Affordable housing is the solution to urban inequality, exclusion
In the Delhi elections, the promise of “Jahan jhuggi, vahan makaan” (where the house, there the home) resounded across party manifestos. Today, it faces a grave challenge — a recent order from the Supreme Court directing the possible forced eviction of 48,000 households on railway land. The order is currently stayed with the railways promising no “coercive action” for four weeks. The court has tasked the railways, the Delhi government and the central government to instead come up with a comprehensive housing plan for these households. What should such a “plan” look like?
First, any plan must be understood within the realities of housing in Delhi. Despite the language of “encroachment” and widespread “land grab,” bastis (slums) are on a minute portion of city land — less than 0.6% of total land area, and 3.4% of residential land in the 2021 Delhi Master Plan. This tiny percentage supports no less than 11-15% but possibly up to 30% of the city’s population, most settled for decades. One example shows how skewed this number is. In 2017, parking Delhi’s 3.1 million cars used 13.25 sq km of land, or 5% of all residential area. Cars, then, have more space than the housing of workers, residents, and families. The basti is not an encroachment for personal gain, it marks State and market failure to provide affordable and legal housing. It is, instead, the only affordable housing stock built at scale by any actor in the city. It is the starting of a solution to urban inequality rather than a problem to be solved.
Second, settlements are not just houses, but housing. The difference between the two is how workers survive in cities despite low wages. Housing requires not just a pucca structure but the possibility of employment and affordable mobility. It is linked to admission for children in local schools, employers’ homes that domestic workers can walk to, public institutions were trust has been built, arrangements for child-care with known neighbours, and streets that vendors and rickshaw drivers have mastered as markets. This is why both the central and state governments are right to promise “jahan jhuggi, vahan makaan”. A house can be resettled, perhaps, but housing cannot simply be transplanted.
Media reports on the plan, however, indicate a worrying reliance on peripheral resettlement, often to sites in the northwest and southwest corners of the city despite a clear limit of five km in the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) 2015 policy. Repeated studies on peripheral resettlement show that it is a shock that pushes a generation back into poverty, let alone when it comes amid an economic recession. These under-construction units must not become the default plan.
How can in-situ upgradation be prioritised and peripheral resettlement minimised? Regularising settlements on an “as is where is” basis (as was done with unauthorised colonies) is the fastest, cheapest, safest and most effective way to secure tenure and respect a lifetime of investment. At a mere one sq km of built-on railway land in total, it is also efficient. No new houses need to be built — households will do this themselves over a period of time as their economic security grows with legal tenure. Communities and experts can even offer solutions on how to manage restrictions in a safety zone, with mitigation ideas not based on forced evictions.
Resettlement plans similarly must not limit themselves to the sites already in progress. Instead, they must leverage all available land — land that the three largest landholders in the city certainly have — and remain strictly limited to the five km rule. A pandemic is raging. More have already left our cities than during the Partition. Evictions and peripheral resettlement would mean that we have learnt little from it about the exclusionary nature of our urbanisation.
Delhi has, in the recent past, found land for large infrastructure projects, transport, stadiums and malls. Jahan jhuggi, vahan makaan is possible. The decision is not if it can be done but if we are willing to do it.