Notes on the first panel discussion
(Hafeez Contractor, Nuru Karim, Ashok Lall, Sameep Padora and Kirtee Shah; moderated by Kaiwan Mehta)
The panel discussion that followed the proceedings of the first session led by Kirtee Shah’s emphatic keynote presentation emphasised the challenges and issues within the accepted parameters set for defining aspects for a house by the forces of the market as well as governing agencies. The definition of ‘affordability’ and the fact that for the lower margins of society, affordability is a real challenge, has been highlighted often, although policy guidelines often seem to contradict that – as he later mentions where the average daily wage of an individual in the rural areas is assumed to be a little over 600 rupees a day – a figure that one can say is perhaps quite bloated beyond real conditions. What is also of serious concern is the set of parameters which begin to guide the nature of a dwelling or a ‘house’ — across geographies and socio-economic contexts.
Today one sees a frightful homogenisation of housing typologies throughout the country irrespective of a region’s culture, geography, climate and economy – and as such brings to the fore the question of what model needs to be followed as the question of housing and urbanity are inextricably interlinked. Conversely, what is also apparent is the failure of the supposed ‘free urban housing’ model, such as those of the SRA and similar schemes, that see at least a quarter of their units unoccupied — as Amita Bhide from the audience pointed out — as well as a lot of violence due to degrading social conditions.
Sameep Padora noted how the labeling of these schemes as ‘free housing’ is a misnomer, considering the massive cross-subsidisation wherein the developer builds the ‘cheaper’ houses in what is mistakenly perceived as an act of ‘charity’ even though they still stand to make large amounts of profit with the grant of excess FSI, and in a sense, ‘free land’ within the city. This makes unlikely heroes of the agents of market forces such as the developers and their accompanying architects, as illustrated by an incident narrated by Hafeez Contractor where he received a hero’s welcome by the women of a particular project during one of his visits after the families moved into their SRA homes. He argued that even though they were not provided all that was promised by the government agencies, they were still ‘happy’ — with an improved set of facilities — bigger windows, attached toilets, and so on.
As a response to this, Ashok Lall questioned the sustainability of such a model — considering that these houses are mass-produced and essentially standardised for maximum efficiency and profit — and thus lead to numerous social consequences such as the inability of the house to adapt to changing family structures, the loss of a sense of community, and the sheer lack of far-sightedness in conception of these SRA schemes that have actually led to numerous blights upon the city’s skyline, with their often ill-conceived design and inadequate lighting and ventilation. He goes on to enquire whether one needs to, for long-term sustainability, explore alternatives such as an organic manner of restructuring existing slums by participatory design strategies wherein local builders, artisans and tradesmen come together with the respective families to build houses specific to each individual situation and requirements, which leads to a richer social cultural environment, a diverse urban landscape as well as tremendous benefit to the local economy by supporting local skills and resources.
Nuru Karim vehemently contested the notion of the ‘free house’, questioning its logic that seems to favour the recipients as they dwell in urban localities that are seemingly far more ‘posh’ in his words than are deserved by the occupants — such as the example of his driver living in a house with a sea view where apartments cost thousands of rupees per square foot — something that was resonated by Contractor outlining the nature of taxes that these people pay.
However Shah rightfully brought the conversation back to the nature of economics across scales and contexts, and the necessity to set up a set of parameters that does justice to these conditions — as it would ensure the long-term goals of providing a family with a ‘roof over their heads’, far removed from schemes such as the SRA that at best, offer a mere transient solution and will require a new set of policies after a decade or two, that will see these houses being demolished to make way for another set of housing schemes — a problematic future reality that was brought up by both Padora and Lall in their comments.
the self and where one comes from’ – citing the example of people living in villages where everyone knows each other and one’s family’s history, wherein notions of citizenship and thus identity begin to acquire complex aspects of participation, engagement and knowledge as a member of a community. In the city, notions of citizenship transform drastically – as within the sudden anonymity that the city offers, in addition to an overt dependency on government machinery and administrative processes — one can see how ‘pieces of paper’ begin to take precedence over the ‘self’, where the poor are increasingly excluded from genuine processes of citizenship – as cited in an example of a study where a street dweller is unable to get a ration card as these are considered to be ‘transient residents’, but an expat can get a temporary ration card within a fortnight. Notions of citizenship and formality begin to be thus intertwined, as is apparent when one discusses the regularisation of, say, housing colonies built on forest land where one begins to sympathise with the residents as ‘having been duped’ and hence eligible for amnesty — whereas a street dweller benefits from no such generosity. Perhaps notions of the formal need to go beyond the assumed material and manner of construction parameters (is a fully functional mud-and-thatch house with all the comforts of modern dwelling less formal than a reinforced concrete?) — which also begins to bind with a comment made by Ashok Lall in an earlier discussion that one needs to develop housing typologies that are ‘robust’ and can and as such remain opaque to the people. The ‘Smart City’ initiative for one, could be an example.
However what seems most problematic is that fact one begins to see the generalisation of circumstances in these binaries increasingly rampant not only in the processes of administration, but also in schools of planning and architecture, as Pankaj Joshi pointed out. Where one needs to see the processes of the formal and the informal not as parallel but intertwined in the making of a city — as Patel later narrates of how planners are unable to deal with the spatial realities essentially required of the informal sector to enrich the experience of a city — an important factor that keeps being missed out in discourses on planning and architecture, and where thus, the informal then is seen as this ‘unwanted and derisive’ layer; an unfortunate labeling of what actually makes a city, and as such, the nature of habitation.