The housing question

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

The WSF analyses the housing crisis faced by the urban poor with a view to finding pragmatic approaches to solving the problem.

"SOMEONE has said the urban poor are invisible people. You build our big office buildings and apartment houses; you clean our streets, cook our food, wash our clothes; you drive our buses, trains, taxis and private cars; you carry to stores and markets - sometimes on your backs or bicycles - the food and things we need to live; you sell everything imaginable on our street corners at a price the poor can afford. And yet we never see you... [Society is obliged] to provide everyone a place to live. Can there be a more basic need? More minimal demand? How can one even exist without a place? Or enjoy any human right without a place to enjoy it in?"

When Stephen Cardinal Kim Soo-hwan of South Korea spoke these words at the Asian People's Dialogue in Seoul in 1989, he touched at the core of a problem that is yet to be resolved. The new millennium began with half the world's population living in cities and predictions are that by 2050 65 per cent will live in urban areas. The fact and the projection together give a new urgency to the global urban housing problem. At the World Social Forum a number of housing rights agencies - such as the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), the National Forum for Housing Rights (NFHR) and Habitat International - analysed the housing crisis of the urban poor with a view to finding pragmatic approaches to solving the problem.

COHRE is the only international human rights organisation to focus on the housing problem. It employs legal, social and political means to achieve its aims and has official consultative status with the United Nations (U.N.), the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the African Union (A.U.). Habitat International had initiated a movement called The Right to the City in Latin America, which is relevant to all developing nations. Essentially, "The Right to the City" is an expression of the community's social and economic concerns. More specifically, it denies the `merchandise' concept of cities in which people who do not have power, possessions or property are segregated and discriminated against. Both COHRE and Habitat are facilitators assisting local organisations which directly address the problems of the urban poor. "They have helped us a great deal in putting across the socio-economic-cultural rights to adequate housing. They have helped in preparing reports, with resource material especially on U.N. mechanisms, and by putting us in touch with others working on rights-based housing especially in Asia," said NFHR convener Rajeev John George. The NFHR is an umbrella body of about 20 Indian organisations working on housing rights.

One of the main problems faced by the urban poor and people working to rectify their problems is the lack of access to land for housing. George said: "Access to residential land for the working poor has become impossible in Indian cities. Public lands are rapidly put to use. Housing options among low-income groups is becoming tougher, except at distant fringes where infrastructure has not been developed. Thus the poor are doomed to rely on unauthorised and unregulated areas of the city."

The problem of the now defunct mills in central Mumbai is a case in point. About 500 acres (200 hectares) of land lie unused, filled by decrepit structures, some in a dangerous condition. The State government had framed a policy in 2001 to divide the land, 268 acres of which belong to the National Textile Corporation and 311 acres to private owners, whereby the land would have been equally divided among developers and projects for constructing houses for low-income groups. However, the lion's share went to developers and the State Housing Board got a mere 17 acres. All plans to build low-cost housing and rehabilitate more than half of the people living in informal settlements were dashed.

Most non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that work in this sector have had to fight against the financial clout of powerful commercial interests. For instance, a State government policy for Indore says that 15 per cent of all land that is slated for development by the municipality has to be given to the informal sector. George says the Indore Municipality has already acquired 240 acres but a "nexus between municipal officials and developers has prevented it from reaching the actual beneficiaries". Only 15 of the 240 acres have been released so far. While the average market rate of residential land in the city is Rs.500 a square foot, a developer is given land at 50 paise a square foot. The authorities justify this by saying that the developer is responsible for creating the entire local infrastructure. George says the NFHR is working to create a cooperative of slum-dwellers so that it can ask the municipality for the same land rates.

According to George, it is essential to file a well-researched public interest petition in the Supreme Court that highlights the nature and extent of the housing problem, the socio-economic profile of the residents and models of low-income housing. The other crucial element is to develop a database of existing urban poor settlements. As part of the Oxfam Urban Poverty Research Programme in India, Deenbandhu, a voluntary organisation in Indore, conducted a study on urban poverty and prepared a detailed map identifying informal settlements. This information has been transformed into a digitised Geographical Information System (GIS) format and will be used to promote the housing rights of the urban poor. Indore is the first Indian city to use satellite mapping for this specific purpose.

Another essential step, according to George, is to make the city's poor inhabitants file suggestions and objections to the existing city master plan, thereby forcing the authorities to make it pro-poor. The Indore Master Plan 2010 draft was released in June 2003. Three weeks later, a workshop was held with leaders of slum-dwellers and prominent citizens. The interaction generated suggestions in favour of providing concrete provisions for incorporating land for adequate housing within the master plan. Although the plan is yet to be notified, George believes that the interaction was a step in the right direction. The interaction helped community leaders understand the overall development plan and incorporate permanent tenure sites. Interestingly, the plan showed areas that had been designated as slum relocation areas but had been usurped by influential commercial interest groups.

The 2001 Census puts the country's total urban population at 285.35 million. Out of this, approximately 85.6 million or 30 per cent is estimated to be among the poorest and most vulnerable in terms of housing and basic amenities. There have been several new initiatives to resolve the crisis, but few have failed to make a mark. Despite a slew of Acts, master plans and policies, the actual living conditions and the lack of secure tenure are still issues that the urban poor contend with. The reason seems to lie in the fact that there is no comprehensive plan. A case in point is the National Slum Policy drafted by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 1999. The policy advocated the removal of all "untenable" slums. The definition of the term "untenable" is not specified with the result that slum-dwellers constantly face the threat of eviction. The situation was aggravated by the fact that neither the Centre nor the States had a well-formulated strategy to tackle the issue. Past experiences suggest that any serious effort to solve the problem of urban housing for the poor will have to accept that the eviction of squatters and the demolition of slums is not its starting point. Instead, what needs correction is the conditions that have forced people to live in such dismal ways.

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