Sheltering Sri Lanka

Friday, 12 June 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

CABINET on Wednesday decided to declare 23 June as ‘National Housing Day,’ highlighting its commitment to provide comprehensive housing. However, the policy of universal housing remains a huge challenge, which has tested every administration.  

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 to assist the housing needs of vulnerable groups including those that will pop up in the future. 

Sri Lanka’s population was 20,271,463 according to the demography survey published in 2011 by the Department of Census and Statistic. 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. 

The census report also indicated that 87% of the total population is having electricity supply while 80% pipe borne water supply and 79% water-sealed toilets. This reflected the requirement of housing in qualitative aspects. 

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 the year 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 the urban areas to cater to this.

Though the existing situation in rural and estate sector housing has seen a gradual improvement or 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. Compared with the rural and urban housing issues in Sri Lanka, the estate sector housing depicts a completely different picture. 

Out of the total population of Sri Lanka, 7.4% is in about 500 estates in the plantation sector. Of this 75% of the plantation workers live in traditional line rooms almost devoid of basic facilities, posing huge challenges. 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 falls 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 round the corner, many will view it as a polls sop – leaving the Government the additional challenge of proving its sincerity.