A roof to last

Tuesday, 17 February 2015 00:59 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A hundred days is not much but one cannot blame Sri Lanka’s latest crop of politicians for attempting the extremely difficult. Minister of Housing and Samurdhi Sajith Premadasa has kicked off a program to build 50,000 houses island-wide despite acknowledging significant funding shortcomings and a pending general election. Will this cause more damage than good? The housing policy has been tinkered with by successive Governments, with different results over the decades and perhaps even centuries of Sri Lanka’s history. The prime objective of this latest avatar is to meet the housing needs of vulnerable groups by providing them with an initial Rs. 100,000 and then encouraging them to approach banks, with government assistance, for the remainder. Even the newly crowned Minister admits a basic house will take over Rs. 500,000 to complete, so can such a large number become a reality?   Sri Lanka’s population was 20,271,463 according to the demography survey published in 2011 by the Department of Census and Statistics. Out of this total population, 77.3% is living in rural areas and the urban component is 18.3%. The balance 7.5% is living in the estate sector. The total housing stock of this census report is 5,195,331 and the quality of the housing stock reveals that there are 4,471,442 permanent houses (82%), 577,036 semi-permanent houses and 123,370 improvised units. However, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka estimated that the annual housing demand in Sri Lanka is around 50,000 units. The Presidential Task Force on housing and urban development appointed in 1996 has projected that Sri Lanka’s population will stabilise at around 24 million by 2040. Accordingly, the total housing requirement will be around six million based on the average family size of 4.0. This would mean that a significant increase in the housing stock has to be achieved particularly in urban areas to cater to this.   Though the existing situation in rural and estate sector housing has seen a gradual improvement of sorts, they are still at a relatively lower level. The estate sector settlements are perhaps the worst off, with the new generation wanting a complete change in the line room system. A comprehensive National Housing Policy must embrace the issues of land, infrastructure and finance as well as the capacity of the building materials, construction industry and the capability and aspirations of the people to house themselves. In Sri Lanka each of these components of housing fall under a different administration, with different controls, traditions and values that have to be brought together in a single State policy for facilitating them and a new strategic approach to implement it. If the Government actually manages to get these variables working together, it will be unprecedented. It will require a mammoth amount of resources, especially in the sector of finance, as most houses will be targeted at vulnerable communities who are unable to fund their own homes.   Such a huge program also needs to be sustainable over several decades to have any meaningful impact but with elections just around the corner, many will view it as a polls sop – leaving the Government the additional challenge of proving its sincerity.