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In search of a better habitat

K. Sukumaran
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Providing sustainable living conditions to all in the rapidly expanding urban areas across the world is a huge challenge. K. Sukumaran surveys the scenario in the background of the U.N. Habitat Charter

Another Habitat Day has gone past us. Apart from conducting a few formal functions for the record, nothing substantial seems to have been done for translating the U.N. Charter on Habitat into reality.

The term ‘habitat’ is used to denote a place to live in. In the days past, many people lived in thatched sheds and makeshift tents. With advancements in construction technology, modern homes were built with bricks, cement and other sophisticated materials. With increasing urbanisation and relocation of a large number of people to the cities, there arose an acute shortage of housing  accommodation in cities. Coupled with this, there arose other issues like provision for power, water supply, waste disposal and other infrastructure/services. All these lead the United Nations to adopt the Human Settlement Programme and ‘Habitat Charter’. ‘Habitat Day’ is observed on the first Monday of October each year to focus attention on the need for providing sustainable living conditions in the growing cities of the world.

 Urbanisation pressures

As we are all aware, the world urban population today is growing at an alarming rate. About half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo are examples of cities with unmanageable population. At home, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi already have over 1.6 billion people. By 2020, Asia and the Pacific region alone will have the largest number of urban dwellers in the world. Even Africa will be an urban continent by 2030. By 2050, almost all urban areas will present an impossible task of providing adequate shelter to everyone.

The Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlement in the year 1976 kickstarted the habitat agenda. The Human Settlements programme (U.N. Habitat) established the U.N. agency in 1978 to promote socially and economically sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all. The second habitat meet was held in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1996. The State of the World’s Cities Report, 2001, is the first in-depth attempt to monitor, analyse and report on the problems faced by urban population and the world.

The Indian scene

India has adopted the U.N. charter. A national policy on housing is also in place. Elaborate planning and allocation of budgetary provisions have been made at the central and State levels. Institutions such as National Housing Bank and State Housing Boards were set up to implement the plans and programmes. The Union Urban Development Ministry is the focal point for evolving and monitoring all programmes. The Rajiv Gandhi Rural Housing Corporation has been set up to implement rural housing schemes. In urban areas, the housing boards / urban development boards execute projects in their areas of operation.

A peculiar problem facing India and many other developing countries is the growth of slums among many urban habitations. Special programmes through Slum Development Boards are put in place in most of the cities and towns to counter this problem. Another special feature relating to the Indian scenario is the community-based housing programmes for the SC/ST, backward communities and economically weaker sections.

The future

A visionary approach for the human habitat may be most critical to the future of the programme. Reforms and liberalisation in the field of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) may have far reaching implications for the human habitat movement in India. Will increased FDI take care of the poor and middle class who require cheaper and affordable houses?

Will the skyrocketing prices, the emerging luxurious buildings’ scenario and the villa culture go hand-in-hand with the habitat programme? Will the legislations relating to land use, acquisition etc., create impediments for the onward march of the habitat agenda? An integrated approach to human settlement in our cities and the rural areas may perhaps provide the answer.


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