'Quality' housing for all

Mitu Mathur, director, GPM Architects and Planners, believes the pandemic is an opportunity to catalyse transformations in our social built environment

Mitu Mathur, GPM Architects, Migrant labourers, Covid 19 epidemic, Affordable housing, Housing design, Housing strategy, Metropolitan regions, High land prices

We are entering the new phase of the outbreak with the Unlockdown 2.0. Some emergency measures persist for the infection curve to flatten while others remain in place for the foreseeable future. India is no stranger to viral epidemics. However, the severe repercussions of the present pandemic across our society and industry are a wake-up call. Lack of proper housing for the social distress classes in India poses to be the biggest challenge of the present.

Quality Housing in India has always been a challenge, especially for the migrant workers, the labourer force, who form the backbone of the sprawling real estate industry of our economy. Regrettably, the plight of the labour force became apparent during the lockdown, as for them the definition of ‘home’ is very sketchy.

Barring a few good sites, majority of them rely on the contractor’s or the builders’ temporary accommodations which are very basic, standardised, have just enough facilities and often lack character, a sense of belonging which defines a place – a space people associate as a ‘Home’.

Cities are referred to as “engines of economic growth”, thus attracting a huge amount of labour force from the rural areas— calling for a shift of surplus labour from agriculture to industry and services. The function of an urban centre as an engine of growth begins at employment generation. Rural-urban migration is hence, fundamental to urbanisation and the contribution of migrants to the cities’ economy cannot be discounted. In fact, migration is driven by aspirations of better employment opportunities. Lack of employment and rural poverty compels Indians to keep moving between their rural homes and urban workplaces.

Government housing policies, particularly in metropolitan regions, where most of the construction work takes place, do not, unfortunately, cater to this segment of society. Primary reason being the outrageously high land prices, and subsequently property prices. Affordable housing initiatives in India have catered to permanent migrants while ignoring the needs of temporary migrants and labourers. Migrants of this nature are not in search of permanent residence, rather low-cost rental accommodation would better suit their transient nature. In the absence of such accommodation, these migrants are forced to live in de-humanised circumstances, be it slums, open spaces or in small, shared rental homes. Seasonal workers, quite often, also end up living in their workplaces.

The situation of pandemic witnessed mass reverse migration of the labour work force and have left a big question mark in front of the whole industry. Since, their accommodation / housing needs have never been addressed in an organized manner, at a policy level integrated with the city master plan, the people had no option but to trace back to their roots. Now, as the government has decided to restart work on government/ infrastructure projects, the biggest question is, where are the people who will do the real work on ground?

India’s policymakers do not have an effective comprehension of the issue of housing poverty, they have failed to design housing schemes that mitigate poverty

It might be too early to identify the post-COVID-19 normal; however, we believe this is an opportunity to catalyze transformations in our social built environment, spread empathy and empower the design responses for Housing for All.   With an ever increasing population the need for quality shelter is crucial at the moment. India’s housing strategy should not be confined to merely creating affordable housing stock to tackle the shortage, as such an approach is myopic. Instead, a sound housing strategy must be informed by an adequate understanding of the multiple facets of housing poverty, including the factors that are responsible for the proliferation of slums.

It is important to analyse the current living situations of the populace and devise strategic design interventions to confront these problems. Housing design needs to be approached with procedures that make the process responsive to the individual needs of the user and provide them with utmost comfort. The dwellings need to carry in them a strong sense of community living for the holistic development of all individuals.

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