India’s ‘locked up’ land is enough to build housing for all, experts say

Published on Jun 13, 2017 06:10 PM IST
The government has launched a long-delayed process to sell 2,000 acres of unused land belonging to PSUs.
The government reportedly says finding land is the biggest problem for affordable housing.(Sant Arora/HT File Photo)
The government reportedly says finding land is the biggest problem for affordable housing.(Sant Arora/HT File Photo)
Thomson Reuters Foundation, Mumbai | By

India should use excess land held by government agencies to meet its goal of providing housing for all by 2022, experts and activists said, as the country struggles with rising conflicts over land for industry, infrastructure and its citizens.

The government recently launched a long-delayed process to sell 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of unused land belonging to unprofitable state-owned enterprises -- known in India as public sector undertakings (PSUs).

The railways, ports, aviation and defence ministries also hold vast tracts of surplus land.

A portion of this land held by the government must be given to states to build housing for poor and low-income groups to meet India’s goal of Housing for All by 2022, experts and activists said.

“The government says finding land is the biggest problem for affordable housing, but the government is sitting on so much land that is lying idle,” said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director at New Delhi-based advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network.

“PSUs could easily work with the ministry of housing to see how best to address this issue, but they would rather monetise the land in other ways.”

India’s state-owned enterprises hold more than 1 million acres of surplus land, according to some estimates.

Government enterprises themselves are unsure how much land they have, said Samar Lahiry, a former adviser to the government’s planning commission.

“India has sufficient land for all uses, including housing, if we use our existing resources with prudence,” Lahiry said.

“We need to evaluate land use and take stock of land that is locked up with PSUs. Using idle land for vital civic infrastructure such as hospitals, roads and affordable housing is important, given the contentious nature of land acquisition.”

Some of these surplus government-held lands have been encroached upon by the urban poor struggling with a lack of affordable housing.

Government committees over the years have failed to sell off these lands because of a lack of clear guidelines, inadequate records and a lack of coordination between various ministries.

A spokesperson for the ministry of housing said plans to create a land bank are on track.

“The government has asked PSUs how much unused land they have. Once there is a clear idea of how much land there is, the government will draw up a plan for its use,” AA Rao told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Affordable housing will be a priority.”

A quarter of India’s urban population lives in informal housing such as slums, according to social consultancy FSG.

That number is set to rise as tens of thousands of people leave their villages to seek better prospects in cities.

The government’s Housing for All plan aims to create 20 million new urban housing units and 30 million rural homes.

Availability of land to meet this goal is a challenge. Conflicts over land have risen as demand grows for industrial and infrastructure projects to drive growth and boost development for India’s 1.3 billion citizens.

Earlier this year, India’s Supreme Court asked seven states why land bought for special economic zones is lying idle, after an advocacy group said about 80% of such land is unused.

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