The Naya Pakistan Housing Scheme, announced by the PTI government soon after it came to power, envisages providing new housing units in the country. With a housing shortfall of 7 to 10 million units, this is obviously good news. The subsequent announcement that those seeking houses would need to pay 20 percent of the cost themselves, however, took some of the lustre off the proclamation. Even so, it comes as good news in a country where there has been too little attention to the housing needs of people since the 1960s, and where over the last four decades housing has failed to keep pace with the rapidly growing population. Housing stock has increased 2.64 times, and population has grown threefold.
In this regard, the Punjab government’s decision to start housing schemes in Layyah, Bhakkar, and Khushab is good news. A six-member committee is to propose sites for development while a separate committee will prepare plans for the setting up of a new city near Rawalpindi. While welcoming these developments, we should however remember that successive governments have announced elaborate housing schemes. Sadly, these have failed to address the needs of people. According to the last housing survey, carried out in 1998, the majority of people in Pakistan live in poor quality, sub-standard housing. According to a Unicef study, over 50 percent of houses in the country lack toilet facilities. There is also severe overcrowding, with more than three people living in a single room compared to Unicef’s ‘tolerable’ figure of two or less.
The rising costs of land and building material make it extremely difficult for people to build houses. In shanty towns or katchi abbadis across the country, people live in houses made from unbaked bricks or other materials which are unable to withstand existing weather conditions or manmade hazards. We hope the government will keep all these factors in mind as it streamlines its housing policy. The need for housing is an acute one. There must however be an understanding inherent in policy that those who most need shelter may not be able to pay any substantial sum towards obtaining it. In addition, wider problems such as the pressure on urban centres, need to be examined while planning for the future. The reason for this urbanisation is the lack of opportunity and amenities in smaller towns and rural areas. The situation of vulnerable people, including women and children, who may need housing more urgently, also needs to be taken into consideration. Our housing policy then must address the concerns of these people while finding a way to provide low cost, safe housing to people everywhere in a country where population is unevenly distributed and where needs are diverse.