Housing: A Bridge between Lives and Livelihood
On 28th March, carrying their bags and children, thousands of migrant families amid the nationwide lockdown, stood in a long queue of nearly 3 km at the Anand Vihar bus terminus in Delhi. The hope was to catch any bus to their villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Again, on 15th April when the lockdown was extended for another 19 days, hundreds of migrant workers living in the Shastri Nagar slum of Mumbai congregated outside the Bandra bus depot and railway station in the hope to get back to their villages in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
In cut two of the same scenario the news, internet and social media were flooded with the heartbreaking images of thousands of migrant workers covering several miles on foot to get home during the lockdown despite, being aware of the consequences of COVID-19. No doubt, crisis and uncertainty force all human beings to look for safer havens, shelter or a place they can call home which, brings to the forefront the ontological insecurity revolving around access to affordable housing. The same urban, which propelled the hope and aspiration for a better quality of life for migrant workers, instigates survival questions.
According to the 2011 Census, taken between 2001 and 2011, 14 million people moved to cities for a better quality of life and employment. Of this number, a significant majority work in the informal sector, where there is no job or social security. This socio-economic scenario left them with meagre savings to survive this biological and financial crisis. Among the urban poor and marginalised, migrant workers form a doubly peripheral and ignored section as they are not included in the citizen population of the city. Their absence from the official headcount deprives them from being accounted for as beneficiaries for even the most successful government policies and subsidies like the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.
The Housing for All Plan of Action developed by each of the ULBs participating in PMAY-U implementation, excludes the migrant workers from either owning a house in their native towns or they lack identity proof in the city they work in. Moreover, housing policies in India since independence have focused on a single ownership-based tenure model excluding the staggering 139 million internal migrants (Economic Survey of India, 2017-18). In the country with varied socio-economic groups, rental housing is the first entry point into the city due to their transitory incomes and circulatory migration patterns.
Ownership has been the cornerstone of Indian housing policies since independence, because of the assumption that owning a house is the ultimate aspiration of low-income households (Kumar, 2001, p. 426). The limited scope of the Draft National Rental Housing Policy, 2006 and 2015 and the Draft Model Tenancy Act, 2019 remains silent on the rental housing needs, challenges and requirements of the economically weaker sections and lower income groups. In the absence of a holistic approach to the housing crisis in the country, the unidimensional housing policies are then superimposed on the multidimensional nature of urban poverty. These policies ignore the way different tenures impact altering needs and aspirations of the households. The policies thus become ‘palpable’ considering the lack of attention to the rental-housing sector as compared to the home ownership (Gilbert 2008, UN-Habitat 2014).
In the lack of streamlined arrangements for housing for migratory populations, especially the doubly peripheral migrant workers, they rely on a spectrum of housing tenure arrangements, including full ownership, leasing and renting. A growing number of scholars also argue that ownership is not necessarily the best or most appropriate tenure arrangement for all households living in informal settlements. Thus, housing policies should recognise and support a diversity of tenure arrangements corresponding to the remuneration of the excluded population.
Taking a step back- Government as a Special Needs Provider
With a shift in the approach of housing policies from being need-based (in the early years post-independence) to demand-based (post liberalisation era), the government has significantly addressed the shortfall in affordable housing for the urban poor by providing ownership based tenures. However, it has failed to provide access to shelter to the most vulnerable populations who are unable to convert their housing needs into effective demand. These shadow citizens, in the absence of complete citizen rights in a city, remain invisible to our planners and policy makers. Though there are no exact enumerative figures, it is estimated that these shadow citizens are estimated to be nearly 30% of the urban population in India (MoSPI, 2008) who require more proactive support from the government in order to address their housing poverty. The National, State and the ULBs need to adorn the role of “PROVIDER” rather than just an enabler to address the needs of this group.
Today, the government has adopted an approach of “Jaan bhi aur Jahan bhi” focusing both on protecting the lives and the economy of the country as a means to sail through COVID-19. In order to restart the city’s economy post lockdown, provision of rental housing for this vulnerable yet most needed sub-set of urban poor would be an inevitable step.
As an immediate response strategy, the government should:
a. Focus on using their own housing stock lying redundant under various stages of completion (completed but unoccupied, structure complete with missing infrastructure, super structure complete etc.). Projects that were started during previous housing programs like JNNURM and RAY. The Central Government can take the lead in financing the completion of the dwelling units by partnering with States.
b. Since, O&M is a strenuous task for the government, ULBs can work with civil society organisations working with migrant welfare or private partners as part of their CSR initiatives or Housing Collectives for management of these rental-housing units. Accommodation/Property Management Companies such as OYO rooms and Airbnb can partner as well to cater to this segment of society as part of their CSR initiatives.
c. The ULB can play a vital role in fixing rents, identification and verification of homeless vendors, labourers and casual workers for allotment of these rental units. In the first phase, these rental units could be allotted to homeless vendors, labourers registered with the ULB or the Labour Department in the city.
In the mid-term strategy, on the supply side, the government needs to focus on:
a. Creating an inventory of the available rental housing stock in the country catering to different socio-economic strata. This inventory should begin at the level of the city, scaling up to the state and the country subsequently. The biggest players as developers and providers of the rental housing for urban poor are small landlords. It is estimated that about 80% of the rented units are by small landlords operating informally (ADB, 2013).
b. Apart from providing an enabling environment for rental housing for the urban poor through inclusion in the Model Tenancy Act, the government can provide incentives to landlords catering to this segment of the society through tax exemptions, subsidies on utility bills, reduction in stamp duty, registration charges etc. to encourage these landlords to get their property listed. Listing of these properties can provide access to easy finance from the government to upgrade or retrofit their properties as per livability standards developed by the national government.
c. On the supply side, rental vouchers/rent supplement assistance through direct bank transfer can be provided to this segment with time capping by the government. This can be done in convergence with the Ministry of Labour, at the level of the city. To bridge the gap between the supply and demand and ensure transparency, an online platform for need based social rental housing can be created for renters and tenants corresponding to all income groups.
d. The ULB could also leverage the existing privately owned portals like 99acres.com, housing.com for building its database and expanding the outreach to all segments of society.
To enable the overall rental housing market in the country in the long term, the focus should be on:
a. Creating new rental housing in the country with diverse spatial configurations (dormitories, en-suites with shared community services, studio units etc) and tenure options (short-term/long-term rental, rent-to-buy etc.).
b. The private sector can partner in developing rental housing on build-operate-transfer models. The land for housing could be made available from public or private land and similar models of development can be adopted as being used under PMAY-U for affordable housing in partnership.
c. Land owned by different Central government agencies can also transfer land to the State/ULB for developing rental housing in cities. Large Corporate Developers and medium size formal developers can participate in million plus cities, however, in medium/small economic centers the focus must be on small informal developers by easing their way to enter into the formal housing market. It is seen that these small informal developers supply 90% of the affordable housing space with hyper-local approach and contextual understanding of the demand and supply.
However, before we re-think the housing policy decisions to secure the lives and the livelihoods of the migrant workers, the very first challenge would be to earn back their trust in the system that has been shattered with the panning out of the events during the lockdown. The entry point must be by recognizing them as equal citizens of the country by giving them food, health and social security.