Mukta Naik

Bakul’s son is getting married soon and he is busy adding a floor to his home in an unauthorised colony in Ghaziabad, an industrial town near India’s capital city New Delhi. To do so, he has borrowed Rs 300,000 (US$ 4800) from a cousin and engaged a local mason. In Nong Bua in Thailand’s Surin district, Somchai collects waste during the day but spends his evenings repairing his leaky roof. This is how the majority of the urban poor in a host of Asian countries build their homes.

Poor households self-build their homes, adding incrementally as per their needs and affordability.

Self-help communities need support to build safer homes

While self-help construction is touted to be culturally responsive and financially feasible, it is also unsafe and poor in quality. And this isn’t just a big city problem. Mumbai-based research-action collective URBZ finds in their research on India’s western coastline that homegrown settlements in cities of different sizes exhibit similar densities. “By and large, the dynamics of homegrown areas in small cities and even the physical expressions are often very similar to what we observe in Dharavi (in Mumbai),” explains Matias Echanove of URBZ.

Poor quality of construction leads to unsafe housing

A 2011 study by micro Home Solutions (mHS), a multidisciplinary group that works on shelter, highlights that the poorest households in secondary cities were most likely to build their homes incrementally. Moreover in small cities, even residents of planned neighbourhoods opt to self-build their homes. Strategic interventions in improving self-help housing, therefore, have the potential to impact millions of poor households in secondary cities.

Technical assistance reaps dividends in cities with strong local governments & civil society

mHS focused on supporting homegrown communities by offering them technical assistance. Their Design home Solutions project was piloted in a New Delhi neighbourhood and offered homeowners customized design and technical assistance bundled with a micro finance loan. The pilot succeeded in building 30 safe homes on 12 plots. However, the important complementary component of mason training was hard to implement given the large size and diverse population in the neighbourhood. mHS changed tack and moved its experimentation to Ahmedabad, a secondary city in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Here, with the help of strong community-based organisations like Mahila Housing Trust and Saath, mHS has been able to successfully launch a training program for masons to improve the quality of housing in self-built communities. “Because local governments play a key role in monitoring densification of planned neighbourhoods, the same tools can be applied to regulate or at least give direction to non-formal development. In this sense, small or mid-sized cities with strong local governments offer better opportunities to look at the problem of safe, affordable housing,” says Marco Ferrario, co-founder mHS.

Marco feels that a range of interventions is needed to enable professionals to help homegrown communities. He points out that “it’s important to ask who these professionals will be—are we talking about technicians in the government, universities or practitioners who give their time for free?”

Eager to learn: Masons from the local community being trained in Ahmedabad


Professional inputs can help leverage community knowledge & labour

The Baan Mankong Program in Thailand provides a model for communities to access design and technical inputs by putting in place a cadre of community architects. Implemented by the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI), the program is fuelled by government funding in the form of subsidies or loans and has reached out to communities across 226 Thai towns and cities. The emphasis here is to build upon the community’s capabilities and knowledge. Somsook Boonyabancha, Director of CODI and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights presents the poor as experts in design and planning who need a professional to translate their ideas into a proper plan or map. Community architects play the role of interpreters and handhold communities to design and implement housing improvements. Not just that, homeowners who develop skills through on-the-job training call themselves Chang Chumchon of Community Builders and are then productively employed in upgrading other settlements.

Buy-in from the community is key to this program and extending the program beyond Bangkok into secondary cities meant dealing with scepticism from locals. In the Wat Potee Wararam informal settlement in the city of Udon Thani in northeast Thailand, families lived on a small plot of land rented from the Buddhist temple across the road. When the intervention started, only a few people would turn up for community meetings. As the momentum grew, the community was able to undergo complex negotiations to obtain a long-term lease for the land as well as take assistance of students from the local Rajabhat Institute to design suitable homes that re-used old material. In a community as small and poor as this, it was possible to eliminate the contractor. Once full-scale mock-ups of three house designs were made, residents were able to build infrastructure and upgrade their homes on their own.

Shyama Devi rebuilt her home with design and technical inputs from mHS

Overcoming the land deadlock is a vital area of innovation

Even for communities that can access support to build safer, ownership and legality of land remains ta significant challenge. In India, for instance, professionals are unwilling to formally engage with communities that are occupying land illegally due to legal liability issues. Nor are banks able to fund housing improvement loans in such situations. The scope of technical assistance, therefore, is limited to government relocation projects where residents have long-term leases or government-funded subsidised in-situ slum upgrades.

Relocation programs also suffer from a lack of land. Lawyers Jayshree Satpute and Sukti Dhital from housing rights organisation Nazdeek work with communities under the direct threat of eviction. While they are able to get a ‘stay’ order from courts to prevent eviction of vulnerable communities, it is hard to get governments to commit land where slum dwellers can be rehabilitated. As a result, communities spend years in makeshift housing and long-term solutions are rarely found.

Local governments in secondary cities, where land may still be available and affordable, need to make concerted efforts to identify parcels of land where marginalised communities can get sufficient tenure to be able to leverage finance and technical assistance to build quality shelter.

Saam Huang, a community in Samut Prakan located on the outskirts of Bangkok, is a rare case where the community was able to buy land for its own resettlement. The residents, mostly migrant labourers, took the assistance of community leaders and professionals (as part of the Baan Mankong project) to help them negotiate prices for buying land that had been repossessed by a commercial bank after the landowner defaulted on a bank loan. They went on to plan their community and rebuild their homes on this land. Saam Huang offers the hope that, when provided a supportive environment by governments, communities can work with a variety of stakeholders to find creative solutions to issues related to shelter, problems that appear insurmountable at present.

Banner Photo by AM AHAD

Photo 1,2,3,4 by MhS



Categories: Housing, Infrastructure, Resilience