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Policy makers must focus on right to shelter, bolster sustainable housing


By Moin Qazi*
The Gaekwad family lives in a single-room house on the outskirts of Mumbai. The family cooks, have meals and sleep in the same room—which is also used as a play area by their three-year-old child. Lack of credit has prevented the Gaekwads from getting loans to improve their living conditions. The Gaekwads are actually among the millions of Indians live on sidewalks and railway platforms, and in illegal slums and shanties.
There is little more critical to a family’s quality of life than a healthy, safe living space. However, this section of India’s poor lives in inhuman conditions and is often under the threat of displacement, harassment and arrest. Over the last decade, India has substantially expanded its net of welfare policies, aimed at lifting its millions from poverty. It seems that the time has come, now, for the ‘right to shelter’. Priority for housing ought to be higher than education and health. Sustainable and inclusive housing solutions, indeed, could bolster large economic growth quickly and efficiently.
There was a time when landlessness, which inevitably accompanies poverty and its attendant ills, affected a smaller part of the population. However, the number of landless people has been rising in the country. The ones without land join the ranks of the worst ones in extreme poverty and the tasks of poverty alleviation become even more difficult. Considering the links between landlessness and poverty or the need to score better successes against poverty, it is very important to put a hard brake on the process of becoming landless.
Landlessness and the lack of secure property rights among the poor are among those inequities that perpetuate poverty, hold back economic development and fan social tensions. Demographic shifts, combined with poor or non-existent land ownership policies and insufficient resources have resulted in a surge of slum creation and further deterioration of living conditions.
Hernando de Soto’s 2000 book “The Mystery of Capital” makes a very startling revelation. “The hour of capitalism’s greatest triumph,” declares the famed Peruvian economist, “is in the eyes of four-fifths of humanity, its hour of crisis.” De Soto explains that for many people in the developing world, the land on which they live is their only asset. If that property is not publicly recognised as belonging to them, they lose out—missing out on some of their highly deserved social benefits. Where land security is absent or weak—that is, when men and women do not receive recognised legal rights to their land and can thus be easily displaced without recourse—development efforts flounder, undermining conservation efforts, seeding injustice and conflict, and frustrating efforts to escape poverty.
A major impediment to the acquisition of a housing finance is the lack of official land titles . People do not have documentary proof of being owners of the piece of land on which they live.. Many low-income villagers have owned their land for generations. Community-recognised institutions can help legitimise claims to land that have been long tenured by a household.
The United Nations has estimated that more than 70% of the world’s population lives without any formal acknowledgement of ownership of land. That is both a human and economic problem. Without the security of ownership, the poor often invest little in their homes, the result being a fragile home that cannot withstand natural disasters including floods. Whereas, when people have secure land rights, they invest in improvement projects, work more hours without fear of land theft, and are more likely to take loans using their new property as security.
Lack of ownership right deprives peop0le of so many basic amenities. Once titled, they could obtain access to several government benefits. Even a small plot can lift a family out of extreme poverty. Land ownership is often the bedrock of other development interventions like owning land boosts nutrition, educational outcomes and gender equality. The converse is equally true.
According to the National Family Health Survey, only 19% of the rural population lives in pucca houses, whilst the remaining 81% live in kutcha or semi-pucca structures. 87% of homes in villages do not have access to toilet facilities. Nationally, the total economic impact of inadequate sanitation is estimated at US$53.4 billion. Kutcha (or “raw”) structures have walls and roofs made of materials such as unburnt bricks, bamboo, mud, grass, leaves, reeds, or thatches. Semi-pucca structures signify that either the walls or the roof are made of pucca materials. Pucca (meaning “solid”) structures are considered permanent and are made out of cement, concrete, oven-burnt bricks, stone blocks, tiles, and timber.
Several state governments in India have provided a degree of tenure security to poor households, which grants residents of unauthorised settlements specific period licences for their land or an official assurance that the user will not be forced to vacate the property. It also provides evidence so that usual and customary local practices support this assurance. All these rights entitle the occupant to “presumed ownership“.
The leading non-profit, Landesa, which is doing pioneering work in this field, can be involved in training local NGOs to aid in this task. Landesa partners with progressive governments to develop pro-poor and gender-sensitive laws, policies, and programmes that strengthen land rights for the poorest people. Their land rights experts work with government officials, local leaders, and rural residents, developing scalable, practical and innovative solutions to pressing problems like land rights issues.
Landesa has a three-pronged approach. First, it conducts research on land tenure’s effects. Greater data and information make it easier for working transitions to secure property rights. Following this, it provides legal consultation and support for government officials willing to make improvements in legally vulnerable communities. Finally, it educates communities on the various aspects of land rights, since legal systems often seem inaccessible to people who cannot read or cannot read well.
The government should implement an out-of-the-box approach to break down the thickets of red-tapism. What is actually needed right now is revolutionary and cutting-edge reforms that rip through the dense jungle of paperwork and documentation. Given the scale, the need for adequate and affordable housing presents significant business opportunities for the private sector, especially for developers, investors and financial institutions.
What is finally needed is close and passionate collaboration. Inspiration does not occur in a vacuum. It is a beautiful contagion that passes through individuals who touch each other’s lives. One inspiring achievement has a tendency to raise a sense of possibility in others. The one who is inspired performs his own feats and inspires others, and so on down. Even as we grapple with mounting challenges, healers are rising up to cure the ills. They are going to hollow places and creating communities and building relationships that change lives, one by one.

*Development expert

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