Need to support private informal rental market urgently

Policy makers are making noises about a rental housing policy for India, which currently does not have one in place save for some anti-eviction and rent-protection laws in certain States. The renewed interest in rentals has been triggered by a report that finds 11 million out of the 18 million units built between 2007-2012 lie vacant, ostensibly because owners are hesitant to lease them out to renters who they fear will be hard to evict when they need to. A 19-member panel set up by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (HUPA) headed by Jaithirth Rao, Chairman, Value and Budget Housing Corporation Private Limited is now looking at ways to encourage developers to construct rental housing units.

Historically, housing policy worldwide and in India as well has had an inordinate emphasis on home ownership. In India’s growing urban centres, rental housing is highly in demand owing to mobility patterns and also as a result of high land prices and high cost of home ownership. Highly distorted land markets mean housing affordability will continue to be an issue; it is not merely a demand-supply game for sure. A policy that will put more rental housing on the market, protect the landlord but more importantly protect tenants too against arbitrary rent increases is welcome.

However, policy makers seem to have missed entirely the huge amount of rental housing already being provided by small landlords in the informal areas of our cities. Walk through slums, unauthorized colonies and urban villages in any city and you will see homeowners adding floors to accommodate tenants (sometimes they call them relatives, but this is also a form of tenancy after all). In Gurgaon, my research as part of the Future Institute Fellowship Program shows large-scale construction of rental units by small and mid-size landlords in urban villages located close to employment centres. These erstwhile farmers have been meeting the housing needs of low- to middle-income for years successfully even as the government continues to mull over affordable housing as a problem.

This sort of rental construction is right under the noses of the authorities, yet they seem to feign ignorance about it. Local councillors tell me that villagers do not allow census enumerators to enter their homes and do not divulge the presence of tenants as far as possible, fearing interference with their business of rental housing. Landlords remain unclear about the legality of rentals, fear they may have to pay service tax. To refrain from showing rental units, they do not construct kitchens in the housing they provide, and also give minimum amenities like toilets and bathrooms. Yet, no one will be fooled that these tenement homes are for any other purpose but rentals!Image

We find ourselves in a strange conundrum with this sort of rental market. Like we refuse to see slums and accept them as part of our reality, we do not wish to really know where maids, cleaners, security guards, drivers, cooks, retail assistants and even BPO workers live. Within the same city, people are interdependent yet ignorant of each others’ lives.

From a policy perspective, it is a huge challenge indeed. We do need to legalize the informal rental market so that we can regulate the safety of the buildings that house migrant workers and so that landlords are encouraged to offer decent amenities- water, sanitation, etc. Yet, we want to ensure that these rental rooms remain affordable to the poor, which probably means offering some sort of incentives. From what I know, these landlords do not really make money off the rentals. They rent partly to keep their property from remaining vacant and being grabbed by political goons, and to keep busy after having lost their land in the process of urbanization. It is a delicate balancing act, but it needs to be addressed.

It is my appeal to Mr Rao and the HUPA to include the informal rental market in your considerations while formulating a rental policy. If needed, HUPA can set up a parallel panel of experts to look into this. Supporting and engaging with the informal rentals market will being down the pressure on the government to provide affordable home ownership options, especially in cities that are experiencing high rates of rural-urban migration. It would protect the poor, who often have to face arbitrary rent increases and are powerless before their landlords who are ‘locals’. It would also offer better business models to landlords, who will find ways to improve their offerings and expand their business without fear of the law.

Heritage under your nose: Observations from Nathupur Village, Gurgaon

My first few visits to Nathupur village were way back in 2004-05 when we drove there all the way often to eat at Italiano’s. At the time, I recognized that this urban village adjacent to posh DLF Phase 3 had the potential to be for Gurgaon what Hauz Khas village is for Delhi today, a place full of boutique shops and eateries, an exotic locale with an earthy feel. I did not know then what lay inside.

In a few years, DLF Cyber City mushroomed in the vicinity. Along with the millions of square feet of office space, came a demand for residences for low-income workers who did not have the options of commuting from afar and Nathupur (along with Sikanderpur and Chakkarpur) became the default absorbers of this burgeoning population of migrants coming in to tap this new opportunity for work.

My later visits to Nathupur were more related to this new economic reality. At one point, we tried to look for office space here for Minerva in a bid to be located closer to some of our clients. At another point, I had a frustrating encounter with a placement agency for domestic help located here. I then perceived Nathupur as a messy warren of human habitation, dense and disorganized.

Today, as I explored Nathupur in the company of team members from Agrasar, an NGO working to assist migrants in Gurgaon, these disparate perceptions came together in a climactic realization of Nathupur as a hapless victim of rapid urbanization and changing realities. In the part of the village where we conducted our community interactions today, I saw strewn many stately old havelis, rock solid and beautiful. I saw proud villagers inhabit old homes fashioned in a colonial style. I also saw the old homes half knocked down, making way for higher builder-style construction that would house migrant families, shops and businesses. Amid the buffalo-ridden lanes of this clearly old village, change was evident. The few who are clinging on to their old life of open space and rural habits (we saw women drying grain in the sun, men smoking hookahs and chatting) would be eventually outnumbered. But for now, these older homes in the context of rapid change seem like moments snatched out of a tornado of sweeping transformation.

I am wondering if it would be possible to preserve some of this older lifestyle and architecture. Some sort of adaptive re-use perhaps?

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Using the ‘Right to the City’ approach to include migrants and other “others”

I was reminded today by various organizations on twitter that it is International Migrants Day. Migrant, a term that has fascinated me for a long time. What is it that makes someone uproot his or her life and go to a new place, start from scratch, face all sorts of hurdles including social rejection and cultural deprivation, to eventually carve out a new life in this adopted place? On the face of it, migration sounds rather unpleasant and yet, it has been a recurrent phenomenon for centuries!

Migration may be forced (slavery, bonded labor, displacement due to war, infrastructure projects, etc) or voluntary (usually to avail of a real or perceived opportunity), but the status of the ‘migrant’ is fraught with difficulty. In India, economic growth and a changing economic structure along with urbanization has meant an increase in rural to urban as well as urban to urban migration across the country. There are several aspects of migration that are fascinating and need to be studied to develop a contemporary understanding of how our urban centers (these ‘engines of economic growth’, yea!) function and grow. However, citizens and governments usually perceive migrants (esp low-income migrants that belong to the informal economy) as unnecessary and unwanted, people who are competing for meager resources, and would like to wish them away regardless of their dependence on migrant labor for a large proportion of informal and often difficult (read undignified) jobs in the city.

For my research on housing for migrants in Gurgaon therefore, I have been trying to put together a rights-based case for why the city needs to accept the migrant situation and address it squarely, with a focus on housing and employment. I was struggling with something that appeared obvious. I was heartened therefore to hear today from some of the contributors to the newly released book titled ‘Urban Policies and the Right to the City in India: Rights, Responsibilities and Citizenship‘, brought out by UNESCO and CSH and edited by Marie-Helene Zerah, Veronique Dupont, Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal. The book draws on Lefebvre’s ‘Right to the City’ approach, which the UN hopes to leverage to urge governments to adopt a more inclusive approach to city planning and governance.

At the workshop I attended today at the Centre for Policy Research, Ram B Bhagat, author of the chapter on ‘Migrants’ (Denied) Right to the City made a hard hitting point. He pointed out that policy makers in India refuse to acknowledge or address the issue of migrants squarely. There is no policy that accepts migrants and attempts to give them the basic rights they are denied by virtue of having no identity or documents in their adopted place of residence. He spoke about representation by civil society before the 12th Five Year Plan requesting the inclusion of migrants’ rights and the subsequent exclusion of any such provision in the Plan.

In the chapter, he clearly outlines the contradiction between an Indian citizen’s Constitutional Right to relocate to any other place within the country and the refusal of local governments to grant a migrant a form of identity via which he/she can avail of the basic services and amenities required to live a life of dignity. The paper identifies several exclusionary practices and advocates for the use of a Right to the City approach to include the voice of the migrant in the policy discourse. At the very core, Bhagat argues for the recognition of migration as an “integral part of development” and the placement of migration at the core of city planning and development. I couldn’t agree more and I’m happy to find validation for my thoughts and the assumptions on which I am carrying forward my research work.

On a larger scale, such a Right to the City approach that accommodates multiple viewpoints and consultations and redefined citizenship, imbuing it with a participatory framework is the way ahead for many of the situations that disturb us today. I am reminded of this as I observe the rabid hatred and suggested use of violent and retaliatory actions to “teach a lesson” to the rapists in yesterdays heinous incident on the Delhi bus. While the rapists deserve to be punished swiftly and severely, I question the construct that we have, positioning the rapist as the convenient “other” in general discourse even as we know that may incidents of rape in the city are perpetrated by men known to the victim (though not in this case)! The “other” is omnipresent in all our critiques of the failures of our cities- slum dwellers, beggars, municipal workers (or shirkers), apathetic policemen, the ‘system’, the rich, the poor, the flashy bourgeois, they all threaten us while we remain helplessly virtuous. It is a ridiculous situation, for surely we are the “other” for someone else!

To build an inclusive city, we would need to begin with inclusive mindsets that promote dialogue, debate, awareness and provide space and opportunity for free speech and expression. Even as we speak about the need for safety and improved security, better law enforcement, etc….. we all know that moving towards a society of intense and perpetual surveillance is not a viable proposition. Though theoretical, the Right to the City is a good starting point for the State (especially local government) to build a relationship with citizens and radically change the way cities are governed. Idealistically, I believe that there is a collective action that can be taken to address many of the issues that we urgently need to resolve.

From hopelessness to a sense of purpose: Musings on a sunny November day

Self-confidence and motivation levels have a lot to do with how I feel, on any given day. Small things can disturb my usual sense of buoyant well being. This morning, I woke up feeling I’m not doing enough with my life. It was a holiday for the kids and all the little creatures were out in the park, soaking in the sunshine and running around happily. Watching them, I felt strangely disconnected.

It was a return to a phase that I went through a while ago, when I constantly doubted myself and lived in a state of anxiety. I was transitioning from being an entrepreneur and a content writer to I didn’t quite know what. I did know that urbanism is something I wanted to work in and that I thought about urban issues all the time. But to get a foot into the field when I had been outside it for years was quite a challennge.

Today, I have already been working in the low income housing sector for a year and a half and am actively researching urban issues related to poverty and housing, plus teaching a few hours a week. And in general, I feel a huge sense of achievement about all of this.

However, I do sorely regret the absence from the sector and feel it acutely at certain moments. The grounding in research that my masters degree gave me has been blurred inside my head and I find myself groping to find the level of clarity I need in my work. And of course, I’ve missed developments in theory and practice that happened in the interim years between graduating and returning to the field.

Focus has always been a problem. I am given to see the inter-relatedness among things and to narrow my thinking down to a single hypothesis is daunting; worse, I don’t believe narrowed-down hypotheses reflect reality in most cases, but I also know this sort of narrowing needs to be done in the interests of arriving at conclusions!

I’ve spent the day, and indeed the week, worrying about my naivette in trying to find low-income housing solutions in a city like Gurgaon, where land prices are prohibitive, the development pattern driven by private developers and political will is seriously in doubt. This sort of work is bound to push me into a sense of hopelessness, helplessness; but I need to believe that this research will yield something of use. I need to constantly remind myself that it is through constant endeavor to challenge existing notions of practice that new solutions might emerge. And most all, I feel strongly that we need to listen to the people we wish to accommodate, help, include in the development process. I would be happy if my research would offer a clear picture of what migrants experience and aspire to with respect to housing when they come from rural (and often far flung) areas of the country to a confusing, alienating city like Gurgaon. The findings would help us think about how we could help them, as planners, as city administrators, as politicians, as citizens….I do, despite the chaos, believe there is a possibility to weave government, private sector and civil society together to create a more inclusive and sustainable model of growth.

Power in the hands of the poor: Why are we uncomfortable with that? Oct 17, 2012

A few days ago, I mentioned that I feel angry when someone calls me an idealist. It’s not the word, it’s the tone that implies that idealism is foolish that really gets to me.

I get called an idealist by fellow professionals essentially for being pro-poor. Architects and urban planners, being trained in the ‘technocrat’ mode, like to pose physical solutions to problems that ail our cities. Hence tools like zonal and master plans, design proposals and such like are seen as change drivers. However, because these and many other tools for change lie in the hands of bureaucrats, policy is used to steer and obfuscate what is actually happening on the ground.

Neither policy nor the tools for physical planning are completely rooted in the realities we exist in. The realities are political, social and economic. The realities are the stuff we want to shove under the carpet- class divides and political gain, vested interests and goon power, caste-based thinking and skewed gender equations. If I am an idealist for believing that we need to make a strong political, economic and social case for uplifting the poor, then I am proud to be one indeed!

At this stage in my research on migrant housing in Gurgaon, urban designers and planners I interact with are telling me that I cannot influence the sociology and politics of any place, so its best to focus on a physical solution. So propose some mixed use, opine on resource distribution, talk about land values, density, the magic word FAR, etc etc. On the other side are the activists and NGOs who work with the community. They advise that I look at the problem squarely in the eye and find out what stops governments from providing migrants housing and more importantly, what will convince them that this is unavoidable. So basically, they ask me to place the political and socio-economic considerations at the center of the problems.

These two aren’t essentially different opinions; they both intend to arrive at physical solutions perhaps, and yet they look at the issue in two very divergent ways. It appears to me, and my judgement is informed by various interactions in the sector, that mainstream professionals¬† in fields like architecture and urban planning have begun to view themselves as service providers, and are disconnected from a sense of their role in society. They view the government as a significant client and the migrant worker as a beneficiary of a policy. Therefore, the proposals are not intended to empower the community, but to find a solution palatable to the government.

Activists and not-for-profits in this space, on the other hand, intend to give power directly into the hands of the poor, equipping them with information and arguments that will help them carve a space for themselves in urban India, where they compete for resources with the upper classes while at the same time being a huge part of the ecosystem.

Clearly, solutions that place decision making in the hands of the poor are clearly uncomfortable for decision makers. Perhaps we can blame it on the general need of both bureaucrats and technocrats to find the sort of solution where there is a measure of control and predictability. Solutions that involve incremental steps, are long-term in nature and do not come with guaranteed results are hard to buy into.

No one has a crystal ball that tells us the future, but it doesn’t take a soothsayer to know that the workable solutions will emerge out of a skilful, considered mix of both approaches. That it is necessary to consider the poor a vital part of India’s growth story, while at the same time being pragmatic in the means we employ to give them their rightful place in this unfolding saga of a rapidly urbanizing India. In the end, we must confront our discomfort with handing power (especially in aspects as vital as health, education, housing, basic services, etc) to the poor.

 

India gate, chasing birds and meeting the bhelpuri wala- March 18, 2012

We managed to wake the kids and get us all to India Gate by 7am. Delhi’s iconic and sprawling green lung that symbolises India’s imperial and colonial history was today the venue for a peaceful and silent protest against violence against women. But more on that tomorrow.
While the protestors walked on, mum and me stopped halfway to let Aadyaa run around in the lawns. Chasing crows and mynas was fun. Eating a picnic was fun. Running barefoot was fun. But the most fun was watching the bhelpuri wala set up his mobile stall. Improvised out of a simple plastic bucket, he deftly chopped onions and coriander real fine, then sliced green chillies longitudinally and kept sliced lemon handy lest an early customer should pass by.
Chatting with him, we learnt that he is from a village near Aligarh in UP, where his wife and four children live. He lives in Paharganj in Delhi and has been selling bhelpuri at India Gate for the last 25 years! He earns about Rs 300 a day. Interestingly he commented on how people no longer prefer snacks like bhelpuri and the guy selling chips did better business catering to new tastes, while he was still selling food gone out of fashion. Not a complaint but certainly a lament about the changing times.
Aadyaa watched him in rapt fascination, only to be distracted by Udai and Nupur, who returned with stories of the petition going into the Presidents house. It struck me how little our children interact with people who comprise the very heart and soul of India. How can we expect them to empathise? For without empathy, it would surely mean anarchy and a dismal tomorrow.

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