In order to ease the pressures of urbanization and acute housing shortages, the Indian government in New Delhi has come up with a way of giving people access to affordable housing: a lottery.
Many people may remember the living conditions of Indian slums as portrayed in "Slumdog Millionaire," a film by Danny Boyle, released in 2008. A large part of the film is set in Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums located in the metropolis of Mumbai. One million people live in a densely packed area of two squared kilometres. Jamal, the film's main character, has a hard life. He lives with his family in a cramped hut made out of metal scraps. There is only running water and electricity for a few hours per day. He shares a filthy outhouse with dozens of other people.
Many in India feel the film presented a distorted picture of their country. According to a study conducted by the Worldbank in 2011, over nine million people lived in slums in Mumbai alone. That is around 60 percent of the population. But only very few of them have to live in such poor conditions as shown in the film. Many tenants in the slums pay rent for their dwellings and while the shacks are very small, one can find TVs and refrigerators in a good many of them and even air-conditioners in some. Most of the children living in the slums go to school and some even receive a university education. In many Indian cities, the fact is: there is an acute housing shortage that continues to worsen.
The slums are growing because in Mumbai, as in other large Indian cities, authorities cannot keep up with the demand for residential buildings. Each decade, over a million new people migrate to Mumbai in search of work and prosperity. The extreme pressure on the housing market has led prices to skyrocket.
Someone looking to buy an apartment in a sought-after area, for example, near the sea, can expect to pay over 8,000 euros per square-meter, according to a study published by the international real estate agency Knight Frank in 2012. In other parts of the cities, slums are growing at a rapid rate. Architect and city planner Gita Dewan Verma spoke of a vicious circle in her 1993 book "Slumming India."
"We calculated that in the capital New Delhi each year, 70,000 new flats would have to be built to meet demand," Anumita Roychowdhury, CEO of the environmental organization Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, told DW. But neither the public nor the private housing associations are able to keep up with demand. According to Roychowdhury, corruption and bureaucracy are big reasons for that.
"A further challenge is posed by the fact that around only one percent of people live in the heart of Delhi. The rest of the people are pushed to the outskirts." All of this is very frustrating for the city dwellers; long commutes are not only annoying to the workforce, they also put an enormous amount of pressure on the infrastructure and are bad for the environment. Roychowdhury also said it was worrisome that a person's standing in society determined whether they had regular access to potable water and adequate sewage systems.
The housing shortage is so acute that authorities in big cities have started organizing flat lotteries. From rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers to kitchen assistants, anyone can enter to get an affordable flat. And for those who win a premium, it really is like winning a whole flat. In one of the largest lotteries in Delhi, there were 5,020 flats up for grabs. One million tickets were bought; a little over half of the applicants were able to come up with the money required for the reservation fee of a potential new flat. In the lottery, over 120 families won access to affordable living.
"So far, no one has come up with any sustainable ideas for an improved urbanization that will keep people comfortable and happy," said Sudhir Vohra, one of India's leading urban planners from New Delhi. Since independence in 1947, India has only built four new cities.
"The existing cities grow a considerable amount each year. But we don't consider, for example, where industry should best be located, or which land is necessary to keep for farming or which land might be infertile and thus best suited to act as a site for new homes." This lack of planning, according to Vohra, increases pressure on the cities even further.
No solution in sight
Vohra is skeptical there will be a solution to the problem any time soon. "Our megacities are growing out of control." In addition, urban planning was up to each individual state, not to the federal government, to sort out. But a failure to act would have fatal consequences.
In the year 1901, only one-tenth of the population lived in cities. One hundred years later, that number jumped to one third of the population. By the year 2030, the UN expects over 40 percent to be living in a city. "We have made big mistakes in the past years in our urban development. And we haven't learned our lessons fast enough," Vohra added.