People-centric approach critical for solving India’s housing woes


A view of a slum in Delhi. Pic: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Housing is a fundamental social and economic need that determines the quality of life and health of people. Housing also underscores the deeply entrenched urban plight of our cities.

6.5 crore persons, that is 1 in every 6 persons, lived in slums and informal settlements in India in 2011. The existence of 33,510 slums, surveyed in 2013, in our 4,000 plus cities is another staggering statistic.

Long-term marginalization of these neighbourhoods, is visible in the poor access to water and sanitation amenities in slum households. The census of 2011 showed that  43.3% households did not have water inside their homes and 44% did not have toilets in their houses.

Inadequate housing is a challenge even outside the perimeters of slums and informal settlements. As of 2011, 32% of urban households lived in 1 room units, and 30% of urban households lived in 2-room units, laying out the scale of overcrowded habitable spaces. Urban India faces an estimated housing shortage of 1.2 crore units, mostly in Low Income Groups (LIGs) and Economically Weaker Sections (EWSs).

Highlighted by the pandemic

The infliction of COVID-19, an unprecedented pandemic, has had a sobering effect in urban areas. Major cities in most states are the worst affected and represent a large share of their state’s COVID-19 caseload.

Mumbai accounts for 60% of Maharashtra’s total cases, Chennai accounts for 55% of Tamil Nadu’s total cases, Ahmedabad accounts for 70% of Gujarat’s total cases, and Pune, Indore, Jaipur are the most affected in their respective states.

It is no coincidence that Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh, which have almost 70% of the total urban slum population, are also areas where COVID-19 has taken deeper root.

The pandemic also exposed vulnerabilities especially for people living informally in slums, unauthorised colonies and dwellings which lack adequate space, sanitation facilities and proper hygiene measures.

COVID-19 has exposed the growing inequality within urban areas, weaknesses in urban governance and institutional mechanisms to guarantee the most fundamental need – safe and dignified shelter for vulnerable groups of the urban population. Physical distancing and hand washing are identified as essential preventive measures for COVID-19. However, for most urban poor residents, these are unrealistic propositions when they lack access to basics such as adequate space, clean drinking water, hygiene and sanitation facilities.

Learning from the success of PMAY and SBM

“Housing for All Mission” and “Clean India Mission” have built strong foundations for addressing the adequate housing crisis. The two flagship missions set out ambitious goals to build 2 crore affordable housing units and provide basic sanitation facilities to the poorest in the country.

Of the 2 crore housing units under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), 1.8 crore are proposed for slum households, recognizing the need to address the inequalities effecting a large segment of urban population. The mission outlines four verticals for slum rehabilitation and constructing affordable housing by utilizing subsidies and encouraging public-private partnerships.

Additionally, a “Technology Sub-Mission” under PMAY is mainstreaming and facilitating modern, innovative and green technologies and building material for faster and better-quality construction of houses.

Thus far, under the mission, 1.1 crore houses have been sanctioned, 38 lakh houses have been completed, and 15 lakh houses are being constructed using new technologies. The mission has generated 1.9 crore total jobs and 54 lakhs direct jobs.

The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has been transformational in eliminating open defecation and improving solid waste management across the country. Since its inception in 2014, 62 lakh individual latrines and 5,94,658 community toilets have been built in urban areas. The mission has also prioritized behaviour change in communities to practice safe hygiene.

To date, 4,323 cities have been declared open-defecation free. The mission has also brought a paradigm shift in terms of changing behaviours and has pushed for cleanliness to become a movement. Additionally, many cities have invested in safe solid waste management and disposal as part of the SBM mission.

COVID-19 brought forth new challenges and vulnerabilities in access to housing and WASH facilities. The unforgettable and distressing impact of COVID-19 on urban migrants became international news as millions of temporary workers were stranded without shelter and livelihood in cities. In response to the looming shelter crisis for temporary workers and migrants, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, is revisiting PMAY to incorporate rental housing as a viable option.

The approach paper, “Affordable Rental Housing Complexes,” delves into opportunities to promote rental housing for migrants and urban poor on unutilized lands near centres of work and utilizing vacant houses constructed for EWS and LIG groups by centrally funded schemes.

COVID-19 has provided a strong imperative for central, state and local governments to consider different types of disruptions, including those from health pandemics, to strengthen their preparedness, response and recovery policies and strategies in a holistic and integrated manner to serve the needs of all the different vulnerable urban groups.

Way ahead

The key message of World Habitat Day (WHD) 2020 theme – “Housing for All”, emphasizes that “Housing is the building block of people’s health, dignity, safety, well-being and inclusion.” In this decade for action to achieve Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, India must continue the momentum of urban flagship programs to accelerate the transformation of cities into inclusive and sustainable hubs.

Learning from the current crisis and past successes globally show us that people-centric methods and solutions have led to a more sustainable impact in lives of people.

A community-led transformation of local neighborhoods

Participatory planning that facilitates collective design, planning, implementation and feedback from multiple stakeholders and interest groups in local communities enhance accountability, transparency and inclusion.

Collaboration across levels of government, private sector, civil society and other stakeholders is going to be the new norm. Partnerships leverage the strengths of each stakeholder to collectively enhance the ability to roll-out a comprehensive response by sharing resources, capabilities and capacities .

Grassroots organizations can bring strong capacities to activate and mobilize people and implement programmes and activities at the local level. Thus community-led grassroots organizations must be formally integrated in urban local bodies for planning and implementation.

Community-driven and locally responsive strategy for shelter

The challenges, priorities and needs of different segments of urban poor must be studied and documented by involving local communities as they understand the context and limitations. With a long-term perspective, shelter and livelihood opportunities for  urban poor and migrants must be developed through a locally-owned and community driven process.

Programme activities, which are conceptualised and implemented by directly engaging with local communities, can better respond to the nuances and distinct needs of communities within and across cities as diverse as in India.

Urban local bodies and grassroots organization should promote an inclusive approach and sensitization campaign for social cohesion between urban migrants and local communities.

Area-based comprehensive housing for slums and informal settlements

The transformation of slums and informal settlements must go beyond mere improvements in the structure of the house or building. It must enable residents to access public green and open spaces, employment opportunities, healthcare and effective sanitation services, schools, childcare centres, and other social facilities.

With opportunities to utilize the stimulus funding through national schemes for creating livelihoods, urban local bodies must fast-track existing project pipelines with largest socio-economic impacts in slums and informal areas. While the effort requires substantial resources and collaboration across stakeholders, now is the time to facilitate much needed structural transformations in cities.

Restructure static master planning regulations for a dynamic granular neighborhood planning

The current master plans of cities are inadequately structured to respond to the continuously changing needs of cities as swiftly as possible. The regulatory requirements impose a static approach of master plan revisions every 20 years by which time the plan’s vision and implementation strategy becomes outdated.

Cities need to adopt a dynamic spatial data-driven approach to develop integrated strategies and action plans across different sectors in neighbourhoods to respond to local market signals, and unpredictable shocks such as the ongoing health crisis.



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