India’s Rural Poor: Why Housing Isn’t Enough to Create Sustainable Communities

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-to-day 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, this estimate reflects a more prosperous picture than what is true for most of rural India.

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. By these aggregate measures, India has made significant progress in recent years, especially since liberalization measures were introduced in 1991. For example, the GDP growth rate now stands at 9.4% per year, much better than the less than 4% experienced during the 1990s. Life expectancy at birth has now improved to 64 years from 56 years 20 years ago; infant mortality has fallen to 5.6% from 8.1%; primary school attendance has risen to 74% from 65%, and the adult literacy rate is 61% as compared to 50%, all during the same period.

There is no arguing that there has been improvement, but these statistics mask many realities that paint a far poorer picture of the country, especially in rural India. For example, consider the following: The rural economic growth rate has been stagnant — at around 2% to 2.5% a year — during the past decade, mainly because of the weak performance of the agricultural sector. This marginal expansion barely keeps up with the 1.75% annual increase in rural population, thus offering very little improvement in income and living standards for most people in the villages.

More than half of all children in the country under the age of four suffer from malnutrition; this statistic is far higher for rural children. The government has built a vast system of more than 170,000 primary health centers and sub-centers throughout the country, and more are added each year, yet most of them are either dysfunctional or do not regularly provide even the minimal level of basic health care.

Though primary school enrollment is exceptionally good, the education students receive in most rural schools is unacceptably bad, and less than 10% among them graduate from high school. While government statistics on national literacy have steadily improved for years, several independent studies have shown that less than 20% of the rural population can read or write beyond their own names, and an even smaller percentage can do simple arithmetic.

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. Given these and other realities, one has to wonder what meaningful progress has been achieved in many important areas, especially among the rural population.

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. Nor are there any published statistics on the average space available — or density — for each person in a house.

Housing is one of the top priorities for most people, regardless of their income levels. In my interviews with many poor village women, practically everyone listed housing as their most important need — above food, health care and education for their children. Without the security and comfort of a home, there is no escaping the difficulties resulting from poverty. Poor people do not have the financial means to buy or construct houses with their savings, and therefore they live in their ancestral huts, those rented from landlords (with ensuing obligations), or government-supplied houses.

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. Adequate housing is considered by many to be a fundamental human right regardless of income level — a basic necessity for all that cannot be denied in a fair and equitable society. It is interrelated with other aspects of life such as health and education. For example, children cannot study in a poorly lit house. Respiratory disorders among rural population in India are often the result of unfavorable housing and poor living conditions. Asthma and bronchitis are caused by pollen grains, dust mites, animal waste and several environmental factors related to bad housing conditions. Poor sanitation and hygiene, inadequate ventilation and smoke inhalation are all associated aspects of poor housing that affect health and social development.

According to the National Family Health Survey, concluded in 2000 by the Indian government, only 19% of the rural population lives in pucca (strong) houses, while the remaining live in kaccha (weak) and semi-pucca houses with mud walls and thatched roofs. Eighty-seven percent of homes in the villages do not have toilet facilities. Cooking is usually done inside the house under inadequate ventilation with biomass such as dried cow-dung, fire wood, dry weeds or crop residue, exacerbating the risk of tuberculosis.

The 2001 Indian Census estimated that 40% of rural houses do not have separate kitchens. When cooking is done inside the house, it is usually on the floor in the corner of a room, sometimes separated by a half-wall. Smoke fills the entire house during cooking, but occupants usually prefer to remain inside. Coughing and spitting are the resulting outcome, symptomatic of what finally leads to chronic illnesses.

Profile of a Rural Village

A typical Indian village has a resident population of around one thousand. While the layout of one village is different from another, the following description might be representative of a vast majority.

Most villages are small and dense, with huts on either side of narrow lanes. Open drainage usually runs along those lanes, clogged and infested with mosquitoes. Except for those belonging to “upper castes,” homes are usually placed close to each other — four to five feet apart — especially when the government builds housing for the poor.

Landlords have their ancestral homes consisting of several rooms, one of which is set aside for storing grain and supplies. Often, prominent families of the upper castes live next to a courtyard and a temple, which is usually set aside for those same upper castes. “Lower castes” worship at a separate temple, a small decorated room with an idol, in another section of the village or elsewhere. Most villages have an open well or a bore-well, and separate times are set for upper and lower castes to fetch water.

Most villages have both lower and upper castes living in separate sections. People belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) are required to live in an area designated for them. Those belonging to “Most Backward Classes,” “Backward Classes” and “Other Backward Classes” — as they are officially categorized — usually live in the same area where “Other Classes (Upper Castes)” live, but they do not mix with even lower castes.

When the government builds homes for lower castes, it ensures this caste separation. In many instances, the government sets up housing colonies exclusively for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and hence, an entire new village might consist of families belonging to only those castes.

Larger villages might have a school, a panchayat (local governing body) office and a small gathering room for meetings. One or two huts might also serve as a shop-cum-residence, selling sweets and small household supplies. A somewhat leveled area might serve as a playground for children. There are no vegetable or flower gardens in the village, 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.

Paved or unpaved narrow roads connect one village to another, usually separated by a few kilometers. 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 25,000 people or more. These towns have many shops that cater to the daily needs of people living in the villages nearby.

A Typical Rural House

The rural poor live in huts and government-supplied “houses” that are no more than 150-200 sq. ft. in floor area. Huts are usually constructed from mud blocks, roofs are thatched and the floors are covered with a mud and cow-dung paste that serves as a disinfectant.

Houses supplied by the government are constructed with cement blocks or bricks, the floor is cement, and the roof is made of concrete or asbestos. Usually there is only one room in the house, but in some cases a half-wall may be built to separate out the kitchen.

These houses do not have their own toilets, but common toilets are made available at some distance at one corner of the village for several families to share. More often than not, these toilets do not function nor are they maintained, doors are broken or absent, and there is limited or no access to water close by. Hence, most people prefer to go into a wooded section or elsewhere in the village or nearby field where there is privacy.

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 4,850 residents. The average number of people per dwelling was 4.9. Huts are very small in size, often without windows, and a narrow opening serves as the entrance.

Government-supplied houses are around 190 sq. ft. in floor area which works out to 38 sq. ft. of floor space per person — only slightly more space than a full-size bed. Every house has two small windows, but they are not sufficient to permit cross ventilation or cooking smoke to escape freely. Those who have domestic animals such as cows or goats usually keep them inside their houses during the night.

At least a third of all houses included in the survey required major repairs for leaky roofs, cracks in walls and damaged doors. None of the lower caste residents has the financial means to spend money on house repairs. While government-built houses are provided free of cost, residents are required to pay a small tax to the panchayat.

The Tamil Nadu government estimates that a typical house for the poor costs around Rs. 45,000 to build. The state allocates houses to families belonging to scheduled and depressed castes based on their economic status. However, anyone officially classified as “poor” is eligible for a government grant of up to Rs. 45,000 (about $1,125) toward construction, provided that the applicant owns suitable land for the house. 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 for construction of the dwelling. It also offers grants of up to Rs. 10,000 ($250) for renovation of an existing house.

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. Such intervention is expensive for the beneficiary because it invites kickbacks, commissions and bribes. Further, government-built houses are usually substandard because of poor workmanship and use of defective materials.

A Failing Housing Program

Despite the allocation of considerable funds by central and state governments, the housing program for the poor is failing for a number of reasons. The plan is ill-conceived, focusing on offering shelter as opposed to improving living conditions, and executed without sufficient thought about many inter-related considerations.

While the government is the main promoter of housing schemes, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social entrepreneurship ventures have also entered the arena. For the most part, NGOs have to rely on donor funds that are hard to come by, and therefore their contribution has not been significant. 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; 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.

Currently, the total supply of new housing is far short of the 100 million units that are needed at the very least, if the goal is to offer adequate housing for every poor family. Bad construction and poor maintenance are causing the breakdown of houses that were built some time ago, adding to the need for substantial home improvement.

Further, many homes were built without considering the size of the family or its likely new members, and consequently, they are simply too dense or congested. The average floor space of 38 sq. ft per individual, not including the space taken by cattle, creates a very unhealthy and uncomfortable indoor environment.

The focus on offering houses as “shelters” has motivated the government to look for cheap construction without offering even basic necessities. Without a small separate kitchen and adequate cross ventilation, for example, the entire house is turned into a smoke stack not suited for human habitation. The absence of an adjacent toilet with each house is inconsistent with any reasonable concept of meeting minimum human needs. Unless existing houses are extended to include a separate kitchen with proper ventilation and a small toilet, they cannot be considered “livable” dwellings.

Additionally, government housing perpetuates the centuries-old practice of separation of residences based on caste. Instead of trying to break down this discriminatory practice, houses being built by the government for the “scheduled castes” ensure this separation. Further, the government has created a number of identical structures in new areas, effectively creating “scheduled caste colonies.” It is hard to reconcile the government’s official position concerning discrimination and human rights, and what it actually practices.

Focus on Community

The housing program as currently implemented will hardly improve the living standards of the poor, nor will it contribute to social justice. Before more funds are expended toward public housing, the government is well advised to reconsider its approach to the problem. In arriving at a new strategy for housing, planners must not lose sight of other, interrelated goals such as offering basic amenities, preventing diseases and assuring social integration. The approach must shift from the current focus on offering shelter to developing healthy and integrated communities. That might imply a departure from a caste-based approach to assistance based on income levels.

While a great majority of the poor belong to lower castes at the present time, and therefore would be eligible for assistance under this approach, those belonging to higher castes should not be denied assistance if they deserve it for reasons of low income. Only then would it be possible to bring about social integration between different castes. This will also permit upward mobility for lower caste families who are able to afford better and bigger homes. Mixed-income housing programs have been successfully implemented in countries like the U.S. to bring about integration across race and class, and India should not shy away from taking similar approaches to achieving social equality among all its citizens.

Instead of replacing huts with cemented houses at the same location, a better strategy might be to develop new communities at another location close by. That would offer considerable flexibility in properly laying out the entire housing complex. These new developments may incorporate facilities for sharing water, sewage processing and bio-gas production, as well as fruit and vegetable gardens and small shops. When resources are shared instead of wasted, and everyone lives in healthy conditions, overall productivity will increase considerably.

Community development will certainly call for larger initial investment than what is required for building shelters. However, 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.

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. An appropriate partnership between government, donors, investors and financial institutions can pave the way for financial solutions that make it possible for beneficiaries to carry some of the burden.

The issue of adequate housing is integral to poverty reduction and social justice. It must not be viewed in isolation, but as part of an effort to develop harmonious and healthy communities. In all these issues, the real solution lies in good public governance, building strong human foundations through education and health care, creating economic opportunity, and ensuring social justice for all.

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