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We need to learn from Singapore’s experiment on housing

Housing is a basic necessity and in India we are struggling over the years to fulfil this basic need. Housing for all has been the noble objective pursued by governments after governments both at the central and state level but without much change in ground reality. It’s a case of weak policy initiative and poor execution that have rendered our noble objective to remain only on paper. Perhaps time has come for the policy makers to take a leaf out of Singapore’s experience and experiment here.

Though Singapore is a rich nation in terms of per capita income, today, more than 80% of Singapore’s 5.8 million residents live in housing provided by the Housing Development Board (HDB). Since 1961, in fact, HDB has completed more than 1 million housing units. Furthermore, the unit production was complemented by a comprehensive and integrated planning to create a self-sufficient environment conducive for residents to live, work, play and learn – making housing the centre of a social welfare infrastructure.

HDB’s endeavour has not only solved the housing problem but has also given Singapore the opportunity to solve social and political issues (eg. ethnic integration and community building) by tackling them through public housing.

Housing doesn’t mean just providing four walls with a roof and this fact HDB knows better than anyone else. Now HDB is focusing on upgrading the existing housing supply, a decision which is based on principles of engagement, scale, and market research, and can be an example for housing authorities that similarly seek to enhance the physical environment of their residential neighbourhoods as well as apartments within housing blocks.

HDB towns are comprehensively planned to create a self-sufficient environment that is conducive for residents to live, work, play and learn. Importance of such self-contained townships within cities was realised by many of us during the pandemic spread and subsequent lockdown. Besides safeguarding land for housing which accounts for about 50% of a typical town, HDB also sets aside land for supporting road network and a wide range of facilities (e.g. schools, shops, markets, libraries, community centres, parks, places of worship etc.) to meet the needs of the residents.

Public housing estates in Singapore are not only constructed with commercial, social and recreational facilities, but also employment opportunities. Within each housing estate, some 10 to 15% of the land, usually at the periphery, is reserved for industrial use in order to tap the pool of labour from the housing estates. These tend to be light, labour intensive and pollution free industries. In other words, these industrial estates not only provide land and other infrastructure facilities required for the industries but also more importantly skilled labour – an important factor which ignored by the industrial estates in India. Availability of skilled labour in the neighbourhood is an important incentive for the new industries come up. Thus, housing creates a win-win situation for the industries, government and the general public.

Its easy to rubbish the achievements of Singapore on housing front saying that it’s a small city nation and its total population is far less than some of our major cities. But the Singapore experiment can be replicated at least in some of our cities which are collapsing due to poor housing facilities and growing slums. Rather than drawing from theory or abstract models, its always better and safer to depend upon insights drawn from other countries’ experiences.

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