With 17 per cent of India’s urban population living in informal settlements, affordable housing has become a pressing issue. It is imperative, writes Swapnil Saxena, that any housing scheme recognises the particular vulnerabilities women experience in urban settings and focusses on women’s rights.
In India, a person’s caste, class, religion, and gender directly shape their access to land and housing – particularly for poor women. For cultural reasons, many women do not own property, nor do they commonly benefit from joint ownership. They often do not inherit property. Across India, women are discriminated against, with their rights to own, access, use, and control land, housing, and property – a phenomenon caused by a combination of social, political, and legal factors.
Historically, the Indian housing policy was not specifically designed with gendered issues in mind: instead, new houses were built for ‘the married unit.’ As per the 2011 Census of India estimates, 27 million households (11 per cent of total households in the country) are headed by women. However, this is usually not connected to an improved social and economic status, but to a lack of alternatives, meaning that they are not considered the natural heads of the households, even when they play an indispensable role in running the household, in addition to being the bread-winner in the family. There is a constant conflict between ‘ownership’ and ‘belonging’ which needs special attention in the legal, policy, and financial response of the state with regard to the provision of housing.
Progressive, Yet Insufficient: Government Housing Schemes
Critical progress has been made in the recent years, especially with the launch of the ambitious Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY). The scheme wants to encourage homeownership amongst women, making it mandatory for a family to have at least one woman member registered as the owner of a new house. Besides this, women borrowers can avail interest rate concessions in borrowing from banks, get partial waivers on stamp duties, and tax benefits.
While surely progressive, the scheme has not been able to fathom the concerns of women. Firstly, it relies solely on granting homeownership, and fails to recognise the social stigma around ‘female-headed households’ in India. Moreover, it does not consider that women experience discrimination not just on account of their gender, but also on the basis of their class, caste, marital status, economic status, sexual orientation, and age. In particular, women of a Scheduled Caste, or a Scheduled Tribe, women belonging to the economically weaker sections, older women, abandoned women, widows, unmarried women, and single mothers are the most marginalised in India with regard to their rights to housing and land.
Mansarovar Park, New Delhi © Swapnil Saxena
Most recently, the Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHCs) scheme was announced to provide access to dignified affordable rental housing to urban migrants, including workers in the industry, health institutions, street vendors, students, and others. In its first phase, the scheme aims to cover around 300,000 beneficiaries. It is designed to work under a distinct regulatory framework, to build and operate in the form of concessionaire agreements valid for 25 years, where the local authorities shall fix the rent and also offer other incentives such as income and goods and services (GST) tax exemptions.
An ambitious idea, the success of the scheme would largely depend on its ability to avoid problems posed by earlier housing schemes. A third of the 300,000 targeted rental houses are houses left vacant after schemes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) or Rajiv Awas Yojana proved inadequate.
Reasons why houses built under JNNURM or Rajiv Awas Yohana left vacant are manifold, including low-quality constructions, fear of loss of livelihood and social networks, lack of trunk infrastructure, as these houses are constructed in peripheral locations, far from the business areas. This experience by the urban poor may affect the demand for ARHCs.
The Need for a Gendered Perspective
Again, women are especially concerned by such questions. Rental homes that are too far away from work affects women disproportionately – as seen in the many cases of resettlement in India in which women lost their livelihoods and income, with diminishing control over household resources and decision making. Resettlement to less populated areas poses risks to women both at home and during commute, causing increased impoverishment and vulnerability. Such past failures in housing rehabilitation bring critical learnings around incorporating the spatial needs of women in housing and settlement planning.
What then, can be done to make sure that the latest government housing scheme addresses the need of women? How can it be avoided that it repeats the failure of an earlier housing scheme, where migrant workers were forced to move back to live in makeshift arrangements, ‘slums’, and unauthorised housing that lacked secure tenure – but that were closer to work sites and thus more ‘viable’ ?
First, security of tenure is imperative, as its lack makes families vulnerable to forced evictions. Again, as the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights stated, this is especially true for women, who are “particularly vulnerable to forced evictions given the extent of statutory and other forms of discrimination which often apply in relation to property rights…when they are rendered homeless.”
Additionally, it is imperative to address the structural causes of the housing crisis for policies to be effective. Accurate and adequate gender-disaggregated data is very important in this regard. Given the importance of housing and land for women, information on the status of ownership/access rights needs to be collected.
Furthermore, gender mainstreaming in housing policies will help create an environment that will empower and enable women to access safe and affordable housing. Adequate representation in decision-making processes and large-scale engagement of women, deliberate and sincere efforts from public agencies, and collaboration and shared vision of various stakeholders including public, private, and civil society organisations will be crucial.
Innovative reforms and promotion of alternative approaches that address the critical linkages between women’s rights to work, food, housing, health, land, security need to be recognised in law and policy for bringing sustained change, especially in times when urban poverty, discrimination, and violence against women are intensifying across India.