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Five million houses

September 12, 2018

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SUCCESSIVE governments have been unforgivably negligent about housing needs in the country despite the fact that the issue impacts the majority of our population. It is therefore commendable that Prime Minister Imran Khan, following through on one of his main election promises, has taken the initiative so early in his government’s tenure to construct 5m housing units across the country. Judging by his directions to relevant officials in a meeting on Monday that recommendations for an action plan complete with timelines should be finalised in two weeks, he is a man in a hurry. To underscore the importance he accords to the mammoth project, the prime minister himself, it is said, will oversee its monitoring and implementation.

The yawning gap between the need for housing and its availability is increasing by the hour. Conservative estimates place the backlog at 9m units; unmet demand pushes up the figure by 200,000 units every year. Shelter is an essential human need; and the state has increasingly abdicated its duty to its citizens in this regard — the middle-income strata to some extent, but mainly to the huge low-income segment that does not have the resources to access housing options. Earlier, the government was directly involved in housing development. As the ingress of the private sector — encouraged and facilitated by the state — increased, the government slowly began to cede control of this essential function, and its place was taken by informal suppliers of land, a process that has spawned an entire culture of urban violence. Matters have come to such a pass that during the last two decades, not a single major government housing scheme has been launched in any of the larger cities. Instead, corrupt bureaucracies have joined hands with real estate developers, invariably backed by powerful lobbies, to commodify land for sale to the highest bidder — sometimes even land earmarked for low-cost housing. Nevertheless, well-intentioned as Mr Khan’s initiative is, housing development is a complex undertaking that requires a well-thought-out, holistic strategy. It is also a provincial subject, and while three of the provinces are either directly or indirectly ruled by the PTI, the centre must also engage the Sindh government in order to address the wretched shortage of urban housing in that province. For sustainable results, Mr Khan should take stock of previous governments’ successes and failures in this sector and urge provincial dispensations to strengthen the housing development authorities that exist in urban centres.

Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2018