Rural housing has attracted considerable attention in the recent years just as much as the rural markets in general have. In a policy sense, recognition of housing deficiencies was at the centre of several rural development programs. After all, rural India accommodates over 700 million people today. There is of course heterogeneity within the ‘rural areas’; some are fairly large and close to the urban centres. Some are small and remote. There are many in between the spectrum. Some villages are ‘rich’ as the average farm holdings may be large and there is irrigation. Likewise the rural housing needs are also varied depending on the needs of cultivators: e.g space for storage of output and space for livestock. There is no question of rural housing demand not rising as the overall economic growth is taking place. It is also well recognised that improvement and expansion in the rural housing stock would lead to gains in labour productivity and positive health benefits. There are, however, constraints to faster improvements. There are indeed policy measures to relax some of the constraints such as subsidies to the poor or support to drinking water supply schemes; there are also market developments such as innovations that help bring down the cost of house construction. But there is also a central role that the village panchayats ought to play to make a positive difference to the quality of life in rural habitations.
It is now fairly well recognised that demand for rural housing is constrained, among other factors, surprisingly by availability of land for building houses. The rising requirement of land for livelihood over time has meant that there is hardly any ‘common panchayat land’ available for non-agricultural uses, including for housing. Also most government land and forest land in the countryside has also been fairly extensively encroached. Besides the physical availability of land in rural areas for housing, the land problem has yet another dimension: the legal ownership rights to village land are often undefined and unclear. All this essentially means market for land for rural housing is also thin and ineffective. Paradoxically, there are indeed hot land markets in the villages close to the large cities and metros as the urban requirements for land have also increased in the recent years. But this is not the bulk of the rural areas. Housing in rural India is still largely for own use rather than for sale and resale. And one important reason for this again is associated among other things with the problem of transferring ownership rights.
A distinctive aspect of rural housing, which is seldom recognised, is the lack of planning of rural habitations. They probably were planned at some point of time keeping in mind the security aspect besides their being less suitable for cultivation or having better drainage. But growth of population and other economic activities have led to deterioration of the quality of local environment. The problem is particularly acute in low rainfall and unirrigated areas.
The poor state of habitations is an economic problem. Barring some exceptional cases, with community initiatives as in the case of Ralegan Sidhi, or some of the ‘model villages’ there is lack of collective action to improve the overall rural habitat conditions. There are indeed many other civil society initiatives for building better rural houses. The Rural Building Centres fashioned on the success of the initiatives in Kerala have not quite succeeded elsewhere. The rural infrastructure programs do bring in roads, electricity, drinking water and sanitation. But convergence of these various programs with housing and habitation plan is largely missing. The role that panchayats can play in this respect as units of self-government is indeed huge. But as with municipalities, this is largely an issue of capacity and institutional strengths.
To re-iterate, what the rising demand for rural housing has meant is also that village panchayats may have a chance to encourage the kind of housing plans that may improve quality of life for the millions of rural Indians. Financiasl resources for the panchayats are obviously constrained. Village panchayats have not been able to raise adequate revenues from property taxes and therefore not able to do much on improving the quality of habitation. The separation of land record and land revenue functions from the panchayats has meant that the panchayats have taken the state of the habitation as given and whatever improvements have occurred are mainly the outcome of the schemes planned from government bodies above. The prosperity of rural areas has meant better houses for only a few individuals and has not necessarily resulted in better habitation as a whole. The overall income of the panchayats from grants and own resources is still too meager to bring about any significant changes on their own.
There are two directions in which the village panchayats can play a more active role in rural housing development. In one direction, there is a need to strengthen the governance role of panchayats: influencing construction of better houses and in a manner so that the village infrastructure is optimally utilised; the land and property records are improved. This in turn would catalyse the other services- particularly finance- that helps in turning some of the latent demand into effective demand. The second dimension in which the panchayats can play an important role is bringing greater convergence of many of the rural development programs for greater impact. There is a need to develop habitation plan for the villages that sets out the land use and construction guidelines. The latter activity would certainly require making new capacity available. The partnership with the NGOs, private sector and other civil society organisations will remain imperative as in many other rural development programs.
The experience of involvement of the panchayats at different levels in facilitating the implementation of Indira Awas Yojana is important. The role of panchayats has been mainly limited to identifying the beneficiaries who receive the subsidy and then certifying completion of construction so that the final installment of the subsidy is released. In some cases the panchayats also help in identifying land for construction of these houses as many of the beneficiaries are landless. As land is not available in contiguous pieces or blocks, the houses are built wherever land is available. Obviously this is not most efficient in terms of providing infrastructure services. The panchayats also play a major role in facilitating the implementation of drinking water supply and sanitation programs (such as the accelerated rural water supply scheme and the total sanitation program) in the villages; they also facilitate building of rural roads as well as the execution of many other programs of rural development. The housing development perspectives actually provide greater convergence to many of these services as location of houses or new houses can be planned with reference to the various services.
The village panchayats have yet another responsibility in modernising rural habitations. Their intimate knowledge of local needs, people and local conditions make them pre-eminently credible facilitators. The property tax on houses should become a major source of own revenue for the panchayats over time. As it is often said, it may be easier to collect the taxes if the tax payers see the benefits- in the form of better amenities. The PRIs should levy property taxes to improve the quality of habitations.
Shashanka Bhide is the Senior Research Counsellor and a Senior Fellow at the NCAER, New Delhi.