Nepal | July 05, 2020

Shelter for everyone: Easier said than done

Jiba Raj Pokharel
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Housing has been enshrined in the constitution as a fundamental right, but if the government fails to introduce appropriate policies and strictly implement them, this may remain limited to papers only

Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

Following the authentication of 16 bills on fundamental rights by the President, there have been quite a lot of talks regarding the right to shelter or housing. Housing is one of the basic needs parallel to food and clothing. Article 37(1) of the Constitution of Nepal says: “Every citizen shall have the right to an appropriate housing.” Appropriate housing refers to a combination of a plot of land, a building and associated services such as water supply, sanitation, power, and more importantly now also an access to the internet.

Housing received the attention of the nation only after the sixth five-year plan (1980-85), as per which Nepali people were entitled to owning sophisticated to simple kinds of housing depending upon their social and economic status. Whilst the kings then enjoyed “housing” like the Narayanhiti Palace for example, commoners like Chepangs, the wanderer tribes, had to (and still have to) make do with huts made up of tree branches and leaves.

Housing prominently figured on the “development agenda” during the reign of the King Birendra in the mid-80s when he made a pitch for taking Nepal to the European standard. Then the much-hyped European standard slogan was scaled down, with the goal recalibrated at meeting the Asian standard—the reason given was lack of resources. Nonetheless, the Asian standard was also beyond Nepal’s reach.

When the reality dawned upon then policymakers, the country then settled with basic needs programme. The basic needs programme aimed to make available at least one 30 square metre house spread over 40 square metres plot for every citizen. But then there was the realisation that an extensive survey was required across the country before deciding on the area where housing plots could be provided to the citizens, especially to the homeless people.

Accordingly, the Nepal National Housing Survey was conducted in 1990. The survey revealed that 50 per cent of houses were of temporary type built with temporary materials such as bamboo, mud and thatch. Around 7.5 per cent used a permanent types of materials like cement and concrete. Another 42 per cent were semi-permanent with the use of both temporary and permanent materials. A shelter policy was prepared in 1996—six years after the restoration of democracy—with the plan to address the shortage of 2.5 million houses in two phases and renovate 732,000 houses by 2006.

As often happens in the developing countries and more so in Nepal, this policy remained in papers only. A new policy was formulated in 2012.

The new policy identified the need of three million houses in the country by 2020. Around 20 per cent of these houses were to be built in then 58 urban municipalities of the country. But both these policies required huge financial resources for their implementation. As a result, these plans once again got shelved and never appeared on the glittering tables of our bureaucrats.

The above examples show that some attempts indeed had been made in the past regarding people’s right to housing, but the problem is these plans were never implemented.

Issues like the site, services, guided land development and the land pooling never made it to serious discussions.

Now the business plan of the Department of Urban Department and Building Construction has projected the need of 1.5 million houses by 2034, 60 per cent of which are estimated to be in the urban area. There is going to be a need of further 340,000 houses for the deprived groups. The cost has been estimated to be Rs 4,660 billion. The government is expected to bear a paltry 0.89 per cent with the corporate sector, development partners, as well as individuals sharing 1.96, 26.73 and 70.41 per cent respectively.

All these hence sound like sweet nothings in view of the failure of similar pronouncements made in the past.

In recent years, many apartments have mushroomed, especially in Kathmandu, but they are targeted for the rich people and people from the modest income group, cannot afford them. In this context, the government needs to pay attention to the construction of cost-effective houses for the poor.

Ensuring shelter or housing for all may sound very nice and a noble thing to do, but creating one for everyone is easier said than done. Even countries like the United States have significant numbers of homeless people.

But there are some success stories in some countries. Sri Lanka in the mid-80s successfully implemented its million housing programme. South Africa has delivered three million subsidized houses in the last two decades. This was possible largely due to the strong political will of the governments.

In Nepal, we now have a strong government with a two-thirds majority, something which has not happened in the last six decades or so. This government now has the opportunity to deliver on the promises and implement the right to housing. But the government seems to have lost the focus. Housing despite being enshrined as a fundamental right in the constitution, there are concerns whether this one will never get the required attention only because the government seems to be engaged in throwing vitriol at the opponents and making tall promises.

Pokharel is vice chancellor of Nepal Academy of Science and Technology

A version of this article appears in print on September 27, 2018 of The Himalayan Times.

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