P V Indiresan

How about a Right to Shelter?

P. V. Indiresan | Updated on November 30, 2012

The politics of creating slums in urban areas is an affront to the rightof every individual to have a decent home to live in. — M.Srinath

To house a population of 2 billion, India needs 6 per cent of its land area. This may not be difficult, considering we have 15 per cent uncultivable land.

It may be said that the Right to Information (RTI) Act propelled Arvind Kejriwal to the current exalted position. I am told that he first approached a highly reputed personality, and when he declined, he tagged on to Anna Hazare. After extracting the full benefit of Anna Hazare’s contacts, he showed his political acumen by discarding him, but used the old man’s motto — India Against Corruption. When Anna Hazare protested, he politely changed his party’s name to Aam Admi Party or AAP. That left the Congress furious because it had thought that aam admi was its own motto.

AAP has offered Lokpals in every district. The Party may then call it Right-to-Complain (RTC). RTI may be popular with many, including Kejriwal, and bitterly resisted by many in authority.

In fact, several people have been murdered for daring to use the RTI. On the other hand, RTC will probably be popular — the way RTI is — with the middle-class, but there is some doubt whether the aam admi would be interested in it.

In any case, RTC will create a huge bureaucracy with all its advantages and disadvantages. I would prefer strengthening and reforming the judiciary, but let that pass.

Apart from RTI, there is also the RTE — Right to Education. That does not mean that every parent gets a right to educate his or her children the way preferred. It means that every parent is duty-bound to educate children the way the Government wants that to be done. The RTE is still controversial and has been challenged in the Supreme Court.

Shortage of shelter

My pet right is Right-to-Shelter (RTS). Most children have RTE, but most poor families, particularly in the cities, have no RTS. I wonder how the AAP has missed out on that very necessary right. Gandhiji said that for the poor, God comes in the form of food. Thanks to three S’s from Tamil Nadu — C. Subramaniam, B. Sivaraman and M. S. Swaminathan — people are better fed these days than when Gandhiji was alive. However, shelter — particularly in the cities — has definitely deteriorated. For the poor now, God will probably appear in the form of shelter.

Political parties have put to good use this shortage of shelter. “Get the poor into appalling slums and offer them protection from eviction, if the slum flies the party flag and promises to vote for the party when election comes.” That is a sham; it is cheating the poor of what should be theirs as a right.

Cornering land

However, the poor are too weak to protest and too ignorant to understand they are being cheated. In fact, our rich have become very rich by cornering land for their use.

In fact, I too belong to this category — a small flat that was sold by the Delhi Development Authority for Rs 2.8 lakh some 30 years ago will apparently fetch Rs 3 crore in the black market. Strictly speaking, I am not that rich — the flat is merely a place to stay and nothing more. However, for those who have multiple houses, the price is useful, very useful. Soon after Independence, the Governments gave up the idea of “slum clearance” and replaced it with “slum improvement”.

That meant the Government gave one water tap for several hundred families. Gave or let the people grab electrical power and, at times, even paved the narrow lanes. Land for building a house of their own was an absolute no-no.



Politicians argue that India is a crowded country and the poor have to do as best as they can. Nobody listens when I tell them that the Netherlands, England and, even Mauritius are more crowded and have no slums. Let us calculate: Our current population is 1.2 billion and is expected to settle at 1.8 billion. Let us call that 2 billion.

Let us also assume that by the time India reaches a stationary population, there will be, on an average, only four persons per dwelling. That is, we have to find space for 500 million dwellings.

Finding space

Thirty years ago, the far richer West Germany had an average size of 80 sq m per dwelling. Let us make that 100 sq m. Let us also use the Floor Area Ratio of 0.5 in vogue in New Delhi at the time of Independence. Then, average space per family becomes 200 sq m. Let us add another 200 sq m per dwelling for roads, gardens, schools, commercial businesses, and so on, making 400 sq m per dwelling.

Then, the country will need 200,000 sq m of space for housing the population of 2 billion. That is 6 per cent of the country’s land area. As we have 15 per cent uncultivable land, finding 6 per cent space should not be all that much difficult.



Unfortunately, we cannot find that kind of space in any of our large cities. On the other hand, when we fly across the country, we notice how empty it is. So, the correct solution is to build houses where there is space — and not inside or close to our already overcrowded cities — along with jobs and a full range of services.

That is quite possible but there is one difficulty; in fact, an insurmountable problem. If we do not overcrowd our cities further, our politicians cannot make money by grabbing land.

Can the Government — instead of starting a huge bureaucratic apparatus — impose merely a penal tax on any employer, whose employees have less than 200 sq m of land, on an average, and the poorest have at least 75 sq m of land?

Keywords: Shelter and poor, politics and poor

The politics of creating slums in urban areas is an affront to the right of every individual to have a decent home to stay in. — M.Srinath

This is 343rd in the Vision 2020 series. The last article was published on November 17.

To house a population of 2 billion, India needs 6 per cent of its land area. This may not be difficult, considering we have 15 per cent uncultivable land.



(The author is a former Director IIT Madras. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in and indiresan@gmail.com)

(This is 343rd in the Vision 2020 series. The last article was published on November 17.)

Published on November 30, 2012

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