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Address the housing issue

Shelter is one of the basic human needs.

Despite accelerated socioeconomic development, the country has not been able to provide affordable housing to its people, especially in urban centres.

It is estimated that about 5,000 Bhutanese are living across the border town in Jaigaon today. According to national housing development corporation limited (NHDCL), 1,259 households applied for the 506 flats under the affordable housing project. The  project that was inaugurated recently comes as a relief to many.

The effort taken to address the housing needs is laudable. But it is not enough. For an issue as pressing as housing needs, leaving it to the luck of the residents to avail the 506 flats will not address the problem. Assuming that about 200 of the 1,259 who registered for the flats have moved out, there are still about 553 households and families whose housing needs will not be met. It is not yet known if NHDCL will initiate another similar project but with the freeze on local area plans lifted and private house owners constructing houses, there is some hope that housing needs would be addressed.

The housing project in Phuentsholing is a response to a situation we are responsible for creating. Unplanned development and rural-urban migration contributed in pushing Bhutanese across the border. We must learn lessons from this episode and plan better in meeting the housing needs of the people.

This calls for an urgent need to assess the housing need across the country. According to the population and housing census report 2017, Phuentshogling thromde and Thimphu thromde saw a net of 511 and 449 migrants per 1,000 populations. Family move, employment and education are the most common reasons for migrating to these urban centres.

For each of these families, access to affordable housing is the most immediate priority and challenge. With these needs going unmet, our cities have seen the emergence of slums. We have seen the social ills breeding from such living conditions.

The 2002 National Housing Policy does not address the current housing issues. It is good that a draft of the revised housing policy is now with the GNH commission. But a housing policy alone is not good enough because implementation relies on other public policy interventions. There is already a dire need to address access to improved drinking water and sanitation facilities especially in urban centres. Road connectivity and access to employment opportunities, healthcare and education facilities are also important considerations but at a time when we are still struggling to provide basic amenities such as drinking water supply, other services have become a luxury today.

The draft policy notes that an increasing number of residential buildings are converted into institutional and commercial uses reducing housing stock. The parliament members’ office is a good example of how the absence of an office space for MPs has resulted in the National Assembly Secretariat renting a private building to provide space for our elected representatives. The second parliament dissolves today, but their issue of office space and the people’s housing needs remain.

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