By Moin Qazi
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.
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 key constraint in providing shelter is that people do not have proof of ownership of the land they live on. This deprives them of so many basic amenities. Even a small plot can lift a family out of extreme poverty.
A spark of hope for rural housing finance
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. India’s housing space, particularly the lower tier of the economic pyramid, has remained largely unaddressed. Lack of proper documentation is a major obstacle. The process of obtaining and putting it in place is an impossible mission to accomplish without nimble titling, mortgaging and a smooth financing system. However, 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.
In 1993, the Panchayat Raj Act was enacted, endowing the local village panchayats with functions of local governance. In 2009, Kumar registered Swarna Pragati Housing Finance and came up with a new model of housing finance that was based on empowering rural communities. Kumar spotted in panchayat raj institutions, the building blocks for innovations in housing. He 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.
Obtaining ownership and simplifying the mechanism
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”.
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.
Uniting “Swachtha” and “Swarna”
Swarna Pragati has a specialised finance program that provides safety, privacy and dignity to women by giving them access to affordable toilets. Kumar’s ground team is also bringing about a cultural shift that will ensure that once the toilets are built, they will be used by everyone. It can provide fillip to the Prime Minister’s flagship sanitation programme, Swach Bharat Abhiyan.
Modi’s housing and sanitation programmes have the potential of becoming game changers but are mired in thickets of bureaucratic red-tapism. A reform in land rights is the need of the hour and the policy planners can make use of organisations like the Swarna Pragati for blueprints.
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 synergized 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.
The Swarna Pragati model is just one of the many creative ways village panchayats can become harbingers of a larger revolution.
Feature Image Source: Pixabay
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