Imran Khan’s announcement to construct five millions houses did cause a flutter in the millions of hearts. Specially, the shelterless and low-income people were happy that their problems would soon be solved.
Shortage of affordable housing has become very acute in the last four decades, and its severity is increasing with each passing day. The problem has many dimensions and complexities, and it is generally accepted that conventional approaches won’t work. It was, therefore, appropriate that the prime minister appointed a Task Force on Housing to study the problem in its entirety and suggest solutions.
Since the Task Force consists of eminent architects, planners, developers and administrators, it is expected that they would have dug out the record to see what efforts were made by the previous governments to address the issue and with what result.
Starting from 1985, almost all the prime ministers launched their own brand of mega housing schemes to solve the problem. To begin with, MK Junejo launched ‘Widows Housing Project’ in mid-80s, but instead of solving the problem, it became a classic example to explain the difference between ‘houses’ and ‘housing’.
Briefly described, 20,000 two-room houses on state land were constructed all over Pakistan in record time. Money came from the Zakat Fund. When the job was done, and kudos shared, search started for the widows. They were there, but refused to come forward and said ‘housing’ was not their priority. They were happy living in the community with social linkages. Finally, all the newly-built houses were abandoned, causing a huge loss to the exchequer. This scheme was followed by 3 and 5-marla schemes, Nawaz Sharif’s low-cost flats projects, and finally the stillborn ‘Ashiana’ scheme launched by Shahbaz Sharif in 2013. The result was the same in all these cases.
A critical examination of the factors which were responsible for the failure of these mega projects would show that unless the target groups are clearly identified, their affordability level taken into consideration, and the designed projects are compatible with their sociology and economics, the desired results can’t be achieved. Housing for the low-income is not merely brick and motor. It is social engineering as well. Its design and implementation, therefore, can’t be left to developers, builders and financiers.
Can we assume that by now the premier has been explained that:
there is no doubt that there is acute shortage of affordable housing for 65 percent urban population, but on the other hand, there is a glut (call it over supply) of housing for the middle and higher income groups,
because of flawed policies, lax implementation and collusion of all powerful groups, a strange situation has emerged: about 35-40% urban population in Pakistan lives in katchiabadis, but on the other hand, over a million plots in public/private housing schemes, and cooperative housing societies are lying vacant. In addition, in Karachi alone over 50,000 flats remain unoccupied, for one reason or the other, and
the main reason for shortage of affordable housing is speculative market where land is not treated as a social good, but has become a tradeable commodity.
If the prime minister is serious in addressing the issue of homelessness, he should ask his advisors to visit katchiabadis in Sindh, and informal settlements in Punjab and KPK to study this phenomenon. If they have an open mind they would soon understand that what the shelterless people need is a small piece of land at affordable price, or on easy installments. They don’t want it for free. They have the capacity and willingness to pay for it. Since the formal sector fails to fulfill their need, they become part of the sprawling ‘informal’ sector.
Once they acquire a plot through ‘dalals’ or middlemen, they construct the house themselves without any housing loan or government support. Infrastructure like piped water, electricity, proper sewerage system come incrementally which is partly paid by them.
If his advisors understand and accept this process, the government’s job would become easier. Next step would be to divide the urban population in four groups:
First group would consist of people who already live in katchiabadis and slums. Regularisation and upgradation is a state policy since long. The government should fast track it. This is basically a self-financing process as has been shown by Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority. Improved rules and regulation for regularisation of informal sub-division of private agricultural land can be made to facilitate the low-income people in Punjab and KPK.
Existence of katchiabadis is not liked by the urban middle classes, but for planners what is important to learn is the process of targeting, ease of entry, flexibility in planning, and incrementality which the informal sector demonstrates.
What is needed is that this process should be replicated by the public sector organisations by launching ‘incremental housing development’ schemes on state land in each district-headquarters. For this purpose small plots should be given to the needy and shelterless families with strict condition of their utilisation in specific time and non-transferability for five years. These schemes will take care of the 20 percent population whose monthly household income is around Rs20,000.
Third group which is about 40 percent of our urban population can be called low-middle income. Its monthly household income is around Rs50,000. They need a special package in which they need a small piece of land as well as a housing loan. If a 80 sq. yd. plot at affordable price or easy installments, and a 20-year subsidized loan of a million rupees, can be given to these people, a two-room house can be built at the total cost of Rs1.5 million. They can make a monthly repayment of Rs10000 conveniently.
Fourth group which needs government help, consists of those hundred of thousands people who have booked plots/flats in public and private housing schemes, but are waiting to get possession for the last 30 years or more. Housing backlog would reduce drastically if arrangements can be made by provincial governments and development authorities to ensure that the possession of these plots is handed over to the applicants in a given time.
What has been suggested above is doable. Huge sum of money won’t be required for this purpose. What is needed is a revolving fund for purchase of land, and availability of housing loans from all commercial banks through simplified procedures. Before doing that it would be necessary that foreclosure laws, like western countries, are enforced for easy recovery of loans.
The writer is a social scientist ([email protected])