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Building India Brick by Brick

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Conscious Incrementalism

By Sanjeev Chopra

Last week, your columnist was invited to a webinar by CSR Times on ‘Housing Infrastructure and the role of the Real Estate Regulatory Agencies (RERA)’. Most of these bodies are headed by ex-IAS officers and they have done well in ensuring that developers of real estate projects are legally bound by the assurances given by them to those who have invested their life savings for their flats. This is a positive example of how the urban development departments, both in the Centre and the states, have addressed the issue and provided a real and effective grievance redressal mechanism for this sector. The counter factual must also be put on the table. In the absence of this quasi-judicial forum, we had so many middle class households running from pillar to post to seek refunds, or enforcement of the contracts which had been entered into by the realtors. It was a David versus Goliath battle between an individual and large corporate houses, many of them backed by political muscle. This is yet another example of how we can bring about incremental changes in society without recourse to agitation, violence or litigation. The fact that the realtors have to register with RERA, put their own money into the project, maintain a separate account for funds received from the home-buyers has set in motion a virtuous cycle, in which there is protection for the individual home buyer, the banker and financial institutions as well as for the realtor. Of course, the current pandemic has delayed many a project, and the unsold inventory of houses has tilted the scale in favour of the individual interested in buying a home to live in – for the situation is now quite different from what it was a decade ago – when individuals and institutions were buying flats for ‘investment and speculation’.

All this augurs well for the middle class individual who has access to a financial institution to take a home loan: it is also good for the bankers and the developers. Can we now look at the entire value chain, and spare a thought for the brick kiln worker who provides the basic ‘building block’ for the entire construction industry? The LBS National Academy recently took up a study on the work conditions at brick kilns in the country, and each one of the one hundred and eighty probationers of the 2018 batch visited one kiln, each, to record their observations on the working and living conditions of workers and their families at these sites. The empirical and the anecdotal matched when the officers reported the blatant violation of labour laws, lack of access to clean drinking water, sanitation, educational facilities – besides the system of ‘advance payment’ which technically ‘bound’ the worker to the brick kiln. However, it was also quite clear that, in most cases, entire families shifted to the work sites to work on an informal contract system.

In the brainstorming sessions that followed, there were quite a few suggestions – and two of these are that we should look at ‘institutional’ mechanisms. The first is that the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) should set up standards for Brick Kilns – which should cover standards for work, housing, drinking water, primary health and pre-school education in the vicinity of the worksite. The second was that CPWD, state PWDs and RERA should insist bricks should be procured only from kilns that follow BIS norms. These two steps may increase the cost of the basic ‘brick’, but India@75 must ensure that those who lay the foundations of all our buildings must lead a life of dignity and be treated with fairness and equity. This is how we will build a new India, literally, Brick by Brick!

(Sanjeev Chopra is a historian, public policy analyst and the Festival Director of Valley of Words, an International Literature and Arts festival based out
of Dehradun. He was a member of the IAS, and
superannuated as the Director of the LBS National
Academy of Administration).