A construction labourer carries bricks on her head at the construction site of a residential estate on the outskirts of the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, November 18, 2011. REUTERS/Amit Dave(INDIA - Tags: SOCIETY BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT CONSTRUCTION)

We have a dream for 2022. The poorest of poor should have a house of his own. And that house must be equipped with electricity, water and other facilities. There should be hospitals and schools in the neighbourhood.

— Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Historians will tell you that an explosion of creativity occurs the moment the world starts complaining that there is nothing left to invent or that the search for solutions has come to an end. This explosion is fate’s way of reminding us that there is always something just over the horizon. Social entrepreneurs are now using their talent to bring lasting solutions to several entrenched problems at a time when the world needs them, like never before. They want to use the power of business to create a better world. Making money is not necessarily their first objective. Their first objective is to make a contribution.

This type of disruptive innovation usually comes from entrepreneurs. Che Guevara, whose handsome face I had seen on posters and T-shirts, comes to mind. I did not know who he was till I read this passage attributed to him: “The merit of Marx is that he suddenly produces a qualitative change in the history of social thought. He interprets history, understanding its dynamics, predicts the future, but in addition to predicting it, he expresses a revolutionary concept: the world must not only be interpreted, it must be transformed.”

One of the most challenging problems of our times is homelessness. A 2013 report, “Housing Microfinance in India: Benchmarking the Status by ACCESS-ASSIST”, found that in India, the total housing shortage is 42.69 million units in rural areas. While we have been able to fight poverty and continue to record improvements, homelessness remains a big challenge.

The housing reforms introduced by the government mark a new epoch in Indian polity and may turn out to be Narendra Modi’s greatest achievement yet. The ambitious “Housing for All” programme, launched in June 2015, aims to build 20 million urban homes and 30 million rural houses by 2022 Modi’s initiatives have made housing finance emerge as the next frontier in the financial services spectrum.

The housing problem is a colossal one and a satisfactory and lasting solution can emerge through collaboration between all the stakeholders. However, the present reforms in housing sector are inadequate in addressing the needs of all the segments. The real issues in housing world over have less to do with access to finance and more to do with property rights. A reform in land rights is an important prerequisite for ushering in a housing revolution.

India’s rural housing space – particularly the lower tier in the economic pyramid – has remained largely unaddressed as many had tried and most found it a hard ground. The most elusive issue in housing finance is that of a properly documented legal l title. The key constraint in providing shelter is that people do not have proof of being owners of the piece of land on which they live. This keeps them deprived of so many basic amenities. Once titled, they could obtain access to several government benefits. Even a small plot can lift a family out of extreme poverty. The lack of ownership or tenure is one of the world’s most silent crises and one with dramatic ramifications.

There is little more critical to a family’s quality of life than a healthy, safe living space. A decent habitat and shelter environment for the poorer sections of society can not only contribute towards their well-being and real asset creation but also catalyse overall economic growth. Land ownership is often the bedrock of other development interventions: owning land boosts nutrition, educational outcomes and gender equality. The converse is equally true.

Priority for housing is higher than education and health. Sustainable and inclusive housing solutions, indeed, could bolster large economic growth quickly and efficiently.

Hernando de Soto’s 2000 book The Mystery of Capital makes a very starting revelation. “The hour of capitalism’s greatest triumph,” declares the famed Peruvian economist, “is in the eyes of four-fifths of humanity, its hour of crisis.”

De Soto explains that for many people in the developing world, the land on which they live is their only asset. If that property is not publicly recognised as belonging to them, they lose out – missing out on some of their highly deserved social benefits.

While many villagers own their homes, which they likely built themselves, they rarely own the piece of land which holds their dwelling. This is a major obstacle as many families may not have had documentation for generations and the process of obtaining and putting it in place is an impossible mission to accomplish without a nimble titling, mortgaging and financing system.

A social entrepreneur, Ramesh Kumar, who had found new approaches to address the problems of low-income households as a banker, decided to solve the puzzle. Kumar’s DNA has the twin strands that are essential for any social revolution: ideas and entrepreneurship. As the saying goes: “Ideas are worthless until you get them out of your head.” Many people have great ideas, but they are afraid to fail, so they don’t try. Kumar had the courage to trust his instincts. And that made all the difference.

In 2005, the National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) invited Kumar to be chairman on the National Committee of Habitat whose focus was to address the deficiencies in rural housing finance. He contributed to the development of a report resulted in the National Rural Habitat Policy for India.


Meanwhile India’s governance space came to be inhabited by a new breed of vibrant visionaries and the political system started getting nimble footed. India was slowly shedding its inertia and embracing the an entrepreneurial culture in its polity.

In 1993, the legislation of Panchayat Raj Act and an amendment to the country’s Constitution endowed the local village panchayats with functions of local governance. The background in which this amendment was introduced is evinced from the first two paragraphs of the Statement of Objects and Reasons, which are extracted below: “Though the Panchayati Raj institutions have been in existence for a long time, it has been observed that these institutions have not been able to acquire the status and dignity of viable and responsive people’s bodies due to a number of reasons . . . In the light of the experience in the last forty years and in view of the shortcomings which have been observed, it is considered that there is an imperative need to enshrine in the Constitution certain basic and essential features of Panchayati Raj institutions to impart certainty, continuity and strength to them.”

The Panchayati Raj institutions structured under 73rd Amendment were empowered to undertake programmes for economic development and social justice in 29 subjects (which include, among others, rural housing, sanitation, water, electrification, and conservation and sustainable utilisation of natural resources); they can now levy, collect, and appropriate taxes, duties, tolls and fees.

Policymakers have their own cognitive biases, which will induce them to design imperfect interventions even if they mean well. Even as social, political and legal scientists sparred on competence of these panchayats, a Supreme Court judgment of July 2 2012 by a bench of Jusives G.S. Singhvi and S J Mukhopadhaya gave a new identity to them. It endorsed the power of Calangute gram panchayat in Goa to decide on matters pertaining to its jurisdiction.

Incidentally, in 1995, the Supreme Court wrote a landmark judgment in Chameli Singh vs State of UP, emphasising the centrality of the right to housing as the precursor to all rights. Successive judgments on similar matters in the Supreme Court reiterate similar concerns.

Interestingly, the court, combining the obligations of the State under the Right to Life, the Right to Residence and Settlement under Article 19(1) (e) and international obligations, gave a very progressive interpretation to the Directive Principles and held that:

“The right to shelter when used as an essential requisite to the right to live should be deemed to have been guaranteed as a fundamental right. As is enjoined in the Directive Principles, the State should be deemed to be under an obligation to secure for its citizens, of course, subject to its economic budgeting.”

The court therefore succeeded in formulating a distinct right to housing and founded it in the aim of the Indian Constitution in securing economic and social justice as stated in the Preamble and held that:

“Want of decent residence, therefore, frustrates the very object of the constitutional animation of the right to equality, economic justice, fundamental right to residence, dignity of person and the right to live itself.”

These twin developments have been drivers and motivators for housing rights activists and entrepreneurs for experimenting with some bold and revolutionary ideas in the rural housing space.

After seeing how many good ideas, including many recommendations from the National Rural Habitat Policy for India, did not come into play, it made Kumar think about his own approach. In 2009, Kumar started Swarna Pragati to address the market gap he was consistently seeing around access to housing finance in rural communities.

Typically, in rural India, villagers are granted land from the government or live on the land passed down to them by their ancestors. These are known as “para-legal titles”. Many of them may not have a full land title but possess a documentary right to ownership, such as tax receipts and a legal protection from eviction. This security amounts to “presumed ownership”.

Kumar built linkages between self-help groups (SHGs), gram panchayats, other government departments and service providers to design a simple yet effective ecosystem to solve the lower tier’s housing finance problems.

Swarna Pragati’s process of titling, mortgaging and financing has now become a widely recognised practice within local bureaucracy et al. The key grid is the gram sabha (village assembly), a constitutionally mandated bottom tier of governance. The gram sabha endorses the titles and mortgages and certifies the income of the potential clients of Swarna Pragati. This community titling and participatory screening have paralegal sanctity. It is a cost effective and progressive way of building tenure documents that carry legitimacy and weight in local institutions. Kumar is trying to get a buy in with the regulators, the National Housing Bank, which is bound to follow once the efficacy and tenability of the process are firmly established.

The leading non-profit Landesa which is doing pioneering work in land rights could be involved in training local NGOs to aid in this task. Housing and sanitation have a close linkage with land use and land title and .all of them are colossal problems and require fruitful mutual partnership. Landesa is nonprofit which is actively working on land issues and has immense experience with traditional laws and the ways of addressing their intricacies its expertise can be drawn up both by the policy maker as well as the entrepreneurial class. Landesa has a three pronged approach:

— It conducts research on land tenure’s effects. Greater data and information make it easier for working transitions to secure property rights.
— It provides legal consultation and support for government officials willing to make improvements in legally vulnerable communities. Thus far, more than 9,00,000 Indian families have benefitted from Landesa’s legal work.
— It educates communities on the various aspects of land rights, since legal systems often seem inaccessible to people who cannot read or cannot read well.

The international nonprofit Omidyar Network founded by Pierre Omidyar is also doing commendable work to make affordable housing feasible through its work in formulation of mechanisms for documenting land titles. It has initiated a pilot for GPS-based mapping technology with a clear path through the legal system that registers and obtains formal documentation for people in a matter of weeks, a process that would previously have taken months or years if it was even possible. “There’s nothing magical about their solution”, says Peter Rabley, Director of Investments at Omidyar Network, “it’s simply a matter of understanding the pain points in the surveying and legal system, and finding a direct, convenient and cost effective way through them. But the impact on people’s lives is huge.”

Changing governance, raising money and designing new policies all take time and the stresses on account of inadequate housing and sanitation are mounting fast .it will be well worth if the efforts and talents of the private and public sector are synergized through creative partnerships and fruitful linkages. Corporate support has been commandeered by Modi in his mission and business has enthusiastically partnered with the government. The Indian business womb is pregnant with entrepreneurship and start-ups and many have been generous in their support and the outcome of their efforts have been truly transformative.

A lot of good programmes got their start when one individual looked at a familiar landscape in a fresh way. They saw possibilities where others saw only hopelessness, and imagined a way forward when others saw none. What they did was to simply change the fundamental approach to solving problems, and the outcomes have been truly revolutionary.

Changing governance, raising money, and designing new policies take time. However, the stresses on the accounts of inadequate housing and sanitation are mounting fast. It will all be worth the effort if the talents of the private and public sector are synergised through creative partnerships and fruitful linkages. Entrepreneurs like Kumar can serve as useful candle lights for the start-up sector. The government must summon the politic will to embrace the new innovations and act fast before the time runs out.

Moin Qaziis the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has spent more than three decades in the development sector.

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