India’s Hostile, Anti-Poor Urban Housing Sector Laid the Foundation for the Khori Gaon Crisis

In the late ’70s, both my grandfathers – paternal and maternal – bought small parcels of land in two distinct peri-urban neighbourhoods of Delhi. Over the following decade, they slowly built something resembling a house incrementally. One room was added one summer, while a bathroom was constructed another winter.

Such were the pre-liberalisation days when the cost of construction was at least four times the cost of land, so people like my grandparents could buy a piece of land in one shot but had to save up for a few years to build a house. It is important to note here that both my grandfathers came from landless families, started their careers as blue-collared employees in the public sector and raised four children each.

In more than 40 years since, the cost of land and housing – especially urban areas – has risen exponentially, and this rise hasn’t been in tandem with the increase in per capita income.

None of my grandparents’ children or grandchildren, despite having stable incomes from secure jobs, have been able to increase the landholdings of the family. My father was able to buy a flat in the suburbs of Gurgaon on a home loan he took more than 15 years to repay. His dream was to buy a piece of land in Delhi and build a house like his father did, but land had already become an expensive commodity in the mid-2000s by the time he was able to save some money.

I am highlighting the story of father because if he – with land inheritance and more than 30 years of working in a professional sector – couldn’t afford a piece of land in Delhi and around, what option do the vulnerable residents like those of Khori Gaon have other than to occupy the most inhabitable land on the fringes of our cities?

After India’s economy opened up in 1991 with economic liberalisation, private developers were allowed to enter the housing sector in a big way, which till then had been predominantly state-controlled with a small stake under the cooperatives. The rationale for allowing developers to build and sell housing stock was to shoulder the responsibility of housing the country’s burgeoning urban population as more and more people flocked to cities looking for jobs. However, the private developers not only failed at aiding the housing stock, they drove prices up by locking housing units into an endless cycle of buying and selling, pushing the dream of owning a house further away for most low-income families.

Even though our government continues to highlight the importance of the private sector in solving the housing crisis, a mere look at their trajectory reveals that making profits has always been their priority. According to analysis provided by the Centre for Science and Environment, in New Delhi in 2016, 95% of the housing shortage was in the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) and Low Income Group (LIG) categories. It also pegged the housing shortage in the middle and higher income groups at a meagre 4.38% – the target consumer base for most of the private developers.

Also read: ‘An Order Against the Poor’: Thousands Now Homeless After Khori Gaon Demolition

The once satellite towns of Delhi – Gurgaon, Noida, Faridabad and Ghaziabad – which have now become cities of their own and are referred to as the National Capital Region (NCR), are all lined with townships after townships promising the allure of world-class living to the aspiring middle and upper-middle class of this country. The over supply of housing to this segment has led to an increase in unsold housing stock in NCR. According to a report published by Anarock Property Consultants in 2019, NCR has about 1.82 lakh unsold housing units. This number lays bare the cruel irony of housing in Indian cities where we will soon have as many empty houses as homeless families.

The government isn’t in the dark and to its benefit, it has come up with policies to address the lack of affordable housing created by the private sector. But none have been successful in bringing about the desired outcomes – often due to the microscopic lens through which these policies are drafted without taking into account the material realities of the population in need of housing.

Let’s take the example of the policy adopted by various state governments across India that mandated developers to reserve 15-20% of dwellings under each housing project for EWS and LIG families. Earlier this year, the Department of Town and Country Planning (DTCP) of Haryana brought in a significant change to this by auctioning the reserved housing units to higher income category buyers if the Housing Board is unable to sell them to targeted beneficiaries in the first two attempts.

State governments and their housing boards are rightfully frustrated at their inability to bring EWS and LIG category buyers for their affordable housing stock. However, by opening up this stock to higher income buyers who already have a plethora of options, the government of Haryana has acted in a hasty manner, further diminishing the meagre chances poor families have at owning a house in urban areas.

Instead of putting the onus of this failure on the buyer, the government needs to make the housing ecosystem less hostile and more accessible to low income buyers – who are often unable to buy a house because they don’t have access to credit facilities. For example, people employed in the informal sector – like construction workers, domestic workers, street vendors – are very rarely able to secure home loans even when they have the income to support the monthly instalments.

Most of Khori Gaon residents are informal workers who ended up on the fringes of the Aravallis because our housing sector shunned and ignored them. They are the victims of a callous and indifferent government which left them at the mercy of a profit-hungry private sector. By failing to recognise a deeply unjust housing market that forces people to build shelters in places like Khori Gaon, the Supreme Court – in its judgement to vacate ond lakh residents without due rehabilitation – is setting a dangerous precedent of which the repercussions will be felt by vulnerable groups across the country.

Instead of blaming the residents of Khori Gaon for occupying environmentally-sensitive zones like the Aravallis and branding them as encroachers, the apex court should be enquiring upon the conditions that force people to live in such untenable and unsafe conditions. The residents of Khori Gaon are by no means vile and malicious people who set out to build their homes in the wilderness of Aravallis to destroy the environment. They are systematically marginalised people left with no viable housing options in a city which continues to ‘develop’ using their labour but doesn’t care whether they have a roof over their heads or not.

Not only should the government rehabilitate all the residents of Khori Gaon unconditionally, it needs to bring in adequate measures to fix the hostile and anti-poor housing market which has widened the housing gap instead of simply fixing the shortage.

By ordering the ruthless demolition of Khori Gaon without a proper rehabilitation plan, the Supreme Court of India has legitimised treating the poor of this country as criminals. By rendering one lakh citizens – which includes children, pregnant women and the elderly – homeless in the middle of a global pandemic and raging monsoons, the state and judiciary have acted in extreme apathy. And this apathy and indifference won’t stop with the demolitions at Khori Gaon, but would embolden authorities all across the country to treat poor residents living in informal settlements without land rights as encroachers and displace them without following any due process.

The only way to prevent this would be to bring in urgent reforms in the housing sector which has turned a shelter into an ‘investment’. The longer such reforms are delayed, more and more families will be at risk of losing their homes under the garb of conservation, beautification or whatever the state decides to call it.

Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer and activist in making. She works closely with the residents of some of the most marginalised neighbourhoods to improve their built environment.

Featured image: The police force march through the demolished section of Khori Gaon. Photo: Naomi Barton/The Wire