Groundviews

Post-war reconstruction and women: Has the Indian Housing Project become a debt trap?

Photo courtesy Red Cross

Following the end of the armed conflict, people returned to their areas of origin in the conflict affected areas with limited, and in some cases no resources, to re-build their lives. This forced them to access new and freely available credit to re-establish a habitable space and restart livelihoods. Due to inexperience managing debt, and the inability of most, whose livelihoods are dependent on the agricultural and fishing sector, to compete with their vulnerabilities in an open and competitive economy, their resources depleted and they slipped into severe debt. Consecutive natural disasters, such as floods and droughts, and the consequent loss of livelihoods have compounded stress on their already limited resources.

The housing project for the conflict-affected that is being funded by the Government of India (GOI)[1], which was intended to enable returnees to rebuild their lives, has regrettably become a contributing factor to women headed households sinking further into poverty and debt. This is due to the vulnerabilities of project beneficiaries not being taken into account. For instance, beneficiaries are expected to have surplus funds in hand to begin the first stage of the project. Most women, who do not have surplus funds and are forced to borrow mostly from local money-lenders at exorbitant rates, engage in casual labour and earn a daily wage of LKR 300-500. Hence, this economically disempowers women headed households, whose average income is one-third less than the national average.[2] Further, it makes them vulnerable to being forced into exploitative relationships due to economic necessity. There have been reports of masons and contractors entering into relationships with women who have employed them, exploiting them financially, and after a few months abandoning them.

The GOI has subcontracted the management of construction of houses to 4 organisations, with beneficiaries provided financial assistance of LKR 550,000 for construction. However, a number of development agencies have reported LKR 646,000 is required to complete it, which therefore requires beneficiaries to contribute almost LKR 100,000 of their own funds to complete the house.

The Indian Housing Project (IHP) deposits funds to the bank accounts of beneficiaries in 4 installments. Funds are released to the beneficiaries by the banks only following the approval (signature and frank) of the local Technical Officer representing the agency tasked to support beneficiaries during the process of construction, reportedly to encourage beneficiaries to make steady progress. Except for the first advance of LKR 50,000, which is 50% of the 1st installment amount, the other disbursements are not provided in advance but are reimbursements. For instance, the second part of the 1st instalment is provided only after the foundation, which costs around LKR 80,000 is laid. Hence, beneficiaries are expected to have surplus funds to the amount of Rs. 30,000 to complete the first stage of construction to obtain reimbursements. An assessment of market rates in Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu, Mannar and Batticaloa illustrates it is quite likely the actual cost of construction, which varies depending on the location, may be even higher.

According to the summary of research findings of a survey of 347 beneficiaries of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in three districts in the North, which was conducted by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (hereinafter the CEPA study), 95% of households that have begun or completed construction have an average debt of LKR 184, 754. This is around LKR 100,00 more than the borrowings of those who have not begun construction. Even households that adhered to the stipulated housing model, i.e. standard measurements, incurred an additional cost of LKR 200,000. The results of this study are useful since the context and circumstances of the SDC beneficiaries are almost identical to those of IHP beneficiaries. Further, even though SDC provided greater direct support to their beneficiaries, they were unable to meet construction costs with the allocated funds.

The CEPA study further states women-headed households reported an average debt of LKR 129,490 with the average debt of women who had begun construction being LKR 12,000 higher than this average. Further, most women are forced to hire labour, which is an additional cost as they are reluctant to seek the assistance of male members of the community or even extended family due to fear of social ramifications such as rumours of an inappropriate relationship with the man and resulting social censure and stigmatization. Since, the socio-cultural, economic and financial circumstances of IHP beneficiaries are the same as those of SDC beneficiaries their experience is comparable.

It has also been reported that some Technical Officers have enlisted certain contractors to undertake construction according to the IHP design for the allocated amount of LKR 550,000. This however has resulted in contractors using sub-standard materials and building low quality houses. Women headed households are more likely to be vulnerable to being exploited by contractors as they will not be able to identify the utilization of sub-standard materials, and will therefore not challenge it. Hence, the support provided by the Technical Officer, who is expected to ensure the construction adheres to basic quality and safety standards, is extremely important and could be strengthened.

In June 2014 civil society submitted a shadow report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), when it reviewed India’s 4th and 5th periodic reports. This report set out several ways in which problems related to the implementation of the IHP could be addressed. Recommendations included, revisiting the owner driven approach which seems to increase the insecurities of vulnerable populations, changing the current house design or providing adequate funds to complete construction, providing technical and other support to vulnerable groups, allowing a more consultative and flexible period for construction, and implementing continuous debt-management and financial literary awareness initiatives along with interest free or low interest loans.

The CEDAW Committee took note of the civil society report and in its Concluding Observations issued in July 2014 expressed concern about the lack of a gender perspective in, and of consultations with women regarding this project. Moreover it recommended India undertake an immediate review of the impact of the IHP in Sri Lanka, adopt a consultative and gender- sensitive approach in implementing the on-going and future phases of the project, and address the needs and concerns of the most disadvantaged and marginalised groups of women.

While implementing the CEDAW Committee’s recommendations would be the first step towards addressing the shortcomings of the IHP, it is imperative the issue is viewed through a rights framework. The project should therefore not be viewed as charity, but as an invaluable contribution towards restoring the dignity of those who have experienced immense loss, by enabling them to enjoy the right to housing, which as the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) states, ‘is more than just four walls and a roof. It is the right of every woman, man, youth and child to gain and sustain a safe and secure home and community in which to live in peace and dignity’.

[1] ’50,000 Indian housing project underway’, Ministry of Defence, 30 Dec 2010 at http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20101226_06

[2] Centre for Poverty Analysis, “Life and Debt: An assessment of indebtedness and socio-economic conditions of housing beneficiaries in Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu,” 2014.