constructed, thoughtlessly designed, and conforms to outmoded ideas that still hark to the bungalow prototype. Unless more thoughtfully-designed homes, with newer materials and technologies, and a more egalitarian housing policy become part of future government programmes, it is these citadels of waste and decay that will remain the public face of the city.

This article first appeared in today’s print edition with the headline: Remaking home. Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and writer.

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