Kirtee Shah — Land Titling & Local Housing Solutions

Architect, India

Slums are not problems; slums are approaches to solutions. Slums are indications that people have the ability and the willingness to solve their problems.

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Kirtee Shah studied architecture at the School of Architecture at CEPT.He is a practicing Architect and Chairman of KSA Design Planning Services P. Ltd.  Early in his career he worked as the coordinator of a project designed to rehabilitate Mandva village in South Gujarat which was destroyed by floods in the river Narmada. His responsibilities included design and construction of 365 low-cost houses for the village poor; demonstration houses for the non-poor; community consultation and coordination of self-help activities by the village community and voluntary work by student volunteers from schools and colleges of Gujarat

To build on the experience gained in village Mandva; to work for an `alternative' and a `non-conventional' client (primarily the poor and disadvantaged groups in villages and cities); to provide new avenue of involvement and a different professional challenge to the young professionals launched, with likeminded professionals, he formed a non-profit organization Ahmedabad Study Action Group (ASAG).

ASAG is a non-government, non-commercial, organization run by concerned professionals committed to utilizing their skills for public causes in general and the poor and the disadvantaged sections in particular.  Besides being the founder trustee, he is also ASAG's Director (Hon Director since 1985).

Handling multiple assignments in varying capacities, he has been a member of the "Research and Advisory Committee" of Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO),  " Working Group on Housing" set up by the Planning Commission, GOI for the Seventh Five Year Plan, Planning Commission “Working Group on Housing Finance” and the “Working Group on Rural Housing” for the 9th Five Year Plan (1996-97). He was also a member of the advisory committee of “Social HousingFoundation“established by National Housing Finance Corporation Limited (NHFCL) of South Africa, member of the empowered committee of the National Mission on Rural Housing and Habitat, set up by the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India and the working group on rural poverty alleviation programmes for the 10th Five Year Plan (2001-2002).

He has written several papers on people’s rights on housing, earthquake policy and riverfront development in Ahmedabad. He has been a consultant to many projects and institutions, such as Gujarat Rural Housing Agency UNICEF, royal Government of Bhutan, NHDA, Sri Lanka World Bank, KFW, Germany and Government of Orissa.

He is currently providing assistance to MEA, Government of India in developing an approach to programme development and strategy for implementation for 50,000 rural houses for the conflict affected families in the Northern and the Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka.

[Biography courtesy of Rural Housing Knowledge Network]

  • Architecture for the Poor

    I come from India, a city called Ahmedabad. Ahmedabad is a big city of 5 million people. In India, nothing is small. And this is a city of textiles, a city very well known for its architecture. And it's also the city of Mahatma Gandhi.

    India has 620,000 villages, 70% of people live there, and there are no architects working for them ever. And a large number of people in cities are living in slums, people in the lower-middle income. Architects don't work for them. 

    So early in my career I decided that I wanted to examine the possibility of working for them. I set up a nonprofit organization called Ahmedabad Study Action Group. It's now about 45 years old, and besides working on housing of the poor, we've been working on poverty related issues like employment... economy, policies that are related to poverty, inequality, and all that. So that I've been doing for a very long time now. I'm in this work for last 40, 45 years.

  • India's Growth, Persistant Poverty, and Approaches to Development

    India [has] made great strides in dealing with poverty especially for the last 20 years. India’s economic growth and its impact on the poor. This a very interesting, very significant thing, and I think it must be admired.

    I also feel there's the need to look at the other side of the picture... Fortune magazine declared that, out of 10 richest man of the world, four are Indians. At the same time we also large number of poor people in India.

    Now let me give an example of what is the extent of poverty. Now they're all kind of figures which are floating around and everything, whether 30% are below the poverty line, whether it’s 25% or whether it’s 20%, how many are below the poverty line. But I'm beginning to look at a significantly important thing that is happening in India. Government of India has introduce what is called Food Security Bill in the Parliament, and this Food Security Bill is under consideration, active consideration. This particular Food Security Bill estimates are that something like 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population will be covered under the Food Security Bill. We're talking about something like 750 million people every day getting food subsidy.

    On the one hand, you are claiming that poverty has been reduced.You're talking about an 8% or 9% growth rate. You also say that 750 million people are in such economic condition that they require, they need, they deserve food subsidy. Now to me, this is a sure statement. And this is not a paper statistics. 

    In India we talk always about two approaches. One is what is called a indirect route approach, what to say is just as growth happens, economic growth takes place, growth, hard economic growth will percolate down, percolate down to the poor, and that will reduce poverty.

    We've been talking about this for a very long time, but India for a long time did not have sufficient-sufficient growth. If you're growing at four percent, and your population is growing at 12%, there's no way that growth will percolate down. 20 years ago, India got its economy opened up and liberated and since then, it has been growing at a substantially high growth rate 6%, 7%, 8%. And that is an argument that growth is percolating down among the poor.

    Second way of dealing with poverty is what we call direct route approach that will direct poor community focus programs. One of the largest program we have in India at this point of time is called National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which is across the country, and all the people who—especially landless people, rural farmers, poor farmers, are guaranteed minimum hundred days of employment. It's one of the largest social welfare program anywhere in the world. And this is a program, as I said, it’s direct route approach to poverty alleviation, where you are targeting poor people, investing on them, creating employment, creating jobs, creating, in the process some infrastructure, some assets, by giving them jobs.

    Now, these approaches are well-known as going on for a long time. That's all in the macro context of seeing it.

  • Slums as Signs of Human Potential

    We talk about housing strains, we talk about housing crisis, we talk about housing problem. What we do not talk about is this: that if you take rural India, where's still something like 67, 68 people live, the country the size of 1200 million people, 90% of the housing that is there in rural area is made by the people themselves. No architects, no NGOs, no housing finance company, no realists and developers. So, you look at people and it’s absolutely correct, it’s another way of looking it's a way of seeing, that people have been building their own housing, people have been finding solution to the housing problem.

    If you go to the urban sector now, and India is urbanizing very fast, something like 30 to 35% of the population are in cities. Cities are growing very fast and within cities, slums are growing fast. Whereas the country is growing at about 2%, cities in them are growing at 3 1/2 to 4%, especially the large cities, slums in those cities are growing at anywhere between 8 to 12%, which is a good indication that the poor, the slum dwellers are the biggest builders of housing in the cities.

    Now, one approach that you could take is to say they’re ugly, they’re unauthorized, they’re illegal, and they must be bulldozed. They should be moved.

    Another approach you could take is this: that these are people’s indigenous housing solutions. You could say, slums are not problems; slums are approaches to solutions. Slums are indications that people have the ability and the willingness to solve their problems. Well, those solutions are inadequate, accepted. The solutions are not as good as they should be, but solution they are.

    Because look at the other side, that if people did not take the initiative, if people didn't grab the land, if people did not build their own houses, they would be under the sky. And they don't come to cities to live in houses; they come to cities because to take jobs.

    Once you start looking at slums as solutions and I'm not being very romantic; I really mean it—you are looking at people's potential. You are looking at poor people as solution providers, as people who are within their own means solving their own problems. Now if you were to accept that creativity, if you were to accept their will, if you were to understand their desire to solve their problems, and instead of dismissing them, if you were to say, we will facilitate and support this process, you will go very far.

  • Property Rights and Public Policy

    An enormously important sanction has just come in from a major policy initiative on slum. This policy initiative was announced 3 years ago, where government said that government will provide property rights to slum dwellers as a way to make India slum-free. What they're saying is this: that those people who have solved their housing problem, they have illegally encroached upon lands, taken someone lands, we will [instead] provide those lands to people so that they become official, they become legal, and once they become legal, they have the wherewithal and motivation and capability to improve their houses. Yes, State and the government will have to intervene, develop to provide services, hopefully they will provide capital, they will provide loan facility, but if you do that, people will start solving the problem.

    So you are essentially, in my understanding, not building through houses; you are creating a large support for the people in the form of a policy so that they can start solving their problem, they could start a legitimate existence in the cities. They become new citizens.

    Property right is very important. You look upon [slum dwellers] as illegal encroaches. These are the people who are taking over someone's land illegally. They are unauthorized. They don't have address. In India, they’re allowed to kind of work... but otherwise you don't have address in a city, you are not a legitimate citizen. Property right would give them a new citizenship. 

    That citizenship will do two things. They will start living with dignity, because they're no longer called illegitimate and no longer called illegal and no longer called unauthorized. Second important thing that will happen is this: giving them property right will start the whole second cycle what I call of investments by communities. People are very keen to improve their settlements. They're very, very keen to see that they’s children live in better house. They are very keen that the children go to school so that their children do not see the same fate, the same conditions that they lived in. They want to get away from poverty. They are very motivated.

    So property rights start the whole process of new citizenship, their foothold on the city, they’re becoming legal, and then creating a situation where they would invest. These poor people, the slum dwellers are not there just for the sake of living there. They are the engines of growth of the cities, their own informal sector. In country like India, 80% of jobs are informal sector. There's nothing like unemployment. There’s certainly underemployment that is intermittent employment, but they’re employed. They are very hard-working people.

    Once their existence in the cities is safe, once the sword which is hanging on their head, where they could be bulldozed, they could be evicted, they could be thrown out of the city. Once that is gone, they would invest more, not only in their housing, in their occupations, in their business, in their livelihoods, in the way they earn their income.

    The very fact that you're creating these conditions of their legal state, they will take, that is the most important step in terms of alleviating poverty, because you are empowering them. You are giving them conditions where they could invest more labor, they can invest more capital, they would work harder to earn more, that in the process.

    Not only that, once the security of the property right is given, once the city makes investment in infrastructure like clean water, drinking water, few schools, little healthcare, their health will improve. Better water supply would make more working days available to that. That will add to that income. The health would be much lesser. So all these conditions will start from giving property rights, will lead to improving the condition of the poor significantly.

  • Removing the Barriers to Prosperity

    Poverty is also a structural issue. It’s not that the poor people are poor because they are lazy. They are poor because structures in the society, structures of production, structures of economy are such that they are pushing the bad condition. It’s nothing they have done. It has to do with the systems that we have on hand.

    Consider poor as a market. Look at their needs, look at the goods that they require, look at them as consumers, and start investing in meeting their needs, in servicing them. That will create jobs, that will create economic growth, that will create prosperity.

    If we remove obstacles from the path, if we create conditions so that they could bring in that creativity and their energy, if you build structures that will facilitate and support them, they will go very, very far. They have the deepest desire to get out from the poverty trap. They want to see their children educated. They want their life better. They want to see that this then not labeled as poor but like any other. It's a burning desire.

    And the way to allow that force, to allow that motivation to come out is to try and work and remove as many hurdles, as many obstacles from the way. Yes, you require societal support. Yes, you require policy support, but they're absolutely able to do it. They want to do it. They want to get out of it. They don't want to suffer. They don't want their children to suffer. And there’s hope for the future. There’s hope for tomorrow.