Steps to prevent Ejipura crisis from getting worse

Anyone watching the EWS evictions in Ejipura is bound to feel heartbroken for the victims. But this is a tragedy that need not have arisen at all. We allow these problems to build up right in front of our eyes, knowing fully well that they will blow up one day. That has to stop. It is not easy, and it is requires long, dedicated attention to a STRATEGY of fixing the housing problem. There is simply no other way.

Here’s my letter to the CM today, asking him to put such a strategy in place, starting with the Budget he wants to present in February. Budgets are the places where the willingness/intentions of governments really get tested. I hope the government will do the right thing. Even if they initiate it now, it will take years for the full benefit to materialise. But that is why statesmanship is important in politics – at least some people have to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing.

Recent events in Ejipura, Bangalore, where residential quarters of those from the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) were demolished, are grave symptoms of an underlying problem: the acute shortage of affordable housing in the city and state.

According to a Report of the Technical Group (11th Five Year Plan 2007-12) on Estimation of Urban Housing Shortage, Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, 99.9% of the housing shortage in the country is for the EWS. The result of such acute shortage is the growth of slums, where families live without access to basic amenities such as clean drinking water, sewerage systems, and power supply.

There are several reasons for the shortage in affordable housing. These include:

(a) Scarcity of affordable land
(b) Lengthy conversion and approvals process for land use
(c) High costs arising from rising material and construction prices
(d) Lack of access to housing finance for low-income groups
(e) Lack of clear property titles 
(f) Asymmetries of market information in housing sector, that can be exploited by intermediaries 
(g) Opaque building bye-laws

The following steps need to be taken immediately to ensure that the situation does not worsen, and I urge your attention to these.

1. Allocate Rs 300 crores for affordable housing in Bangalore in the upcoming budget, and a proportionate sum for similar efforts in Mysore, Mangalore and Hubli-Dharwad as well.

2. Set a targer of constructing at least 1000 new houses per million of urban population each year. This effort needs to be undertaken ward-wise, i.e. at least 50 houses per ward in Bangalore, and similarly in other cities. The land for the above housing must be specifically designated as housing for Economically Weaker Sections only, to ensure that the land is not later misused for other purposes.

3. A system of housing credits needs to be instituted, so that rather than housing being constructed and given away, housing credits can be given to enable the residents make the best choices for themselves and their families. This is because in many cases, the houses provided are either not to the liking of the residents, or are constructed in areas far away from their places of work.

4. Re-zone the agricultural land around the cities to permit low-income housing. In any event, farmers near the cities are no longer cultivating crops, and are only waiting for the ever-growing urban agglomerations to reach their properties, at which time the land becomes useable for housing, anyway. It would be better, therefore, to let that happen now, but only for low-income housing. This would create access to land for EWS without exposing them to competition from wealthier buyers.

In this context, it must be pointed out that the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) has been providing subsidised housing to the middle and upper classes for decades now, via several schemes in which property acquired from farmers is offered to urban buyers at prices well below market rates. In effect, the subsidy is provided to those who do not really need it, whereas those more deserving are forced to manage on their own, often resulting in preventable encroachments.

To ensure that this vicious cycle does not continue, there is an urgent need for the government to intervene in a lasting and meaningful way. I request your support to ensure that the government takes up the matter on an urgent basis, to ensure that we do not have to witness heart-rending scenes similar to the ones in Ejipura again. I, and many others working for the welfare of the city and citizens would be happy to assist in such an effort, if you so desire.

With respectful regards, Ashwin Mahesh

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