Affordable housing allows people with low incomes to live decently and stay healthy. The idea has been moving along in fits and starts with policy spawning initiatives in design, construction and finance. A big push came in 2015 with the Modi government’s Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY).

But much remains to happen and to get a perspective of what has been achieved and the challenges ahead, Civil Society spoke to public-spirited architect Kirtee Shah, chairman of KSA Planning Services in Ahmedabad.

Shah has devoted his life to improving habitats. His views are sought on sustainable urban development. He is also founder-director of the Ahmedabad Study Action Group (ASAG), a public charitable trust.

Shah has recently written to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, asking for a new National Commission on Urbanisation to be set up as a think tank that will take a comprehensive view of the problems plaguing Indian cities and suggest ways and means to tackle urban issues based on Indian realities, culture, climate and so on.

Kirtee Shah: 'The quality of housing produced in the last 30 to 40 years has given a bad name to affordable housing'
Kirtee Shah: 'The quality of housing produced in the last 30 to 40 years has given a bad name to affordable housing' © Civil Society News


The biggest casualty of this large target is that you aren’t able to devote enough time to processes. And housing at all levels in all forms is a process-driven product. It requires time, concentration, many players working together, systems, apart from land, finance, market and unified services.

With stiff targets, quality suffers and processes aren’t factored in. I think this is one of the major worries we should have. We need to really examine the kind of housing that is coming up in terms of design, construction, quality of infrastructure and so on.

Are you talking mostly about housing stock created by the public sector? 

No, both. If you look at the last 50 years, the private sector hasn’t touched affordable housing. Affordable housing has essentially been the domain of the public sector. And the quality of housing produced in the last 30 to 40 years has given a bad name to affordable housing, low-income housing and small housing. In fact, low-income housing has become synonymous with low-quality housing.

The private sector was happy building for the upper middle class and the middle class. There was a market and clients with money which is much easier than dealing with people who don’t have money.

The private sector is beginning to get into affordable housing, although slowly, for three reasons. One it is a very large government programme which has been declared an industry. There are tax concessions and other advantages. Secondly, there is a glut in the upper end of the market in most cities with apartments lying unsold. Thirdly, they are beginning to see a future in affordable housing and seeing it as a huge market.

We see housing as a driver of the economy. Shouldn’t affordable quality housing be housing for everyone?

This is an important point. If one is talking about housing the whole country then you have to examine the backward and forward linkages of housing: employment generation, contribution to GDP, skilling of craftsmen, delivery systems, institution building, innovation in design and material … if all this happens on a large scale, you get the economy moving.

Public health is so important. Statistics talk about the costs of improper hygiene, lack of water and sanitation in terms of ill health and loss of wages. Good housing could take care of most of this.

But where does this figure of 20 million come from? Eighty percent of the housing deficit we are talking about, 18.4 million in urban areas, is essentially categorised as congestion. Another 0.99 million or five percent of houses are non-serviceable… 2.7 million or 12 percent is of absolute housing and 0.53 million or eight percent are homeless.

What constitutes a deficit and which deficit are we trying to close? If 80 percent of the housing we are talking about is basically congested housing, do we need to build full houses to take care of that? Maybe we could improve those rooms and toilets.