Posted in Published Article, Urban India

Smart use of Unutilized Land can boost Affordable Housing

Published in Times of India Pune on 12 September 2019. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

This article was prompted by a question: Will it ever be possible to get a flat for Rs 45,00,000 in the prime areas of Pune? And my immediate response was No… and then, why not? Let me explain.

Those of the Doordarshan (Public Service Television) generation who grew up in Pune Cantonment still remember how all our friends lived within walking distance in the streets flanking Main Street, how we walked to an excellent school and got a great education without breaking the bank, and our older siblings cycled to college – and the few posh ones in school lived in Koregaon Park, beyond which was the wilderness.

Crossing the river to Fergusson College one discovered an almost identical habitation pattern around the peths (bazars) and wadas (family compounds) off Laxmi Road, and the better off lived in the bungalows around Deccan Gymkhana.

Then life happened. We moved on to Murdoch’s Star TV and the new generation moved out to Silicon Valley and Dubai, Canada and Australia. But they did come back and invest in a flat back home, and while Saifee Street moved en masse to Fakhri Hills, the ‘city-walas’ moved to Kothrud.

Meantime, there was a concerted effort by retirees to make a home in Pune and while the suburbs of Aundh and Pashan attracted those from the many educational and scientific institutes in the area, Salunke Vihar and NIBM grew into attractive localities for the ex-Army types where even today, you only hear chaste Kendriya Vidyalaya (Central School) Hindi spoken. The aspirational and business classes meanwhile, extended beyond the much-coveted Bund-KP area to Kalyani Nagar, and the nouveau riche IT class sought its own enclaves everywhere from Kharadi to Hinjewadi.

Things were booming and Pune was growing until the bubble burst around 2007-2008. Pune’s real estate sector had priced itself out of the market – they didn’t realize that even the best amenities will not attract buyers on the outskirts because people would rather have good schools and hospitals in the neighbourhood, rather than posh gyms and swimming pools in increasingly unaffordable gated societies, stuck in the middle of nowhere. The developers had twisted the screws by reducing the carpet areas of flats while charging exorbitant rates for super built up premises, with large terraces being sold at the same price as covered areas. Finally, the worm turned and people stopped buying. Period.

In development parlance all social sectors like education, health and housing are governed by the 3 As: Availability, Accessibility and Affordability.

So, when we talk of urban housing, we essentially talk about the availability, accessibility and affordability of land in a city. For equity and inclusion, a city needs to make available an adequate mixed-income housing stock, which is equally accessible and affordable to the rich and the poor alike. And when a city achieves that, it prospers like Singapore – the city with the best Quality of Life in Asia.

Coming to the case of Pune, we find that land is indeed available, but it is not accessible to the housing sector because of colonial hangovers, retrograde laws and outdated provisions – and so Punekars do not have affordable housing. We refer of course to the vast swathes of unutilized defence land in the Cantonment areas, and large tracts of government-acquired land tied up in defunct factories in the MIDC Pimpri-Chinchwad area.

If the most high-security defence establishments in the Pashan Area can be entrusted to the jurisdiction of the Pune Municipal Corporation, there is really no need for a separate and impoverished Cantonment Board to look after a racecourse, a few schools, a fish market, some shops and restaurants and heaps of crumbling old bungalows.

There is a simple solution: Why not consolidate all this unused land under a single government authority on the lines of the National Housing Board of Singapore? This way, we can plan affordable housing in both parts of Pune and ensure that the infrastructure provided is clean, green and state-of-the-art.

As these would be greenfield rather than redevelopment projects, they can be planned de novo as high-rise structures with ample scope to compensate both the defence ministry and private industrialists, with housing enclaves for their personnel, or for commercial sale. This can be termed the Pune Model and applied gradually to other Indian cities where land is trapped in large government or private holdings.

It is very essential that the Housing Board remain a Government entity, because all public-private enterprises in India tend to be dogged by cost overruns, NPAs and manipulation.

Sadly, one doubts that this will happen – because as the supply rises to match demand, house prices will fall, and the screws will be tightened on the government by both the real estate speculators and the corporates likely to lose their massive land holdings.

So no, it doesn’t seem likely that you will get a flat for under Rs 4.5 million in Pune any time soon…


Cities without Shelter


I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

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