“India lives in the villages” – but how?

National indicators regularly published by governments and international agencies do not include any statistics on the living conditions as exemplified by the type of housing available. In my interviews with many poor village women in South India, practically everyone listed housing as their most important need -- above food, healthcare and education for their children. Without the security and comfort of a home, there is no escaping the difficulties resulting from poverty.

Adequate housing is considered by many as a fundamental human right. It is a basic necessity for all that cannot be denied in a fair and equitable society. Housing is interrelated with other aspects of life such as health and education. For example, children cannot study in a poorly lit house. Respiratory disorders among rural population in India are often the result of unfavorable housing and poor living conditions.

Present Rural Housing Situation

According to the National Family Health Survey, concluded in 2000 by the government, only 19% of the rural population lives in pucca (strong) houses, while the remaining live in kaccha (weak) and semi-pucca houses with mud walls and thatched roofs. Eighty-seven percent of the homes in the villages do not have toilet facilities. Cooking is usually done inside the house under inadequate ventilation with biomass such as dried cow-dung, fire wood, dry weeds or crop residue, exasperating the risk of tuberculosis.

Most villages have both lower and upper castes living in separate sections. People belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) are required to live in an area designated for them. Those belonging to “Most Backward Classes,” “Backward Classes” and “Other Backward Classes” – as they are officially categorized -- usually live in the same area where “Other Classes (Upper Castes)” live, but they do not mix with even lower castes.

The rural poor live in huts and government supplied “houses” that are usually no more than 200 sq. ft. in floor area. Houses supplied by the government are constructed with cement blocks or bricks, the floor is of cement, and the roof is made of concrete or asbestos. Usually there is only one room in the house, but in some cases a half-wall may be built to separate out the kitchen. These houses do not have their own toilets, but common toilets are made available at some distance at one corner of the village for several families to share. More often than not, these toilets do not function nor are they maintained, doors are broken or absent, and there is limited or no access to water nearby. Hence, most people prefer to go into a wooded section or elsewhere in the village or nearby field where there is privacy.

When government builds homes for lower castes, it ensures this caste separation. In many instances, government sets up housing colonies exclusively for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and hence, an entire new village might consist of families belonging to only those castes.

The George Foundation recently completed a field survey of two panchayats consisting of nine villages in Hosur Taluk with 986 huts and houses for a total population of 4,850 residents. The average number of people per dwelling was 4.9. Huts are very small in size, often without windows, and a narrow opening serves as the entrance.

Government supplied houses are around 190 sq. ft. in floor area which works out to 38 sq. ft. of floor space per person – just over the size of a full size bed. Every house has two small windows, a 4 sq. ft. opening each, but they are not sufficient to permit cross ventilation or cooking smoke to escape freely. Those who have domestic animals such as cows or goats usually keep them inside their houses during night.

At least a third of all houses required major repairs for leaky roofs, cracks in walls and damaged doors. None of the lower caste residents has the financial means to spend money on house repairs. While government-built houses are provided free of cost, residents are required to pay a small tax to the panchayat.

The Tamil Nadu government, for example, estimates that a typical house for the poor costs around Rs. 45,000 to build. The state allocates houses to families belonging to scheduled and depressed castes based on their economic status.

However, anyone officially classified as poor is eligible for a government grant of up to Rs. 45,000 (about $1,125) toward construction provided that the applicant owns suitable land for the house. The government offers different financial schemes through banks that permit families to borrow money at zero to low interest rates (10-12%) for purchasing or developing land, and for construction of the dwelling. It also offers grants of up to Rs. 10,000 ($250) for renovation of an existing house.

Government Housing Program is Failing

Despite the allocation of considerable funds by central and state governments, the housing program for the poor is failing for a number of reasons. The plan is ill-conceived, focusing on offering shelter as opposed to improving living conditions, and executed without sufficient thought about many inter-related considerations.

Currently, the total supply of new housing is far short of what is needed – around 100 million at the very least – if the goal is to offer adequate housing for every poor family. Bad construction and poor maintenance are causing the breakdown of houses that were built some time ago, adding to the need for substantial home improvement. The average floor space of 38 sq. ft per individual, not including the space taken by cattle kept inside the house, creates a very unhealthy indoor environment, not to mention the lack of basic necessities and the ensuing discomfort faced.

The focus on offering houses as shelters has motivated the government to look for cheap construction without offering even basic necessities. Without a small separate kitchen and adequate cross ventilation, the entire house is turned into a smoke stack not suited for human habitation. The absence of an adjacent toilet with each house is inconsistent with any reasonable concept of meeting minimal human needs. Unless existing houses are extended to include a separate kitchen with proper ventilation and a small toilet, they cannot be considered as livable dwellings.

Additionally, government housing perpetuates the centuries-old practice of separation of residences based on caste. Most Indian villages still maintain clusters of houses for each caste in different sections. Houses for scheduled castes are allowed in the village only in areas designated for them, away from the homes for upper castes. Instead of trying to break down this discriminatory practice, houses being built by the government for the scheduled castes ensure this separation. Further, the government has created a number of identical structures in new areas, effectively creating “scheduled caste colonies.” It is hard to reconcile government’s official position concerning discrimination and human rights, and what it actually practices.

Housing as Part of Community Development

The housing program as currently implemented will hardly improve the living standards of the poor nor will it contribute to social justice. Before more funds are expended toward public housing, the government is well advised to reconsider its approach to the problem. In arriving at a new strategy for housing, planners must not lose sight of its other interrelated goals such as offering basic amenities, preventing diseases, and assuring social justice.

The approach to housing must shift from its current focus on offering shelter to developing healthy and integrated communities. That might imply a departure from a caste-based approach to assistance based on income levels.

Instead of replacing huts with cemented houses at the same location, a better strategy might be to develop new communities at another location close by. That would offer considerable flexibility in properly laying out the entire housing complex. These new developments may incorporate facilities for sharing water, sewage processing, bio-gas production, fruit and vegetable gardens, and small shops.

Community development will certainly call for larger initial investment than what is required for building shelters. However, the long term benefits associated with creating healthy and sustainable communities is likely to be far greater than the short term savings from building low-cost housing. An appropriate partnership between government, donors, investors and financial institutions can pave the way for financial solutions that make it possible for beneficiaries to carry some of the burden.

The above is a summary of the article in knowledge@wharton. See http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/india/article.cfm?articleid=4219


Anonymous said…
hello there, to respected author:
i am shirin farhad from housing board Tehran, and student of S.P.A New Delhi, and urban designer. i would like to know about your areas of writing paper, as i am working on an international seminar on village housing strategies. i would be happy if you could inform me if u have any relevant data's.

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