Notes on the first panel dis­cus­sion

Domus - - CONFETTI -

(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.

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