The Assembly Committee on Environment that looked into the impact of floods on Kerala's environment has called upon the state to urgently dump existing models of house construction.
The committee's proposals subvert existing thinking and are revolutionary. But two of them – linking the size of a house to the owner's income and the redistribution of unoccupied or 'fallow' houses – are also dynamite-like in their potential to create a massive burst of disapproval.
Here is the income proposal. “A house-construction that is proportional to the income of an individual.” It is not just the cost of the house that the committee wants linked to income. Floor area, size and even the building materials employed should reflect the income of the builder, the committee's report states.
This can be interpreted to mean that the poor will be allowed to make only cheap-looking cramped houses while the rich will be given the go-ahead to construct opulent sprawling bungalows.
“A house is constructed for the future, factoring in the needs of a family as years go by. It is therefore usual for families to think beyond their means when it comes to building a house,” a UDF MLA told Onmanorama on condition of anonymity. “Also, this is not a Communist dictatorship for income to stay fixed. It is subject to constant change,” he added.
CPI MLA Mullakkara Retnakaran, who heads the nine-member bipartisan committee, said the proposal should not be read superficially. “It is far more nuanced,” he told Onmanorama. “Essentially, we wanted an area limit fixed for all houses in the state, be it for the rich or the poor,” Mullakkara said.
Big fat housing dream
Such a proposal arose from a socialist outlook, he said. “The maximum floor area for houses constructed for the poor under the Life Mission is 420 square feet. So if the government could fix a limit for the houses of the poor, the diktats of equality mandate that a limit should be prescribed for the rich man's house, too,” Mullakkara said.
More than the income, he said the size of a house depends on need. “Take for instance a doctor. He might want a larger space on account of his professional needs. Likewise for businessmen,” Mullakkara said.
Fixing a size limit for the houses of the poor is necessary to prevent unnecessary debt-driven spending. This, therefore, is done for the sake of the individual. But it is for the society that the committee wants the rich to be reined in.
“Size limits for rich houses are needed to prevent the squandering of common natural resources like sand, granite and water,” Mullakkara said. “If we allow the super-rich to build vast houses far beyond their needs, it would only create dead spaces. Spaces that use up our common resources but are of use to none,” he said.
The committee's report is critical of palatial constructions. “Natural resources are used according to a person's whim. The tendency to construct houses on the basis of a person's income and his urge for luxury is increasing. This is leading to unsustainable over-exploitation of the land,” it said.
And then the lament. “Houses are places to live. It has but now become symbols of ostentation and splurge.”
Shortage of suitable land
Shortage of land suitable for construction is another reason why the committee has proposed area limits for houses. But if the committee has still not arrived at any specific limits, it is because of the absence of land utilisation data in Kerala.
“It is only in Wayanad that a study has been conducted. It says that only seven per cent of the area in Wayanad is fit for construction activities. We have no such data for other districts,” Mullakkara said.
Poor in rich houses
Equally radical is the proposal to redistribute unoccupied houses, for which the committee has an agricultural jargon: fallow houses. Official figures show that there are over 14 lakh houses and apartments in the state that are lying unoccupied.
“We should not lose sight of the fact that the natural resources used up for the construction of these unoccupied houses – the sand, the rock and the water - are common property,” Mullakkara said. He clarified that the committee was not recommending a forcible takeover.
“We want the government to talk to the owners of these unoccupied houses and come to an agreement to lease out these houses to the homeless at rent the government fixes,” Mullakkara said.
The committee also wants the government to discourage the construction of more than one house. “Allow the construction of more than one house only if stringent conditions are met by the owners,” the report said. “Even then, property and house tax for the second house should be considerably raised,” it said.
Trouble with cement
The committee also wants Kerala to gradually do away with cement and steel. “The construction sector accounts for over 40 per cent of the energy consumption and 30 per cent of carbon emissions,” the report said.
Cement and steel are the main raw materials in construction. “When one sack of cement produces 50 kg of carbon, one kilogram of steel produces 4 kg of carbon dioxide,” the report said, and added: “Urgently explore new ways of constructing houses.”