ndia's Rural Poor: Why Housing Isn't Enough to Create Sustainable Communities

Published: August 23, 2007 in India Knowledge@Wharton

India's desire to become the world's next big economic power is as real as the enormous challenges it faces in raising the social and economic well being of its rural populations. According to Abraham George, founder of The George Foundation, an NGO focused on poverty alleviation in South India, "The issue of adequate housing is integral to poverty reduction and social justice" in India. In this opinion piece, George describes the living conditions of the rural poor and argues that government resettlement programs are inefficient and perpetuate caste-driven schisms. Instead of simply supplying shelter for the inhabitants of rural villages, he says, these programs need to work towards a larger goal of building "healthy and sustainable communities." Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted as having said, "India lives in the villages." That statement is as true today as it was more than 60 years ago. Nearly 70% of India's 1.1 billion-plus population still lives in 600,000 or so villages. If India is to be truly understood, it is the lives of these people that really count. Most "outsiders" or urbanites have a nostalgic view of rural India. They think of villages as peaceful havens where people live simple lives, where the air is pure and the land is green as far as the eye can see. Some of those images are indeed true, but the realities of day-today life for a great majority of rural people are nothing short of cruel. A living story of economic deprivation, social injustice and hopelessness has prevailed for centuries. The real story of rural India must be told with more than five hundred million characters who live on less than a dollar a day, most of them in terrible living conditions. Statistics Mask Reality Many of the rural poor work the fields in agriculture and are employed by the few landowners who reside in their villages. Several others pursue caste-associated occupations -- priests, carpenters, blacksmiths, barbers, weavers, potters, oil-pressers, leatherworkers, sweepers and so on. Lately, with increased economic activity in nearby towns, many commute outside their villages every day to work as drivers, construction laborers, packers and in other industrial jobs. Some migrate to cities for months, leaving their families behind. But despite the increasing demand in cities for labor met by rural migration, and the income generated by such employment, the living conditions for most rural people remain far from what can be called "acceptable." According to the Indian government and the World Bank, less than 30% of the nation is poor, and 70% of the poor (225 million) live in the villages. These official statistics are based on a per capita consumption expenditure of Rs. 356 ($8.70) per month, or Rs. 11.70 ($0.28) per day. This low yardstick grossly undercounts the number of poor people in rural India, and certainly does not reflect the living conditions for most of them. For example, The George Foundation's recent survey of nine villages in Hosur Taluk in Tamil Nadu state showed that more than 80% of the people live on a daily income of less than one dollar, the internationally accepted definition for poverty. Given the proximity of the

surveyed villages to the rapidly growing city of Bangalore.or density -. several independent studies have shown that less than 20% of the rural population can read or write beyond their own names. consider the following: The rural economic growth rate has been stagnant -. While government statistics on national literacy have steadily improved for years. one has to wonder what meaningful progress has been achieved in many important areas. there is no escaping the difficulties resulting from poverty. India has made significant progress in recent years. yet most of them are either dysfunctional or do not regularly provide even the minimal level of basic health care.for each person in a house. Nor are there any published statistics on the average space available -. this estimate reflects a more prosperous picture than what is true for most of rural India. The government has built a vast system of more than 170. especially since liberalization measures were introduced in 1991. Without the security and comfort of a home. and the adult literacy rate is 61% as compared to 50%. all during the same period. this statistic is far higher for rural children. regardless of their income levels. much better than the less than 4% experienced during the 1990s. but these statistics mask many realities that paint a far poorer picture of the country. and an even smaller percentage can do simple arithmetic.000 primary health centers and sub-centers throughout the country. Development of countries is often judged by certain economic and social statistics compiled by national governments and major international agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations.4% per year. This marginal expansion barely keeps up with the 1. especially in rural India. the GDP growth rate now stands at 9. For example.at around 2% to 2. Housing is one of the top priorities for most people. Life expectancy at birth has now improved to 64 years from 56 years 20 years ago. There is no arguing that there has been improvement. especially among the rural population.75% annual increase in rural population. By these aggregate measures. For example. Though primary school enrollment is exceptionally good.above food. infant mortality has fallen to 5.6% from 8. and more are added each year. and less than 10% among them graduate from high school. .1%. Given these and other realities. In my interviews with many poor village women. thus offering very little improvement in income and living standards for most people in the villages. mainly because of the weak performance of the agricultural sector. practically everyone listed housing as their most important need -. More than half of all children in the country under the age of four suffer from malnutrition.5% a year -. Our foundation's survey of 17 villages in Hosur Taluk showed that less than 15% of the "lower caste" people who comprise over 70% of the population could write the number corresponding to their age. primary school attendance has risen to 74% from 65%. the education students receive in most rural schools is unacceptably bad. health care and education for their children. Rural Living Conditions National indicators regularly published by governments and international agencies do not include any statistics on the living conditions as exemplified by the type of housing available.during the past decade.

Poor sanitation and hygiene. Cooking is usually done inside the house under inadequate ventilation with biomass such as dried cow-dung. Poverty levels measured by monetary expenditures toward food do not adequately capture the quality of life that is greatly affected by the type of available housing. children cannot study in a poorly lit house. Most villages have an open well or a bore-well. Profile of a Rural Village A typical Indian village has a resident population of around one thousand. Eighty-seven percent of homes in the villages do not have toilet facilities. which is usually set aside for those same upper castes.a basic necessity for all that cannot be denied in a fair and equitable society. and separate times are set for upper and lower castes to fetch water.Poor people do not have the financial means to buy or construct houses with their savings. clogged and infested with mosquitoes." "Backward Classes" and . it is usually on the floor in the corner of a room. Landlords have their ancestral homes consisting of several rooms. symptomatic of what finally leads to chronic illnesses. It is interrelated with other aspects of life such as health and education. in another section of the village or elsewhere. while the remaining live in kaccha (weak) and semi-pucca houses with mud walls and thatched roofs. the following description might be representative of a vast majority. sometimes separated by a half-wall. Most villages are small and dense. The 2001 Indian Census estimated that 40% of rural houses do not have separate kitchens. Open drainage usually runs along those lanes." homes are usually placed close to each other -. inadequate ventilation and smoke inhalation are all associated aspects of poor housing that affect health and social development. Most villages have both lower and upper castes living in separate sections. one of which is set aside for storing grain and supplies. Coughing and spitting are the resulting outcome. only 19% of the rural population lives in pucca (strong) houses. dry weeds or crop residue. with huts on either side of narrow lanes.four to five feet apart -. dust mites. exacerbating the risk of tuberculosis. Adequate housing is considered by many to be a fundamental human right regardless of income level -. but occupants usually prefer to remain inside. concluded in 2000 by the Indian government. People belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) are required to live in an area designated for them. animal waste and several environmental factors related to bad housing conditions. Smoke fills the entire house during cooking. or government-supplied houses. While the layout of one village is different from another. those rented from landlords (with ensuing obligations). When cooking is done inside the house. "Lower castes" worship at a separate temple. Respiratory disorders among rural population in India are often the result of unfavorable housing and poor living conditions. For example. and therefore they live in their ancestral huts. According to the National Family Health Survey. Except for those belonging to "upper castes. Often. a small decorated room with an idol. Those belonging to "Most Backward Classes. prominent families of the upper castes live next to a courtyard and a temple. Asthma and bronchitis are caused by pollen grains.especially when the government builds housing for the poor. fire wood.

Huts are very small in size. the government sets up housing colonies exclusively for Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Larger villages might have a school. roofs are thatched and the floors are covered with a mud and cow-dung paste that serves as a disinfectant. doors are broken or absent. In many instances. but they are not sufficient to permit cross ventilation or cooking smoke to escape freely. More often than not.only slightly more space than a full-size bed. The average number of people per dwelling was 4. ft. Hence. and farms are generally outside on adjacent land owned by landlords or a small number of people who might have been allocated government land for cultivation. There are no vegetable or flower gardens in the village. Huts are usually constructed from mud blocks. None of the lower caste residents has the financial . At least a third of all houses included in the survey required major repairs for leaky roofs. Our foundation recently completed a field survey of two panchayats consisting of nine villages in Hosur Taluk with 986 huts and houses for a total population of 4.as they are officially categorized -. usually separated by a few kilometers. Government-supplied houses are around 190 sq. Paved or unpaved narrow roads connect one village to another. it ensures this caste separation. Those who have domestic animals such as cows or goats usually keep them inside their houses during the night. in floor area which works out to 38 sq. often without windows. but in some cases a half-wall may be built to separate out the kitchen. of floor space per person -. the floor is cement. most people prefer to go into a wooded section or elsewhere in the village or nearby field where there is privacy. these toilets do not function nor are they maintained. but they do not mix with even lower castes. cracks in walls and damaged doors. and the roof is made of concrete or asbestos. Every house has two small windows. A Typical Rural House The rural poor live in huts and government-supplied "houses" that are no more than 150200 sq. Usually there is only one room in the house. ft. Houses supplied by the government are constructed with cement blocks or bricks. These towns have many shops that cater to the daily needs of people living in the villages nearby. and hence. ft. but common toilets are made available at some distance at one corner of the village for several families to share. a panchayat (local governing body) office and a small gathering room for meetings. When the government builds homes for lower castes. in floor area. One paved road (often not well maintained) connects several villages to a rural town nearby where the government has set up a primary health center to serve 25. selling sweets and small household supplies. an entire new village might consist of families belonging to only those castes. and there is limited or no access to water close by. A somewhat leveled area might serve as a playground for children. and a narrow opening serves as the entrance.usually live in the same area where "Other Classes (Upper Castes)" live. One or two huts might also serve as a shop-cum-residence."Other Backward Classes" -.9.000 people or more. These houses do not have their own toilets.850 residents.

The average floor space of 38 sq. Further. focusing on offering shelter as opposed to improving living conditions. creates a very unhealthy and uncomfortable indoor environment. they are simply too dense or congested. the housing program for the poor is failing for a number of reasons. NGOs have to rely on donor funds that are hard to come by. the entire house is turned into a smoke stack not suited for human habitation. Social entrepreneurs who expect a certain return on their investment are focusing on lower-middle-class customers who are able to repay a mortgage or pay adequate rental. Such intervention is expensive for the beneficiary because it invites kickbacks. adding to the need for substantial home improvement. commissions and bribes.means to spend money on house repairs. several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social entrepreneurship ventures have also entered the arena. The state allocates houses to families belonging to scheduled and depressed castes based on their economic status. not including the space taken by cattle. and executed without sufficient thought about many inter-related considerations. A Failing Housing Program Despite the allocation of considerable funds by central and state governments.125) toward construction. 45. The absence of an adjacent toilet with each house is inconsistent with any reasonable concept of meeting minimum human needs. and for construction of the dwelling. The government offers different financial schemes through banks that permit families to borrow money at zero to low interest rates (10% to 12%) for purchasing or developing land. and consequently. It also offers grants of up to Rs. for example. residents are required to pay a small tax to the panchayat. ft per individual. The focus on offering houses as "shelters" has motivated the government to look for cheap construction without offering even basic necessities. While the government is the main promoter of housing schemes. 45. However.000 ($250) for renovation of an existing house. 10.000 (about $1. anyone officially classified as "poor" is eligible for a government grant of up to Rs. many homes were built without considering the size of the family or its likely new members. the total supply of new housing is far short of the 100 million units that are needed at the very least. Unless . if the goal is to offer adequate housing for every poor family. For the most part. government-built houses are usually substandard because of poor workmanship and use of defective materials. While government-built houses are provided free of cost. Currently. The plan is ill-conceived. The Tamil Nadu government estimates that a typical house for the poor costs around Rs. Most poor people do not have the ability to apply for these benefits without the assistance of middlemen or the direct intervention of government officials. Further.000 to build. provided that the applicant owns suitable land for the house. Bad construction and poor maintenance are causing the breakdown of houses that were built some time ago. and therefore their contribution has not been significant. Without a small separate kitchen and adequate cross ventilation. these investors have not found a suitable financial arrangement to offer housing to those who cannot pay the high interest rates (ranging from 18% to 36%) that are usually charged.

That might imply a departure from a caste-based approach to assistance based on income levels. those belonging to higher castes should not be denied assistance if they deserve it for reasons of low income. While a great majority of the poor belong to lower castes at the present time. a better strategy might be to develop new communities at another location close by. Mixed-income housing programs have been successfully implemented in countries like the U. Instead of replacing huts with cemented houses at the same location. nor will it contribute to social justice. donors. In arriving at a new strategy for housing. . as well as fruit and vegetable gardens and small shops. The approach must shift from the current focus on offering shelter to developing healthy and integrated communities. the government is well advised to reconsider its approach to the problem. to bring about integration across race and class. Focus on Community The housing program as currently implemented will hardly improve the living standards of the poor. planners must not lose sight of other.existing houses are extended to include a separate kitchen with proper ventilation and a small toilet. These new developments may incorporate facilities for sharing water. This will also permit upward mobility for lower caste families who are able to afford better and bigger homes. Additionally. However. the government has created a number of identical structures in new areas. When resources are shared instead of wasted. and what it actually practices." It is hard to reconcile the government's official position concerning discrimination and human rights. investors and financial institutions can pave the way for financial solutions that make it possible for beneficiaries to carry some of the burden. sewage processing and bio-gas production.S. Only then would it be possible to bring about social integration between different castes. houses being built by the government for the "scheduled castes" ensure this separation. Before more funds are expended toward public housing. Further. and therefore would be eligible for assistance under this approach. and everyone lives in healthy conditions. Community development will certainly call for larger initial investment than what is required for building shelters. they cannot be considered "livable" dwellings. It is possible to recover some of the additional costs associated with community development through innovative financing schemes that require extended repayments by beneficiaries commensurate with their increasing income levels. and India should not shy away from taking similar approaches to achieving social equality among all its citizens. interrelated goals such as offering basic amenities. effectively creating "scheduled caste colonies. government housing perpetuates the centuries-old practice of separation of residences based on caste. preventing diseases and assuring social integration. the long-term benefits associated with creating healthy and sustainable communities are likely to be far greater than the short term savings from building low-cost housing. Instead of trying to break down this discriminatory practice. That would offer considerable flexibility in properly laying out the entire housing complex. An appropriate partnership between government. overall productivity will increase considerably.

It must not be viewed in isolation.The issue of adequate housing is integral to poverty reduction and social justice. building strong human foundations through education and health care. In India we have large business houses. should make every big company commit to this national cause of providing low-cost housing to their fellow men. not only now. both Indian and MNCs.2010 .S. who conduct very large scale business for profits but never spend even a rupee for social development.Sollutions Sent: 08:15 AM Sun Mar. Even companies indulged in construction. Here's what you think. the real solution lies in good public governance. By: Rammohan Potturi..07. Total Comments: 1 #1 Rural Housing India lives in its villages. but for generations to come it will be the same.. providing a decent home to each and every family living in the village or at least a scope to own a home. S.AU . creating economic opportunity. In all these issues. infrastructure. through legislation in Parliament and also endorsement in the states. What lacks in our country is a strong working plan supported by conviction. and ensuring social justice for all. The Governemnt of India. A clear rule has to be passed wherein each of these big companies shares the national housing programs' budget along with the government and fund a portion of the work. This is the only way to address this huge social problem. do not spend a rupee for low-cost housing development programs. Only then would they be allowed to do other businesses for profit. but as part of an effort to develop harmonious and healthy communities.