Notes on the second panel discussion
(Amita Bhide, Prasanna Desai, Pankaj Joshi and Sheela Patel; moderated by Rahul Mehrotra)
The second session of the conference intended to scrutinise the role of agents of delivery within the housing ecosystem that includes the administration and government authorities in the formation of regulatory policies and schemes; the role of the private sector and financial institutions; the role of community organisations; and the role of the law and the structuring of legal fameworks in the dissemination of housing since Independence. Following a set of presentations by Pankaj Joshi, Prasanna Desai, Sheela Patel and Amita Bhide, the questions from the audience dwelled on notions of citizenship, the definition of informality, the contested notions of adjacency versus dependency, especially when one sees large segments of the former ‘informal settlements’ being displaced to extremely dense and ill-conceived housing schemes on the fringes of the city, as well as the nature of the government’s functioning – and whether the intention of ‘de-centralisation’ has really managed to achieve its desired aims. Sheela Patel, in her response, described citizenship as an ‘identity one appropriates’, which Amita Bhide later elaborated in a manner that can be described as some kind of ‘understanding of absorb the forces of time and change, and notions associated with it in terms of the formal/informal binary. However, as was pointed out by both Bhide and Patel, more often than not these legalities of inclusion – the pieces of paper that prove your ‘citizenship’ — are actually modes of exclusion in disguise, and qualify accessibility to government resources and services. As such there seems to be a game of legal and administrative jargon that perhaps serves the purpose of vote-bank politics at its centre that uses exclusion as a tool — as the eviction notices for 1985 (for supposedly ‘illegal slum dwellers’), contradictorily become ‘proof of residence’ in 1995.
This leads one also to the ineffective nature of policy-making and execution wherein the intention of making governance more accessible and capacitive by a supposed ‘de-centralisation’ of the government machinery results, again contradictorily, in the creation of ‘fragmented administration’ with multiple government bodies with overlapping responsibilities, as such making the entire execution of administration a confusing, complicated and thus ineffective exercise. The way out of this that one can begin to see — and this is not a positive trend — is that instead of streamlining existing government machinery, one witnesses a rise in parastatal agencies, i.e. government bodies formed with independent powers that report directly to the administration professionals can make, or should be making, amidst the maelstrom of confusing and often conflicting policies governing the conception and delivery of housing, the often narrow considerations of profit and efficiency within which private developers operate, and the myopia that surrounds the operation of projects under the aegis of government agencies, as well as the challenges of making the banking sector an integral aspect of housing delivery.
What also can be seen is an administrative thrust towards the ‘ownership’ of a house — as opposed to many practices abroad wherein one sees the profusion of rental housing typologies and the general preference of rental housing over ownership. Socialist democracies within mainland Europe have managed to deal with their housing situations through the adoption of this model which calls for challenging and often remarkable design strategies — as housing projects in France, Holland, Spain, Germany and Austria among other countries, bear witness — something that Swastik Harish made a note of, supported by Alpa Sheth’s vehement pro-rental stance. This throws a number of questions on the role of how design practices need to then reframe their positions as ‘holders of expertise’ in a situation where there seems to be a schism between ‘expertise’ and ‘delivery’ or ‘democratic practice’ — as noted by Gautam Bhan in his elaboration of the rift between insular
Aromar Revi, at this point, brings in the importance of ‘design thinking’, a fairly recent practice development that asks the ‘designer’ to step outside of their frames of comfort and engage with the real world to achieve real solutions that are less the outcome of a designer’s ‘ego’, and more a synthesis of the often diverse empirical constraints to achieve a robust and pragmatic design solution that takes into consideration the needs of the enduser through a decisive empathetic stance. Along with the repositioning of the ‘design professional’ that this entails, this also seeks one to reconsider the notion of ‘design’ as a pedagogy first — that is manifest then within diverse practice spaces. This also means an eschewing of hierarchical stances and an embrace of seeing the designer within the larger network of other practitioners including builders, masons, etc. The challenges thus arise out of the necessity to vet the design and material parameters in the long-run as well as when adaptations and alterations become necessary, something brought up by Swastik Harish, which demands a long-standing association of the designer with the project in deference to current practices.
The challenge is also the issue of scale, where there are many examples of designers engaging with communities to build houses in numbers not exceeding a few hundred to a few thousand — the challenge of translating these successes to hundreds of thousands needs to be addressed firmly; first is the recognition of it as an ardent need, as Bhan notes, and then the systematisation of it, as Revi points out, not only within the ‘formal’ sector but most importantly within the sector that involves traditional building cultures and native building knowledge, otherwise labeled as the ‘informal’.
The notes on the first three panel discussions are prepared by Suprio Bhattacharjee.