In what appears to be a politically calculated move aimed at bolstering its electoral fortunes, Telangana’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) government has expedited the distribution of the much-hyped double-bedroom flats under the Dignity Housing Project, just months ahead of the crucial Assembly election scheduled for November 30.
Long delays have marred the implementation of the social housing project, announced in 2014, claiming to be one of the largest of its kind in Asia. However, the distribution of the flats finally gained pace in September and October 2023. More than 70,000 houses were allotted across Hyderabad and its outskirts, along with several districts.
The project aims to provide two-bedroom flats to Below Poverty Line (BPL) families in Telangana. The houses are provided free of cost and are registered in the name of the female head of the household. The government has prioritised the allocation of houses to the most marginalised groups in the State. In rural areas, at least 50 per cent of the houses will be allocated to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) communities, 7 per cent to minorities, and the remainder to others.
In urban areas, 17 per cent of the houses will be reserved for SCs, 6 per cent for STs, 12 per cent for minorities, and the remaining for others. In contrast to conventional slum redevelopment or housing projects for the poor, which typically allocate only single-bedroom houses, Telangana has taken a revolutionary step by providing double-bedroom houses (560 square feet) to the poor.
According to Telangana’s Minister for Municipal Administration and Urban Development (and other portfolios) K. T. Rama Rao, who is also the working president of the BRS, the cost of constructing the one lakh houses in Hyderabad was approximately Rs. 9,100 crores. The construction cost per house (as stated on the government website) varies from Rs. 6 lakhs to Rs. 8.5 lakhs based on the location (rural, urban, Greater Hyderabad) with a component of the cost (Rs. 1 lakh) coming from the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Urban fund. The State also utilised the funds of the Swachh Bharat Mission to construct the toilets in the housing project.
The promise of a two-bedroom flat and the assurance of dignity resonated deeply with lakhs of people when the BRS (then TRS) first announced the project in its 2014 election manifesto. However, as the scheme’s implementation dragged on for two terms of BRS, enthusiasm waned. According to the Telangana Socio-Economic Outlook 2023, out of the sanctioned 2.92 lakh flats across 33 districts, only 1.36 lakh houses were completed by December 2022. The latest figures are yet to come. The delay in distribution drew criticism from voters and opposition parties, who accused the BRS of deliberately delaying the project for electoral gain. The Congress and the BJP have made the project’s delays a key point in their electoral campaigns.
Indeed, the sanctioned houses have provided significant relief to the houseless BPL population, reducing their living costs. However, for many others, the lottery system used to shortlist beneficiaries dashed the hope they had fostered for years. As a result, protests have erupted at house distribution sites, highlighting a series of concerns.
The project has been marred by implementation issues that have raised concerns about the project’s effectiveness in providing affordable housing to the State’s low-income residents.
Initial plans called for the construction of 1 lakh double-bedroom houses in Greater Hyderabad, the capital city of Telangana. Of these, nearly 8,900 houses were earmarked for in situ redevelopment within 40 existing slums. However, the implementation of the in situ redevelopment component has been fraught with problems.
Indivar Jonnalagadda, an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Miami University, conducted research on the in situ redevelopments undertaken in the social housing project. He found that several slum dwellers were pressured into relinquishing their existing homes and were instead provided with flats in multi-storey buildings, a solution that did not meet their preferences.
Jonnalagadda also observed that in some cases, eligible tenants were denied access to double-bedroom houses under the in situ redevelopment programme, even though vacant units were available. This decision left many families with smaller homes than they had originally been promised.
The remaining 90,000-odd houses approved for Hyderabad were supposed to be constructed on vacant land. However, due to a lack of available land within the city limits, most of these housing sites were eventually finalised in far-flung locations outside the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) area.
Also, delays and hold-ups in the allocation of houses, even after the completion of construction, have dampened the initial enthusiasm. Jonnalagadda’s research revealed that nearly 25 people had passed away while waiting for a house at one of the sites he studied.
M Srinivas, the city secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who has closely monitored the project since its inception, expressed concerns that the relocation of beneficiaries to these remote locations would limit their employment opportunities and force them to bear substantial commuting costs.
The relocation of low-income residents to the outskirts of the city mirrors a pattern observed in previous slum redevelopment projects in Hyderabad and other parts of India. A 2021 study published by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, titled “Mass housing and liveability: Mapping of the ground reality”, highlighted accessibility concerns arising from the remote locations of many Dignity Housing sites. The study found that nearly 25 per cent of all such sites lacked access to public transport and other essential services.
One beneficiary, a widow in her 40s, with whom Frontline interacted said that she was allotted a house in the Ahmedguda complex, a housing development area with 4,000 residences located outside the city. The commute from her current home and workplace to the new housing complex takes an hour by bus. A domestic worker, she was happy that she has a house now but is a “little scared” about future employment opportunities.
Unfulfilled promises and ongoing struggles
The promise of one lakh double-bedroom houses in Greater Hyderabad remains partially fulfilled, with around 25,000 houses still in various stages of completion. Delays in fund disbursement, contractor issues, and disputes have hindered progress, while a lack of public support has led to the discontinuation of some in situ redevelopment proposals.
Bojagutta, a small hillock in Hyderabad, exemplifies this situation. In 2017, the government proposed a redevelopment plan for three slums in Bojagutta, aiming to construct over 1,800 houses on 13 acres. According to Mallesh, a Bojagutta resident and a member of CPI(M), the government, after much deliberation, managed to persuade over 400 families to vacate their homes, while others opted to wait and assess the quality of the new double-bedroom units. Some demanded titles for their existing dwellings.
Nearly six years later, the project remains stalled, with completion still several months away. The contractor, after partially constructing the houses, allegedly insisted that all residents vacate their homes before resuming work, creating a deadlock. Those who had already parted with their homes were forced to take loans to build temporary huts nearby or relocate to rental houses, incurring monthly expenses of Rs. 5,000 - Rs. 8,000.
The partially completed buildings have succumbed to weather damage, with cracks appearing in some structures and window frames rusting away. Residents express disappointment and frustration, lamenting the ineffectiveness of their compromises to avoid delays. They feel deceived by the government’s coercion, the ongoing displacement costs, and the extended delays. Their expectations from MLA candidates across party lines (Nampally constituency) remain low, despite some leaders expressing regret for the project’s setbacks.
Similar delays plague housing projects across other districts. P Shankar of the Dalit Bahujan Front social organisation highlighted the plight of pending works in Waddepally (Medak district), where construction halted years ago after roof installation. Shankar said that a few families now inhabit partially constructed houses, using tarpaulin sheets as makeshift walls due to the contractor’s abandonment of the project.
Dignity missing in many redeveloped slums
The government has allocated nearly 4,500 houses in redeveloped slums in the GHMC area in recent years. However, residents of some dignity housing units Frontline met recently in Secunderabad have expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of the housing and the lack of basic amenities.
One major concern is the lack of a reliable drinking water supply. In some units, water is only available on alternate days, just like it was in the slums. Sanitation services have also not improved significantly. Another issue is the maintenance of lifts. Most housing units are multi-storeyed, with five to ten floors. However, only one lift is typically functional in each unit. Some units have lifts that are only available during certain times of the day to save on electricity costs.
Residents are also concerned about the quality of the construction. Walls are often damp or leaky, causing damage to groceries and furniture. There are also cracks on both the exterior and interior walls. Some residents say they were pressured into agreeing to the redevelopment.
The government has built shops in most redeveloped slums, hoping to rent them out to generate revenue for building maintenance. However, many of these shops have yet to find tenants. This has forced residents to pool their money to pay for maintenance.
The residents said that government officials are often slow to respond to their grievances. At times, they are even ridiculed for complaining about the quality of their free housing. Some residents are satisfied with their new homes, but they still wish for amenities that are on par with those found in middle-income localities. They have not seen their elected representative since they received their house deeds years ago, and they have no hope that the upcoming elections will bring about any positive changes.
Over 7 lakh applications for the double bedroom houses were received in Hyderabad alone. The GHMC conducted multiple field visits and surveys, filtering out untraceable applicants. Lakhs of applicants remained eligible for a house, but the sanctioned units weren’t enough to meet the need or demand. The opposition has alleged corruption and favouritism towards BRS voters in the allotment process. Rama Rao insisted that house allocation was a transparent computer-based process with no involvement of leaders or officials.
Still, resentment brewed among those applicants who didn’t receive a house, and they often gathered at the distribution sites. At Ahmedguda, a man in his 50s believed that he was a more rightful owner than those in the queue as several beneficiaries “came in autos and cars” while he “didn’t even own a cycle”.
Kavitha Kalvakuntla, a BRS leader and MLC, stated, “Our initial goal was to construct 8 lakh houses, but we managed to complete approximately 4 lakh (officially recorded as 2.91 lakh) homes. This shortfall was primarily attributed to challenges such as limited available land and a lack of contractor interest. In an effort to mitigate this gap, we introduced the Gruhalakshmi scheme, providing Rs. 3 lakh to individuals with a plot of land. To date, we have disbursed approximately 1,00,000 Gruhalakshmi benefits.”
Observers say that the aspiration of owning a double-bedroom house without any financial burden remains a powerful incentive for those who have not yet received a home under the scheme, despite the project’s flaws and shortcomings. That’s one of the reasons why, despite the concerns around the implementation of the Dignity Housing project, political parties seem convinced of its potential as a political tool. Both BRS and the Congress have pledged to support the BPL families in realising their dream of owning a house through various schemes. While the BRS has announced an additional one lakh double-bedroom houses in its manifesto for the 2023 Assembly elections, the Congress has promised a house site and financial support of Rs. 5 lakhs for those without land and just the financial support for those owning a site.