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January 30, 1998


Issues' 98/ P K Das

'The housing problem in cities has to be solved because there are no opportunities for our people in villages'

It is sad that in the 50th year of the country's Independence, none of the political parties is talking about one of the most basic rights of a human being -- housing.

In fact, slogans like Garibi Hatao have disappeared and people only talk about secularism, stability, federalism and Hindutva.

With the process of urbanisation underway, people have left their villages to come to the cities for better prospects. But the government, in the last 50 years, has not been able to meet the demand for housing.

So far no government in the country has realised that the housing problem in cities has to be solved because there are no opportunities for our people in villages. And that is the reason, today, why you find slums all over the major cities in our country.

I don't agree when people say there is a resource crunch which is why the government cannot help people solve their housing problems. If given a chance the slum-dwellers can develop their slums into beautiful housing colonies. But the government is unable to do it because of lack of vision.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena government came to power in Maharashtra with their election manifesto promising to build 4 million free houses to slum-dwellers in Bombay. But not a single house have they provided so far in three years of governance.

They made a mistake by inviting private builders and corporates into the housing sector, for no builder or corporate will enter slums until and unless they are assured of good profits. Today, not a single big builder is willing to invest in the slum redevelopment programme. And that is why the scheme, launched three years ago with great fanfare, is a complete failure.

A lot of people say that if we change our rent act, the housing problem will be solved. I do not agree with this viewpoint. In fact, if the owners are allowed to let their houses on rent, they will charge huge amounts which again the poor people and middle class won't be able to afford.

The only solution for India's housing problem is to give an opportunity to the slum dwellers through private initiative and not the private investments of builders and corporates.

Because, once the private builders and corporates get involved in housing, they talk only of profits and nothing else. So, the problem persists.

Today, there are nearly 5.5 million people in the slums of Bombay. They do not have water, sewerage and all the basic necessities of life. Still, nearly a hundred people come to Bombay every day to settle down here.

These are the people who are either oppressed in their villages or come to seek better prospects in the city. And the sad part is that these people, who do not have a house to stay, are not given ration cards. By this the government is denying them their right to food. And the poor people, who cannot afford foodgrains even from the public distribution system, are forced to buy from the open market at exorbitant rates.

Unfortunately in our country the poor are not recognised. They are only treated as votebanks or they are being exploited for some or the other reason by the politicians. And the most shameful thing is that the right to housing is not a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution.

And unless that is done, how can our country develop?

Architect P K Das is convener of Nivara Hakk, a non government organisation working on housing issues in urban India. He spoke to Syed Firdaus Ashraf.

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