The role of the state has historically changed from being a provider to a facilitator

August 16, 2015

Dr Noman Ahmed, chairperson, Department of Architecture and Planning at NED University, Karachi, points out absence of a comprehensive housing policy and focuses on possible solutions

The role of the state has historically changed from being a provider to a facilitator

The News on Sunday (TNS): Every time there is an issue with katchi abadis and their eviction, like in the case of Afghan Basti in I-11, the discussion boils down to low-cost housing solution, its unavailability and the state’s apathy. How will this low-cost housing idea materialise and can NGOs and private sector do it alone without the government support?

Noman Ahmed (NA): The unfortunate evictions in the so-called Afghan Basti in I-11 in Islamabad refer to the fact that state institutions, including city authorities, do not consider provision of housing to urban poor as an important matter. The social dislocation to major cities is increasing fast. A majority of this new category of residents belong to the lowest economic strata of society. The direct and indirect impact of state policies has reduced the chances of housing access for this cross section to an alarming extent.

The studies and research outputs have informed that the role of the state has historically changed from being a provider to a facilitator. Relevant state institutions need to create enabling environment to let the formal and informal private sector actors align to policy and programmes developed by the government. The innovative ideas of incremental housing scheme by Mr Tasneem Siddiqui, which has won accolades and scientifically proven worthy of mass implementation even in the National Housing Policy, is a case in point. A comprehensive housing strategy can be prepared based on this approach to make genuine urban poor by scaling up the tried and tested models, such as Khuda ki Basti approach to ensure guaranteed access of housing to the needy.

TNS: How do you look at the National Housing Policy of 2001? Tell us what was right and wrong about that policy and how far has it been implemented? Has there been a review of that policy by successive governments?

NA: It will be useful to shed some light on the overall retrospect of housing policy matters in the recent past. Since 1999, various annual plans prepared to date by the Planning Commission have marginally addressed housing. Most of these attempts have completely missed out the core issues. Public investments, through Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) showed a decline from 8.32 per cent in 1999-2000 to 3.96 per cent in 2004-2005. Token emphasis has remained on stereo-typical subsectors.

Provision of urban residential plots (3-5) marlas to minimal deserving households; urban water supply, drainage and sewerage schemes in a few settlements; government servants housing and slum/katchi abadis improvement in a few locations and development of federal capital territory of Islamabad were some of the isolated attempts. At best, they may have served the departmental objectives. Such attempts hardly coincided with the enormity of the housing needs across the country. A facilitating mechanism could hardly be created for benefiting the under privileged sections of the society that comprise around 40 per cent of the population. National Housing Policy of 2001 was also no exception.

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Many drastic steps need to be taken pertinent to housing. Housing policy should be integrated with the larger social policies. Technical and physical aspects of housing should be rationally blended with the socio-economic conditions of the concerned communities. Target -oriented information campaigns should be designed to reach the urban poor in ways and means congruent to their habitat. Flexible terms and conditions should be devised to match the socio-economic status of the poor. Support mechanisms must be created for design, scheduling, construction and management of housing. Pilot projects should be developed for demonstration. Public sector should restrict itself to regulatory role.

Formal (and informal) private sector should be encouraged to play their implementing role within the regulatory framework. Main policies may be made at the upper tiers. Execution must be managed locally. It must be remembered that for achieving a happy and settled society, housing provision is a prime pre-requisite which needs to be addressed on top priority basis.

TNS: In your article on Sept 04, 2014, "Housing Challenges" you have quoted the Planning Commission of Pakistan as saying that by 2030, about half of the population shall be living in cities and other urban settlements. Rural to urban migration through the decades must have to do with the increased demand of housing units? How can this issue be addressed?

NA: Indeed, increased urbanisation is a serious issue that needs greater response, especially by the federal and provincial governments. The urban centres face the problem of squatter and unplanned settlements as an acute issue. These settlements have been evolving ever since independence due to inadequate state response to the need of housing for the poor. As state land was abundant in several cities, many katchi abadis sprang up on these loosely guarded territories. The land owners of peri-urban locations also contributed in the promotion of katchi abadis for their own benefits.

With the passage of time, the options of any affordable housing for the real poor have simply vanished due to several reasons. Burgeoning land prices, high construction costs, very low savings/capital accumulation among the needy groups and absence of housing credit options are few reasons.

It is a well-known fact that in-migration to Karachi from various disadvantaged regions is still continuing at a very high pace. Much of this population is absorbed in the confines of existing katchi abadies. According to one interpretation, katchi abadis can be called as shock absorbers for the city because there would have been mass scale riots if the low-income groups had an absolute denial of housing options. And uneven settlements, poor governance, and frequent absence of elected local governments give rise to social conflicts, crime and violence. Many medium and large-sized cities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh experience this problem at an expanding scale.

A few basic measures need to be adopted on priority. A credible and stable local government structure should be revived to enable urban dwellers and other citizens the capacity to manage municipal affairs. Credit towards access of land by the needy and poor must be ensured to enable them to acquire land for effective and equitable utilisation. Effective checks must be applied to the snow-balling rise in real estate development. Appropriate changes must be introduced in the zoning and building regulations to promote mixed land use in an effective manner. The old principle of cross subsidy must be re-introduced where land and housing prices for poor may be partially subsidised by the levies on real estate enterprises.

TNS: Is housing essentially an urban phenomenon?

NA: No. The issue of housing is perhaps equally grave in the rural locations also. The breakdown of old social order, replacement of barter economy with an intense cash dependent economy, swift flows of remittances from the Gulf states into rural households, deprivation of livelihoods sizable workforce due to security and other reasons and recurring disasters in the form of earthquakes and floods have made the rural housing scenario very complex. There is a need to study the above dynamics and respond to the emanating needs on a priority basis. The various rural support programmes in the provinces may consider taking scientific feedback on rural housing to evolve appropriate strategies.

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TNS: The crucial need for low-cost housing is pitched against land speculation making the idea of a house seem like a distant dream. Do we need any strict regulation by the government to rationalise this sector?

NA: Land is perceived as a tradable commodity as we tend to forget that it is a finite asset. To bring unfettered speculation on land, some crucial steps are important. One, a list of state-owned land parcels and reserves must be prepared and published for public benefit. This shall be greatly useful in stemming the surreptitious disposing of state lands by the officials, and even policy makers. Two, an efficient land information system must be created and made accessible to public. Such a system acts as a multi-faceted data base and information repository which is continuously adjusted according to periodical changes in the land development status.

Three, the provincial legislatures must reconsider to promulgate a revised piece of law to streamline the disposal of urban lands. Without a guiding legal framework, little benefit can be expected from the other actions and initiatives. And four, the sales, changes in usage and state of urban lands must conform to a development plan for the urban and regional locations. Without a valid city plan, the haywire happenings, such as land scams shall continue to haunt the cities during times to come.

TNS: What are the successful models of low-cost housing created by the non-government and private sector that should have been emulated by the government?

NA: In the context of Pakistan, the incremental housing approach, discussed above is vital. We need new innovations at the pilot scale to test ideas and options for large-scale applications in the various urban locations in the country.

TNS: Considering the shortfall of nine million housing units and other constraints like no census since 1998, how can we creatively tackle the issue of housing?

NA: It is a tough issue but can be addressed. Accurate assessment of shortfall in various locations, creation of supporting tools, such as housing information systems (initially at the provincial and then at the district level), capacity-building of local governments, regulating speculation on land and introducing strict taxation regime on idle privately owned land and property can bring about positive changes.

The role of the state has historically changed from being a provider to a facilitator