On the face of it, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement of a housing scheme for migrant workers and the urban poor seemed promising. Millions of migrants leaving cities to walk back home in unimaginably harsh conditions is, after all, the abiding image of India’s tryst with COVID-19. However, this is a repackaged version of earlier schemes and a quick-fix band-aid solution to a structural problem.
The thrust of Sitharaman’s plan is on creating affordable rental housing through public-private partnerships and incentivising industries, manufacturers and institutions to develop it on private land. This will be done under the existing Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, a flagship programme that’s usually heard of once a year during the Budget speech. It’s essentially re-branding. ‘Housing for All’ by 2022 was anyway supposed to include the urban poor.
That said, there is little to quibble about the government’s intent; the issues are deeper.
It took a continuing exodus of migrant workers and families for more than six weeks for the government to realise that their overwhelming desire to leave cities – their places of work, not places of social comfort – came at least partly from their terrible living conditions. Despite grand announcements and publicity for ‘Housing for All’ over the last six years, little has changed for those forced to live in squalid slums and informal settlements in India’s cities.
Six to eight men still share a tiny room with a tin roof, families make do with mezzanine floors as ‘homes’, one common toilet block services more than 1,000 people a day, basic civic amenities and open spaces are luxuries. A staggering 8.5 to 9 million people live this way in Mumbai, India’s financial capital. The numbers are fewer but the situation no different in Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and other cities.
India’s first national urban housing policy was unveiled back in 1988. More than half a dozen schemes followed as did the Rajiv Awas Yojana under Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) of 2005. It isn’t the dearth of policies that plagues the urban affordable housing sector, it’s the inability of successive governments to meaningfully translate these policies on ground.
This is because the urban real estate market turns land into a precious commodity, monetises it, and makes speculation of land-property prices an industry unto itself. A democratic State should ideally balance these with the social goal of housing but when the powerful real estate lobby is a major political donor-influencer, elected governments merely make right noises about affordable housing. Housing ceases to be part of the necessary social contract with its citizens. Sitharaman’s announcement is a belated acknowledgment of this lapse.
The market, left to its wisdom, will chase profits. This, in urban housing, means building large-scale gated communities for upper-middle classes and luxury apartments for high net worth and ultra-high net worth individuals. The profusion of these in Mumbai and Delhi – cities with maximum migrant workers and slums – has meant a terribly skewed reality in which lakhs of houses lie unsold or unoccupied while millions of urban poor live in cramped and inhospitable dwellings.
This deep mismatch is not an accident; it’s an outcome of policies. See its scale. Nearly 6.5 lakh units in India’s top seven cities were unsold or unoccupied with – Mumbai accounting for 2.16 lakh of them – by December last year, according to property consultancy Anarock’s report. The government offered a more modest tally. The Finance Ministry told Lok Sabha In December that nearly 1.85 lakh houses lay unsold across major cities, 55 percent of them in Mumbai Metropolitan Region and Delhi-NCR.
Even the conservative 1.85 lakh units total to a jaw-dropping 225 million square feet worth about Rs 1.39 lakh crore. There are financial implications as well. More importantly, there is a human cost that’s paid by millions of migrant workers – mostly lower caste and classes.
“Large groups of these workers remain invisible to mainstream society,” points out a report of Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit providing services and support to migrants. They remain invisible because most are forced to live on the margins of cities, in their worksites where separation between work and home is erased, in cramped and shared rented rooms in slums often at the mercy of extractive landlords and local mafias, or on pavements and railway stations. Across these wretched places, discrimination on basis of community, caste and religion is common.
Affordable rental housing seems like a panacea but it’s only a mirage. The construction of such houses is itself a tall task given that this has not been viable for either private players or governments so far, their location and allocation could see another grey market emerge, and this could well be used to unlock land parcels in green zones worsening the ecological balance. The concept of affordable housing itself needs a revisit because it has, so far, meant cramped spaces built in tall buildings that are barely five feet away from each other. The best of them in Mumbai are vertical slums or slumscrapers. Tightly-packed low-cost housing areas in Singapore, like slumscrapers, saw a spurt in COVID-19 cases.
Sitharaman’s announcement of affordable rental housing is a consolation for us in middle India snugly ensconced in our apartments that we did not abandon migrant workers after all. And to somehow lure them to return to their work – essential work for many of us, wretched life for them.(Smruti Koppikar, a senior Mumbai-based journalist and urban chronicler, writes on politics, development, gender and the media. Views are personal.)