India’s housing for poor needs a relook amid COVID-19 pandemic

The pandemic not only triggered an unprecedented exodus of migrant workers from their host states to home states, but also exposed an ugly reality: Migrant labourers — ironically, the bulk of them work in the construction sector — live in slums and informal/unauthorised colonies that are congested, lack basic sanitation and water services, ventilation and green spaces.

Last week, the Union Cabinet approved the Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHCs) scheme, which aims to provide reasonably priced rental accommodation for migrant labourers. The Rs 600 crore-programme has a two-pronged roll-out plan: First, existing vacant government-funded housing complexes will be converted into ARHCs through concessional agreements for 25 years; and second, incentives will be offered to private and public entities to develop ARHCs on their vacant land for 25 years.

The trigger for the scheme, which is a part of the Centre’s larger affordable housing programme for the urban poor, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana — Urban (PMAY-U), is Covid-19. The pandemic not only triggered an unprecedented exodus of migrant workers from their host states to home states, but also exposed an ugly reality: Migrant labourers — ironically, the bulk of them work in the construction sector — live in slums and informal/unauthorised colonies that are congested, lack basic sanitation and water services, ventilation and green spaces. This is due to the informal nature of their employment; inability to access legally-mandated minimum wages, welfare benefits, employer-provided facilities or services, or afford formal rental accommodation, which in any case is in short supply.

The government estimates that there are 26-37 million families in urban India that live in informal housing, and they largely belong to the poorer sections. Under PMAY-U, India aims to build 20 million housing units for the poor by 2022.

The pandemic has highlighted the high social and economic costs of this gap in the safety net. People living in poor-quality, overcrowded, or unstable housing cannot follow directives on safe shelters or maintain social distancing. As a result, they are at a far greater risk of contracting the virus, along with other illnesses. There is also mounting evidence that Covid-19 could be airborne, and the lack of adequate ventilation increases the risk of transmission.

The pandemic has also shown that homes are not just living spaces, but also productive spaces. So it becomes imperative that once construction activities restart, the sector must respond to the new realities and the demands of the Covid-19-hit world. This means that homes have to be thermally comfortable (at the lowest-income level, many cannot afford air-conditioning); have natural daylight; and proper ventilation. Architects say that three principles need to be followed: Ensure window shading and ventilation; insulate the walls and roofs; and share walls between two houses. The focus on natural thermal comfort will deter buying/minimise the use of ACs, which are energy guzzlers and use high global warming potential refrigerants; and using less/reusing building material will mean less use of natural resources. Plus, cooler and comfortable homes increase productivity.

The good news is that India has a code — Eco-Niwas Samhita Part I — for residential buildings. The code, which was launched by the Bureau of Energy Efficiency in 2018, sets standards to limit heat gains (for cooling-dominated climates), limit heat loss (for heating-dominated climates), and ensure natural ventilation and daylight potential. Unfortunately, the codes are voluntary, and many states have not dovetailed them into their by-laws.

States must implement these codes in letter and spirit. It is also critical that some changes — roof insulation, improved shading — are done in the existing buildings. At a holistic level, states must invest in rainwater harvesting, solar power, decentralised waste management, and provision for multi-functional spaces in ARHCs, and opt for green rating the buildings. While costs may increase, in the long-run, these steps will not only have a positive impact on the physical and mental health of residents, and attract migrant labour, but also ensure that these structures don’t contribute further to the already raging climate and environmental crisis.

The piece was first published on July 12, 2020. The views expressed are personal. kumkum.dasgupta@htlive.com

First Published:July 13, 2020, 3:41 p.m.

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