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“Housing Is Not Just A Technical Issue, It Is A Social Issue As Well”

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This talk titled “Housing in India: What Happens Next?” was organized by IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute as a part of the series #LocalGovernance on 8th June 2021.

It was kickstarted by Mr. Romi Khosla, Director at Romi Khosla Design Studios, who is a distinguished architect noted for his large educational and recreational complexes. His work has been featured in architectural books of Nepal. He has also been appointed as a Principal Consultant to UNDP, UNOPS, UNESCO and WTO, where he has carried out extensive Urban Planning and revitalisation and Tourism Planning missions to the Balkans, Cyprus, Central Asia and Tibet.

Romi Khosla

Mr Romi pointed out at the persistent division of our society on the basis of religion, ethnicity and caste, highlighting that the only way to reunite our country now is to have a national programme for Universal Social Security which guarantees shelter, health, education and employment.

Housing constitutes one of the major pillars which is required to put this country together again as it provides shelter and dignity to a family. Our community cannot be rebuilt with the current housing situation in the country. As per the last census, 70% of our houses are single roomed or two roomed, in dilapidated situations where families of about 6-7 people try to survive.

Mr. Romi further suggested 3 steps to reverse this trend. Firstly, housing is a human problem rather than an economic problem. We need to develop a Human Suffering Index as none of the indices at present look at the suffering aspect of the families.

After becoming aware of the level of suffering, we need to decentralize the government and relocate the responsibilities for providing housing facilities through local government bodies- Panchayats, Blocks and Municipalities. Moreover, each such local body should prepare a report card on the status of each family within its jurisdiction by documenting the quality of housing.

We need to rebuild this country from each family upwards and not from the Centre downwards.

There is a need not only for new houses but also addition to houses. Mr. Romi explained the 5 important components of a house – Structure which makes it stable, Roof which provides protection from rain, Walls which provide protection from temperature, Flooring and Openings, and doors and windows.

He suggests that the first component i.e., structure, should be taken out of the acquisition of a local government body. The roofs, walls, flooring, openings can all be done with local material, using the skills of the craftsmen to generate employment.

The construction of the safe load bearing structure or skeleton structure can avoid reinforced concrete (RC). RC is a very scientifically precise material and there is no way to control it in far and distant part. So Mr. Romi suggested that the country can mass produce bolted standard steel frame systems which get covered by locally made walls and roofs.

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To tackle the immense scale of the housing shortage quickly, standard steel bolted members can be made available for the entire country to construct new structures or extensions regardless of the region. When the regional craftsmen and building structures cover the structure which is now safe, then there will be an enormous interaction between the community, house, building and a tremendous variety and diversity will come out which is part of our architectural heritage for each region.

Access to funding mechanisms is simple as mass-produced steel housing is given as a part of universal social security by the government. It represents about 25-30% of the cost of a house. The rest is worked out by local government level funding, mortgaging, loans etc. with the beneficiaries.  Once the skeleton steel mechanism has been erected at the site on a safe structure, then the other components can be made as per the requirement of the beneficiary.

Moreover, there is a requirement of a new kind of volunteer service to be set up. Architects, civil engineers, mechanical engineers who graduate should be made to join a housing security service for two years and to work to help implement this project with the local authorities as a prerequisite for qualifying their degrees.

Mr. Romi concluded by highlighting that the country is in an emergency where we need to provide pre-engineered housing frames delivered to every far corner of the country. There is a need to have homes in every family which is about 30 crore families in India. Urgent housing support is needed for two crore families. The government needs to face the fact that about 4 crore people require basic education and reunite this country by getting in touch with our families.

As Mr. Romi wrapped up his insights and suggestions, the floor was opened for questions and discussions where members shared important thoughts and observations, which nuanced the discussion. The moderator, Mr Tikendar Singh Panwar, mentioning that there was a different context in which housing was desired when we started building this nation, asked about the need to have a different model now, which talks about relocation and decentralization.

Mr. Romi stated that the Nehruvian model was based on a mistaken notion of heavy industrialization implying progress. However, 95% of our labor force is self-employed (2020). So, our nature of industrialization merits a relook and re-examination. Mr. Panwar further said that contrary to our master plans which keep land use in focus, here, even basic structure and design is being emphasized.

When he thus asked about the post-modernism’s criticism to this imposed house design, Mr. Romi argued that he believed erecting a frame and putting a roof on it would make the family put that house together in much shorter time. Finally, Mr. Panwar asked about Mr. Romi’s work in Leh and Ladakh and the significance of factoring in local design needs, to which he replied that Leh has a very viable and environmentally sound construction technology.

Access to funding mechanisms is simple as mass-produced steel housing is given as a part of universal social security by the government. Representational image.

Lately, concrete slabs have become a matter of prestige, so concrete houses are a signal that the owner has purchased something from outside Leh. But since the local communities are not in control of their environment and of their building, misuse takes place.

Questions were also invited from the audience. When asked about the need to have eco-friendly structures against the climate crisis backdrop, he explained that the ‘eco-friendly’ category came with a set of norms decided by a specific body, at the global level as well.

Aligning with those guidelines is important, but it is also imperative to note that such guidelines in the international forum have emerged in the West and suit their geography different from  ours. Hence, region-specific guidelines are extremely essential.

Another question came up on Ladakh, seeking answer to traditional way of construction vs. cemented metal structure. Mr. Romi articulated that the house must be energy efficient in terms of electricity use and generation, which is important instead of fixing upon a singular pattern or design.

Dr. Arjun asked about the architect community being a wide one in India and what could be hindering them from taking housing issues head-on, while also communicating with the government at all levels. Mr.Romi answered that solving the issue needs to begin at the very ground level, like primary health centers are giving vaccination.

Panchayats and municipalities must provide housing. This is the scale that needs to be dealt with. Housing is not a technical issue; it is a social issue and it cannot be solved technically. Dr. Arjun also discussed the extensive gestation period in housing and the issue of gestation, of land and compliance norms. Here Mr. Romi emphasized on the need for the Central government to fulfil local requirements, materially or financially, so that work does not stop.

Housing is not a technical issue; it is a social issue and it cannot be solved technically. 

Mr. Romi was also asked if planning excludes poor people because everywhere the slums have lower levels of housing structure, and how should city planning incorporate this. He said that the country on a larger level continues to ignore them, even though things seem to happen on the surface. The poor are only paid attention when it is profitable enough, even in city planning.

Besides, there have been very large ideal housing solutions for the poor, but they have been built across the country only as examples, as models. One problem is, they get located where there is no employment. So, they either sell the house or rent it and rush back to where the employment is. Thus, housing needs to be connected to Health, Employment and Education.

On a concluding note, Dr. Arjun talked about Affordable Renting Housing Complexes (ARHC’s) launched by the Indian government for developing housing complexes for migrant workers and the issues regarding lack of public-private partnership to which Mr. Romi emphasized on the importance of PPP but at the same time, he equally emphasized on the different local forms it will take and the ability to diversify the approach to housing problem from region to region.

Moreover, despite the right to equality, right to life and right to education embedded in our constitution, Mr. Romi pointed out the loopholes in our constitution which does not hold the government accountable if it does not provide its people shelter, education and health facilities unlike Scandinavian countries where the relationship between the community and government is of very high order and people can take their government to court if they are not providing them what they say they should provide. The whole reason behind the lack of progress in reduction of poverty in India is because there is no responsibility.

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