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Be careful what you advertise #BJP #Haryana #Assemblypolls #land #realestate

Poll season is about the strangest of radio ads. While driving to work this morning, I was surprised to hear a BJP ad for the Haryana Assembly elections that directly addressed the issue of State-sponsored land grab by developers. In the ad, a Haryanvi farmer talks about how the government has used the ruse of wrongly declaring fertile lands to be infertile to hand land over to developers, thus disenfranchising farmers and leaving them out of the development process. Another ad in the same campaign talks about the challenges farmers face to access water for irrigation. Clearly, BJP is aggressively wooing the rural voter in Haryana. Which is all well and good.

800px-Green_farms_of_Jats_in_HaryanaWhat intrigues me is the implication that the BJP, if elected, will NOT develop agricultural land if it is fertile! Is that even possible for a State that seems to have put most of its eggs into the urbanization basket over the past few years? Leveraging its border with Delhi seems to be an important objective for the State from its recent planning documents.

Of course, Haryana has had a Congress government and these policies could, in theory, change if a new government were to come to power. But, as a colleague cynically quipped, if the BJP were to rule then the land taken from the farmer might go to a Reliance instead of DLF, with nothing really changing for the farmer!

We see a general disillusionment with agriculture across India and a decline of the farm sector, but in Haryana, farming is culturally ingrained. Land and farming are a very strong part of the identity of the Haryanvi people. I’m no expert, but perhaps the State has the opportunity to re-focus on the agri sector, for which it needs to think about compact, transit-oriented, well-planned cities instead of the sprawling, poorly conceived urban stretches we see when we drive around the State.

Baby steps forward! First reactions to Haryana Affordable Housing Policy 2013

For a low-income person in a city like Gurgaon, owning a legal home is a distant dream. During my field trips, I have spoken to scores of families that belong to Gurgaon and its surrounding areas that have invested in unauthorized colonies (usually plotted from agricultural land) bought on power of attorney basis from landowners. This, they say, is their only option to own a home in the city.

A city of impossible dreams, a home in Gurgaon is unaffordable for most consumers

A city of impossible dreams, a home in Gurgaon is unaffordable for most consumers

Plots in illegal colonies are the only affordable option. Many buy plos and set them up as tenement housing to rent out to migrant labor. This picture was taken in Devi Lal Colony in Central Gurgaon

Plots in illegal colonies are the only affordable option. Many buy plots and set them up as tenement housing to rent out to migrant labor. This picture was taken in Devi Lal Colony in Central Gurgaon

The new Haryana Affordable Housing Policy 2013, the details of which are now out, seeks to address this issue by setting new rules to bring on private developers into the low-income housing game. In a city where land prices are through the roof and housing is unaffordable for middle-income people as well, it remains to be seen how transparently and efficiently such a policy can be implemented so that the intended ‘beneficiaries’ get to buy and occupy these homes.

How the policy is to work

Essentially, the government plans to grant special licenses to developers to build these projects. The carrot on offer, of course, is increased density and FAR norms. Under the proposal, the projects licenses would get to build out to a density of 900 people per acre as opposed to the current maximum of 300 people per acre. The units are to be 28-60 sq m in size, however 50% of the units must be less than 48 sq m.

The developer has to qualify in a point-based system that takes into account the condition of existing infrastructure (roads, water, sewerage, developmental works) and the developer’s presence in the specific sector where the project is proposed; thus encouraging projects in areas where infrastructure is better developed to come up first as well as preventing developer monopoly over certain areas. Only one project will be approved per sector as per Master Plan. Once the license is awarded, the project is to be developed with 4 years and cannot be converted into a normal project.

Projects on plots upto a maximum of 300 acres are permitted in the State’s larger cities like Gurgaon and Faridabad, while maximum plot sizes go down to 150 and 75 acres for smaller cities. The allotment process is to be stringent and in the hands of a panel and will be done at the rate of Rs 4000 per square foot in Gurgaon, Faridabad, Panchkula and Pinjore-Kalka, and Rs 3600 per sq ft in other development plans.

Out of the subsidy mindset, finally!

In a rare and progressive gesture, the policy refrains from labeling any units as ‘EWS’ and categorically does this to prevent any cross-subsidy from applying to these projects. While there is a concern that the Rs 15-30 lakh price that these units are expected to be sold at will not really be affordable to the ‘urban poor’ in Gurgaon, keeping these out of the ambit of subsidy certainly prevents gross misuse of the policy. By this I mean that there will be no perverse incentive for middle and higher income people to buy the subsidized units, nor for poor people who get them to sell for profit and exit the investment. The units will go to a section of people who are still under-served, even though they technically will not come under the EWS and LIG categories who can afford homes priced between Rs 5-10 lakhs typically.

Some things slightly off….need to be thought through further…

Cars are a reality, transport planning on urban scale needed urgently: Parking, a typical problem area, rears its head here too. Half car parking space per unit is to be offered as stilted/covered parking but not to be allotted to flat owners, who will get two-wheeler parking instead. Visitor parking is to be uncovered parking. We are talking about middle income people here and I would wager every unit will own at least one small car, so this is a highly impractical situation and we are staring at a parking disaster in these projects. It would be more practical to incentivize such projects along transit corridors and plan an efficient transportation system that links these areas with employment centres. So that people who are hard pressed to buy a home are not forced to buy cars in the first place! From an aspiration perspective, a four-wheeler is a craze. We regularly see families that have no savings to speak of buying second hand cars, partly because a car is a status symbol, and mostly because there is little public transit to speak of. There is a desperate need to align this policy with other larger, more ambitious transit initiatives, both public and private.

What’s in it for the developer besides FAR/FSI? Developers are to provide bank guarantee as well, in addition to putting their lad on the table AND putting in the money to develop the project. Seems a hard ask to me!

Migrants allowed? Eligibility criteria not so clear: The eligibility criteria prevent the allottee or any family member from owning another govt allotted unit in urban areas in Haryana and limits the number of applications to one only. However, this is only applicable to ‘licensed’ colonies, so those currently living in illegal colonies are eligible. Plus, the newspaper reports that this scheme is for residents of the State. The draft policy makes no such specification. Does this mean that no domicile will be asked for? Private property does not restrict higher income migrants from buying; will these units also be available to migrants from other States with no identity papers from Haryana? I find that hard to believe in the light of the general drift of State housing policies, but if this is so it would mean a huge step forward as well.

The other issue is the one-year limit on reselling the flat. How will that be monitored?

No clarity on O&M: The developer is to maintain the project free of cost for five years, after which a resident association takes over. While this policy is an improvement over the existing one, this is a tough issue with affordable housing and needs definition certainly for a sustainable solution.

Imperative to learn from failures elsewhere: This policy has been a long time coming and it takes a few very bold steps forward; however, I wonder if the failed or partially successful experiences of other States have adequately been considered while drafting this (O&M experience of SRA scheme in Maharashtra, a case in point).

NCR cities might be special? The situation in Gurgaon and Faridabad is drastically different from other cities in Haryana. It seems to me that a differential approach could have been taken for these two cities to position them better within the NCT of Delhi.

Dovetail with other schemes critical for a sustainable and viable solution

It is clear to any practitioner in the housing space that this policy will serve middle income customers and not EWS/LIG and that is fine! However, other solutions like employer-built housing, rental housing dormitories and family units, public housing projects as built by Housing Boards as well as regularization of illegal colonies are critical to addressing the issue of affordable housing in the larger context. Otherwise, the truly under-served section of the urban poor will continue to be denied quality housing or a right to improve their socio-economic conditions; surely, that is fundamental to planning the cities of the future?

Improved access to housing will positively impact life in many ways, but how do we resolve the essential issues of costly land and political apathy? Oct 31, 2012

Abhijit Banerjee’s editorial in the Hindustan Times today really touched a chord. It is a controversial thought, that public displays of affection fuel sexual urges and encourage rape. And he certainly does not support regressive ideas that curb our freedom of expression or swathe women in burkhas!

I appreciate the connection he makes between lack of decent housing (adequate space, privacy) and sexual repression (inability to have conjugal relations). This is yet another reason in a long list for why we need to pay serious attention to the issue of housing low-income households. Those of who work in this sector are constantly shocked by how little credence is given to the right to shelter in popular discourse. Even funding agencies rarely fund initiatives in housing, but get worked up about closely related issues like water and sanitation, health and women’s empowerment. Many of these issues would be positively impacted in a substantial way by improved access to quality housing.

While Abhijit creates a very believable picture of what an average man on the street experiences every evening as he prepares to return to his cramped accommodation, the policy suggestions he makes merit some additional comments. I do not agree with his implication that high rises are the panacea for our housing problems, for instance. Low rise, high density has been repeatedly shown to be a more realistic answer, especially for low-income groups who cannot pay maintenance costs for high rise buildings and are not comfortable with high rise living.

I do agree, though, that there is a conspiracy to keep land values high in our cities. Architect-planner SK Das, while chairing the seminar by my students yesterday, also commented on the need for policy and planning solutions to keep land prices low. This certainly is a first step to create a more equitable society. The question is- how do we professionals influence a game that seems firmly in the hands of powerful politicians and builders?

The brutal reality of Shanghai the film: Disturbing and thought provoking- June 20, 2012

For those who think films are about out and out entertainment, Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai was no joyride. The film hits you with its reality and thoroughly subtle characters. No gimmicks here.
It was one line delivered by the poor innocent tempo driver who got caught in the political mess and was ruthlessly used to murder the unwanted activist, that got my attention. He said “Jeena haraam ho Gaya hai par marne se bhi to dar lagta hai”. Telling the political side of India’s journey of ruthless real estate development, Shanghai highlights the ultimate tragedy of democratic development. Millions in our nation feel this way about their lives, as they continue to see the fruits of development being reaped by a few while their lands are snatched, livelihoods lost, rights taken away and self esteem eroded till they are forced to lead an existence without meaning, devoid of self respect and filled with a constant, irrational fear.
Last year’s backlash against corruption led by Team Anna showed us that this frustration is very real for the middle classes as well. Neither the poor, whose existence is severely compromised in these sort of ruthless power games, nor the middle classes, have any recourse and feel sandwiched between corrupt politicians and bureaucrats on one side and on the other, the daily struggle of their lives. We all live from day to day, hoping against hope that transformation will come. Some of us join hands with the system, others convince themselves to take an apolitical, neutral stand but when we reel under the impacts of poor governance and sheer callousness from those in power, it’s hard to not be angry. The anger simmers and we watch helplessly as our society disintegrates; rising crime and self-centredness become expressions of this frustration we all feel.
The film captures all this beautifully. It helps you see the story behind the headlines, the news of RTI activists killed and collectors mown into. It makes me deeply sad. This beautiful rich land of ours literally being raped in the name of development. As a planner I know there are better ways to do this. That inclusive and sustainable development is possible. But for that, the government and all those in power including developers will have to blunt the razor of greed and sit across the negotiating table with the community to find win win solutions for everyone. Utopian? Perhaps, but let us at least try!

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