Resettling India's urban poor sustainably

20 Jan 2018

In a bid to resettle the urban poor, local governments are rapidly constructing houses using cheap, energy-inefficient material causing discomfort to the occupants in the long run. Given this, can participation from the private sector and deployment of local resources help in providing smart, affordable housing to them?

India's urban centres are projected to witness some of the fastest growth rates in the world. India will have 7 mega-cities of more than 10 million people by 2030 (United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2016). The urban population is also expanding rapidly. Of the 1,210 million people in India, no less than 31% lived in urban areas in 2011 and this number is only expected to grow (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, 2015). The Economic Survey of India 2016-17 stated that an average of 6 million people migrated between the states annually between 2001 and 2011, while 9 million people migrated annually between 2011 and 2016; the rate of migration has also accelerated considerably in the last decade (Ministry of Finance, Government of India, 2017).

The massive influx of people into urban centres for better growth opportunities, while beneficial for the overall economic growth of the country, presents massive challenges for the strained urban infrastructure and the ecology. Local governments are under pressure to carry out expansion projects for public transport, roads, and living and working spaces to cater to the ever-growing populations, while also maintaining liveability. The quantum of available land, however, remains constant.

A natural consequence of this has been that low-income groups which are unable to afford homes in cities are forced to live in settlements over which they have no ownership rights, or which are illegal, due to which slum settlements proliferate. Urban slums have witnessed a decadal growth of 34% between 2001 and 2011 (Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, 2017). Further, as infrastructure expands, public land is required to be cleared for roads, public transportation, or housing projects, further dislocating people who may have occupied this land. Numbers of such people have gained an unfathomable scale in the recent decades. The 'Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Housing for All (Urban)' scheme of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India, alone seeks to address a housing shortage of 20 million households between 2015 and 2022, comprising 18 million slum and 2 million non-slum households (Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, 2017).

This condition of urban housing implies massive construction activity that needs to be done to meet housing and infrastructure needs. There is thus a considerable potential for carbon lock-in in resettling the urban poor. Resettlement dwellings are, however, often constructed using conventional, thermally inefficient material, which may be due to a lack of technical capacity in the implementing agencies or unavailability of innovative construction materials. This can increase the tendency of households to purchase appliances like energy-inefficient fans and air conditioners, which also happen to be cheaper than their energy-efficient counterparts. This contributes to increased energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Studies have shown that in situ redevelopment and beneficiary-led housing construction also runs into challenges pertaining to construction quality and occupant comfort and safety. The dwellings are often extremely small, with floor areas as small as 12.5m2 in some of Delhi's suburban areas (Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence, 2011). This limits the scope of improving the construction quality once the dwellings are constructed with inadequate design considerations. Resettlement projects may also involve several socio-economic complexities. Relocating people from their existing residence implies removing them from established social relationships and dependencies. The economic condition of low-income groups may often prompt them to use allocated dwellings as a source of income rather than place of residence.

Part of the solution to resettlement, therefore, may be to construct dwelling units by incorporating local contexts and usage patterns, along with vernacular construction materials. Traditional technologies are suited to specific climates and can be locally sourced, which results in lower energy consumption by houses once they are occupied, lower GHG emissions throughout the lifecycle, and significantly lower construction costs. Affordable housing projects innovatively using traditional techniques in Coimbatore have demonstrated that construction costs can be reduced by as much as Rs 300 per square feet, while reducing the carbon footprint by 30%-40% per square feet. Exploiting skilled labour and other resources from the vicinity for using such techniques may also result in remarkable economic co-benefits.

The massive shortage of housing cannot be solely met by the government. Private developers had long remained apprehensive in entering this segment. But with innovations in construction techniques and business models, in addition to the opportunity of exploiting economies of scale, the private sector is showing positive intent. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) presents a successful case study in engaging the private sector through an innovative land-use model, where part of the land was allowed to be used for commercial purposes by private developers if they setup affordable housing projects on the remaining part. This was especially successful in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region because of the peaking real estate prices, which offered considerable incentive for private developers to participate in the scheme. Such innovative, context-specific models need to be put in place for successful public-private partnerships in improving our urban infrastructure.

Further, there are also strong developmental incentives for providing better living conditions for the urban population. A study in Mumbai showed that after in situ redevelopment of households, full-time employment rose by 40%, savings from household income increased to 28.2%, and school dropout rates fell to 6% (Kapse, et al., 2012). Resettlement into formal housing is also known to increase employability and creditworthiness of households, along with increasing their sense of security and overall social status (The World Bank, 2012).

Therefore, while providing improved resettlement dwellings poses a huge challenge for India, it also presents opportunities to induce sustainability into the developmental process. Local contexts must be given due consideration while designing resettlement housing projects and policies, while incorporating sustainable building features that suit the climate, and the usage patterns of the most important of stakeholders, the end user.