With the Indian government easing FDI norms in real estate and construction, the country’s large and ambitious real estate sector is hoping that an influx of global capital will up business. For a country that is looking to urbanize rapidly and is opting for a ‘smart cities’ route to do so, global capital is particularly vital at this time.
In the imagination of real estate developers (private and public), capital inflow translates into greenfield developments, sprawling out of existing urban centers as well as in the form of utopian visions like smart cities proposed by PM Modi and propagated by the likes of Amitabh Kant. The 100 smart cities mission of the government, being taken up by the Ministry of Urban Development, proposes the retrofitting of existing cities (satellite towns and mid-sized cities). Clearly, developers and politicians have their sights not just on bringing rural land into the fold of urban, but also are looking at redevelopment of inner city land to fit the new idea of the ‘world-class’, networked, efficient and competitive city. In other words, a smart city, that will be attract global capital and be built by it as well.
This same ideal of the smart city also hopes to achieve better standards of living for its citizens. Better informed and networked citizens are envisaged to be more skilled and productive, more robust infrastructure is expected to deliver services and amenities “comparable with any developed European city” (as quoted in the concept note on smart cities on the MoUD’s website).
This is the vision. In reality and on the ground, how will global capital transform our cities? As an urban planner with a specific interest in housing issues, I think this is a critical question.
The experience of cities like London, which faces a debilitating housing crisis, is telling. Aditya Chakrabortty’s piece in the Guardian eloquently describes the bizarreness of the London situation: Here is a city where global investments in real estate have meant that poor and even middle class Londoners cannot buy a home in the city, end up paying substantial rental payouts to absentee landlords who live in Singapore and St. Petersburgh!
In India, both Delhi and Mumbai have historically used slum clearances as a tool for freeing land in the inner city; land that is often used to attract capital, some of it global. With the influx of global capital, one can argue, evictions and mismanaged resettlement schemes will become more common, unless a real effort is made to find a socially sustainable way to accommodate the urban poor in the city. The discussion on ‘right to the city’, while trendy among academicians and rights-based activists, has unfortunately found little resonance with private developers nor a buy-in from the State.
Gentrification, that is the ousting of older (and usually poorer) residents of a neighbourhood with newer (and better off) ones, is likely to be the norm in the era of urbanization driven by global capital. As late Scottish geographer Neil Smith, who taught at the University of New York wrote in the Antipode, “the impulse behind gentrification is now generalized; its incidence is global, and it is densely connected into the circuits of global capital and cultural circulation” (Article titled ‘Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy’ Volume 34, Issue 3, July 2002)
The rapid conversion of inner city areas in Indian cities to posher, more expensive real estate is happening right before our eyes. What’s more, relatively new cities like Gurgaon have been planned and built entirely for the educated elite, leaving no planned spaces for the urban poor and indeed, with the rise of global capital, for the middle class. So, similar to London, many of Gurgaon’s middle income families rent from NRIs who live abroad and will continue to do so for a long time. This is because the houses they want to live in that are in the city centre is unaffordable and the housing they can invest in will be inhabitable (in the sense of being linked to functional needs like services, roads, schools, offices and shops) for a long time to come!
As for the poor, housing is only available in the form of rentals in under-serviced areas of the city like urban villages, illegal colonies and slums. The link between poverty and housing is water tight; secure housing is a necessary ingredient in addressing poverty. And if cities (which are oft-quoted as the engines of economic growth) no longer have addressing poverty as one of their prime objectives, what exactly is the purpose of urban development? Making the rich richer, an end in itself….?
It takes no rocket science to figure out that the Indian smart cities in the offing will need to do some smart thinking on the issue of creating housing (and infrastructure) for a wider variety of its inhabitants. The pursuit of global capital would need to be tempered with some even-headed thinking on utilizing this capital for long-term benefits, chief among which must be reducing poverty and improving living conditions for all. There are lessons on land markets, spatial integration and participative planning out there that must be taken into account while planning these smart cities.
This is the week when the semester-long research efforts of my final year students at SPA culminate in a presentation they make to the world-at-large, which usually means their fellow students, faculty and guest invitees. It’ a big deal and they all put up a good show. Dress codes, fancy invites and posters, bouquets, formal welcome speeches and funky presentations, all thrown in for good measure. It’s great fun to see them there, all confident and gung ho, after all the struggling and fighting, the crazy discussions and the times when you shrug your shoulders and sort of give up as their advisor, at least once through the semester! My group, which speaks on Smart Slums under the ambit of the Smarter Cities seminar for their batch, is on tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Take a look at their FB event page to see some cool graphics and pre-event buzz.
On the content side, we’ve spent all semester arguing and debating the place of informal areas like slums in a big city like Delhi, which aspires to be world-class and ends up being exclusive in the worst possible way. In that context, I have looked at play areas for children in the informal city in an article published today in The Alternative. Children, youth, the elderly and many other groups who need special attention get bypassed not only by formal planning processes, but even by community-centric approaches. Keeping this in mind, tactical interventions that are agile and responsive can provide answers to problems that appear insurmountable.
More such tactical and even technological approaches are going to be presented all week at the School of Planning and Architecture by students who are exploring the Smarter City from varied angles. Looking forward to seeing some of these presentations and if yesterday’s glimpses were anything to go by, they will be both informative and though-provoking!
The private rental market is a critical one, from the perspective of citizens being able to access affordable homes. Despite ownership housing being the de facto option that policymakers the world over promote, an increasingly mobile human population and rising property prices have meant that rental housing is popular.
Of course, the issues in India and the UK are very different, but seeing as both nations are taking a re-look at rental housing policy, I thought it might be a good idea to compare, and learn.
In the UK, people can seek rental housing through Housing Associations which are private and not-for-profit bodies that manage a variety of housing stock. They are subject to government regulation. As Housing Councils (focused more on social housing) and Housing Associations were unable to meet demand, the private rental sector stepped in to provide rental homes. Now it represents about 10% of the total housing stock. This sector is also mildly regulated, in the sense that there is regulation that helps landlords recover rent from defaulting tenants, etc.
Today, rising homelessness (stats) and a slow economy are fueling a housing crisis of considerable proportions (1 million homes deficit, 2 million on social housing waiting lists) and a special committee of MPs has made recommendations to boost the private rental housing sector, focusing on simple tenancy agreements, transparency in leasing agent fees, etc.
Critics feel that the recommendations are lukewarm, stopping short of regulated rent increases that would truly help those in need of affordable housing (see here).
Here in India, we have another sort of problem. Over 60% of our affordable urban housing stock is in informal settlements, many of them illegal, many of them officially denoted as slums. Social housing for rent is also found in these areas, which aren’t really regulated in any fashion by building bye laws, leave alone rental laws. On the other land, our middle and high income rental sector has been through its ups and downs. Rent control and other laws have left landlords insecure and many prefer to leave their additional homes empty rather than rent it out, fearing they will be unable to evict tenants. Out of the 18 million new houses built between 2007-2012, owners of over 11 million units in India prefer not to let out the properties. A telling figure! The new rental laws under discussion hope to create watertight regulation so that developers are encouraged to build housing for rental purposes. Like the proposed changes in UK, the committee will address the role of rental management services. It even goes on to try and include provisions to encourage small size dormitory type housing for the poor.
However, I fear the new proposed laws are not looking at the current models by which private rentals in informal settlements work. Unless the proposed laws encourage, rather than ignore or discourage, informal private rentals, the urban poor are still going to be short of rental housing. And that is where the bulk of the housing demand is anyway. Besides private rentals, government agencies can also be mobilized to utilize under-used properties across the city to provide low-cost rentals and this also needs to be addressed as there is currently an unfortunate “free housing” mindset for dormitories as well!
Four factors denote a healthy rental market- longer term tenancies, protections from eviction, higher quality property and regulated rent increases. We need to ask, and so does the UK panel of MPs, whether our proposed laws or solutions achieve this. In addition to whatever Jerry Rao’s committee comes up with, we need in India an additional group working to ensure the above 4 conditions in the informal rentals market as well. Quality of housing especially is a tough one and directly determines the quality of life of tenants. In situations like slums, urban villages and unauthorized colonies, where tenants and landlords live side by side and share amenities, it isn’t just rental laws that will do the trick. In fact, local governments need to be pushed to provide, unconditionally, basic services to all housing. Further, tenure must be improved to allow landlords to access finance and build more and better quality rental units. Plus, technical assistance needs to be provided to ensure quality, in addition to regulations about light, ventilation, structural safety etc that would need to be followed if landlords expect incentives from the government going forward (it is a tricky situation considering most informal settlements evade tax though!).
Essentially, the problems of rental housing are linked to the larger issues in the housing sector. It is myopic to think that only addressing the low hanging fruit will solve the problem. While many middle income families might find it easier to rent, the current policy moves will not solve the issue for the urban poor, many of whom are migrants who need shorter term accommodation. We definitely need to look deeper and broader at who are tenants in the city and what are their housing choices before we create a policy that will truly boost affordable rental housing.
A day after I blogged about the opportunity Delhi would miss by not consulting citizens and involving young design to inform the redevelopment of large tracts of government land in the city centre, an article coauthored by my colleague Gregory Randolph and myself has been carried in The Hindu’s op-ed page. The piece, titled ‘Castles in the Air‘ speaks out against the government’s subvertion of due process in a bizarre scheme to relocate thousands of slum-dweller families in 17-story highrises. It underlines that a lack of community consultations and environmental analysis means that the new homes are unsuitable to the lifestyles of the poor who will be forced to sell and return to a slum. In effect, the project is a nightmare and set to fail, a tregedy that can be avoided.
It is, of course, a huge honour for us at mHS to be published in The Hindu and it is fitting that they should have helped us voice our plea for a serious re-think on attitudes towards housing for the urban poor. For those of you from outside India, The Hindu is one of the country’s most respectable daily newspapers and is renowned for calling a spade a spade! As a friend put it, the column we got covered in is usually reserved for opinions on current issues and has carried pieces by eminent people like veteran journbalist P Sainath and Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman, no less!
But beyond the thrill of being published, I hope articles like these generate more serious debates on the need for participative planning processes. For there is no argument that these are the cornerstone for inclusive and sustainable urban development. In a rapidly urbanizing world, it is time experts and non-experts alike, indeed all of us living an urban existence, dwell upon these issues that urgently impact our present and our future.
As always, I return energised from visiting the slums. My destination today was Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri, New Delhi. This where Katha runs its public school, a buzzing pulsating place full of joy and cheer. Like in all other schools, the walls reflect the happenings. I was amazed to see how deep the understanding and explorations of concepts went. Through the medium of exploring life in the sea, these children had studied and debated issues like sustainability and exploitation, diversity of life forms, survival and propagation of species, life cycles and natural systems. Also they had a philosophical take on the sea. How they identified with the sea; And being the sea change!
After interacting with the staff here, I see a passion and hunger for learning and teaching, a will to make change possible. It’s impossible not to be inspired! I look forward to two days of interaction with class 12 kids in January, when mHS gets in a group of American students to interact with Katha kids and try and develop a template for what quality of life means to a slum dweller. Since children will facilitate this, it should reveal some surprising results.
Walking out if the community, I captured two images that offer contrasting aspects of slum life for our consideration. One on hand, slum dwellers struggle to access basic services. You can see people gathered around a water tanker. On the other, the pace of life, home based work and an intensely interdependent social network means people can catch a few hours of repose on their charpais in the warm winter sun. On the street onto which their tiny dwellings spill out, while taking in the hustle bustle and latest gossip. Plus chai!
So, after a rap on its knuckles, the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon sets out to survey the slums in the city. The Union ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MHUPA) had pulled up the MCG and asked them to find out why there is a high percentage (28%) of uncavassed households in the 2011 socio-economic and caste census. Uncanvassed households means the surveyor found nobody present/door closed or the respondent refused to answer. Certainly, this is strange and will need to be resolved if this data is to be used for any sort of policy making or planning purposes.
But that’s not the only strange thing I found in the data, which is available for download on the MCG website. Employment data was really skewed as well. For the three wards I read in detail, an overwhelming number of people were reported to have ‘other’ or ‘income from any other source’. The form was detailed and had codes for all sorts of informal work including home-based work, and codes for specific occupations like cleaner, gardener, transportation employee, shop helpers and waiters, dhobi/chaukidar, skilled workers like electricians, mechanics, assembly line workers, repair people etc. Strangely it did not consider that the recipients would work in IT or pharma or BPO or any of the sectors that Gurgaon is known for; there were no codes set out for those employed in white collar jobs! No wonder the surveyors were forced to list many residents as ‘other’!And the ‘other’ comprised of anyone from an urban village resident who has turned petty real estate broker to the Country Head of a Fortune 500 company!
What is the point then of collecting this sort of data if the survey questionnaire is poorly designed and the quality is so poor. If I were HUPA, I would be questioning that too! Of course, other indicators like material of roof, wall, etc of dwelling unit could tell a different story and one could correlate these different data sets to arrive at some idea about people’s socio-economic conditions in Gurgaon.
MCG officials have blamed the errors on problems in data collation and processing as well on the high level of migration in and out of Gurgaon. And hence the survey of ‘slums’ to find the data in the gaps. The pilot here begins in 4 urban villages and certainly, urban villages bear the brunt of the migration of low-income workers into Gurgaon, reducing them to slum-like conditions. Many villages in Gurgaon are very prosperous, neat and organized and offer a better quality of life than most of the city’s gated communities. It is precisely because they are not formal settlements that they have been able to tap into the opportunity that migration offers and many land owners are earning a living out of the rental units they have constructed. The aim of this exercise is purportedly to enable local government to implement a scheme to bring basic services to slums.
My research intends to look at the status of the low-income migrant in the city from the lens of housing. While the city benefits hugely from the labor that these migrants provide, there is little done to extend basic facilities like housing or basic services to them and they live in poor conditions. In fact, those migrants who can afford rentals in the city’s urban villages are at the top end of the scale; others live in squalid temporary jhuggis that are demolished at will, a very precarious existence indeed. Can a city, where migrants are steadily paying home rentals, not think of a way to ensure decent living conditions and harness the benefits that will come with a more secure labor force? I am curious about the government’s thinking on this and looking for a way to interact with people in government about this aspect. Would be happy if anyone can point me to the right people to talk with!
It is sort of amusing, but not entirely far fetched that Rahul’s birthday coincides with World Toilet Day. That’s because he is super tickled by toilet-centric jokes, something he shares with four and a half year old Aadyaa, who thinks the kid in her class who says ‘potty’ five times in a sentence is absolutely the coolest right now! I wonder why I never noticed the connection before, but now that I have, I see a zillion possibilities!
Some of the statistics that have led to the need for something as bizarre as a World Toilet Day are not amusing at all though. The World Toilet Day website informs me that a third of people in the world do not have access to a toilet. Also, that 1.1 billion people in the world practice open defecation, that toilet facilities can be the incentive to keep girls in school and that every dollar invested in sanitation yields a return of five dollars for the economy……chew on that!
I was made aware of the enormous significance of sanitation early in life because of my dad’s profession. He was a gastroenterologist and a person who saw the interconnectedness in everything. He believed strongly that many of the health problems we face are psychosomatic and emotional in nature. The inability to access a private, clean and secure space to relieve yourself poses many challenges and can traumatize people. He spoke of patients who had stomach conditions born out of such issues. As a young girl, he constantly taught me that the right to access a toilet was one of the most fundamental rights we need to fight for. He repeatedly told me that it is such a pity that in our culture girls are taught from a very young age to “hold” because there were such few places where they could relieve themselves in conditions of safety and cleanliness. As an onlooker at workshops that my parents held with village people taught me, at a very impressionable age, that rural women venture into the fields before dawn in groups to defecate and each morning they went in real fear of being assaulted and raped.
It is perhaps then no coincidence that I feel drawn to community work and especially that related to housing and living conditions of the urban poor, who I feel really have a raw deal. Wherever I have had the opportunity to talk to slum dwellers, their primary need has been toilets inside their homes. For various reasons, community toilets have not been a success in India. However, retrofitting homes to add a toilet, has been widely taken up but can only be successful if a decent sewage system is put in place in informal settlements.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been had I been born poor. Of all the indignities I would have suffered, I am absolutely certain that the inability to attend the call of nature would have been the ultimate indignity for me to suffer. I am pinning my hopes on the Total Sanitation Campaign. If this basic dignity can be achieved for poor people across the nation, they could seriously be hopeful about being able to better their lives in many significant ways.
Everything about Gurgaon is unique. It is a city that thrives on being different and often that difference is about a lack of empathy. There is this brazen, wannabe streak here that is disturbing. So many of us live here and continue to not see its underbelly.
Why this sudden negativity? Well, I just spent the evening driving around town touring it’s shanty settlements. Jhuggis that existed a few months ago we found barely a trace of. This was the jhuggi we had helped rehabilitate after a fire burnt it down. Turns out the owners, two brothers, quarrelled and the jhuggi was asked to be pulled down. Another site where a large jhuggi settlement had been disbanded in 2010 before the Commonwealth Games was now the scene of much excavating and concrete pouring. Makes one wonder about how the lives of the poor migrants in this city are putty in the hands of politicians, land owners and builders, a lot of the times working hand in glove with each other. And certainly all on the same side.
How do these people deal with these tremendous uncertainties? Especially those migrants that work as domestic help and I have encountered many families in which the wife swabs and sweeps in homes while the man washes cars or sweeps roads.
The construction labor seem to live in contractor-built shanties. These are dismantled once the building is complete and the workers move to a new site. Even so, there are many amenities they simply go without and they continue to dream a future of prosperity for their children in situations when they cannot even send them to school! Yet, they smile and welcome us into their jhuggis. They apologise for not having chairs, they talk to us with a sense of dignity. These are people poor in resources but scarcely poor in culture or etiquette. They do not deserve to live like this.
How much we take for granted something as basic as shelter. It’s because we have a relatively permanent address and quality housing that we remain largely healthy, our belongings remain safe, our kids go to reputed schools and are able to study well and sleep in peace. Even with our nation firmly rooted onto a path of capitalistic growth, I do believe there are some basic needs the state and society must strive to provide, in whatever way. So the poor have opportunity to exit the trap of poverty and despair.
As the research for my fellowship commences, I find myself part excited and part scared by the many truths I will discover, the many voices I will hear. I hope to, and this is a tall order, find some reasonable ways to deal with migrant housing for a city like Gurgaon. I hope to build a case for inclusiveness.