Unfinished Houses, Unfulfilled Lives

By Rupal Kulkarni and Shriram Padmanabhan, Rajasthan Shram Sarathi Association

Hurji Meena and Chunna Ram Gameti, two migrants from southern Rajasthan separated by over 200 kilometres have never met, but have much in common. Chunnaram, a migrant from Gogunda tehsil, had spent the last 6 years constructing a pakka (concrete) house. He was confident that in another 4-5 years, the house would finally be complete and until then his family was content living in the mud house they had built for themselves. Hurji, another migrant from Salumbar tehsil was also constructing his house for the past 3 years, with his family cramped up together in their mud house. Overnight though, this changed. Both their mud houses collapsed in a bout of heavy rainfall. Their pakka house was only one-third done. It didn’t have doors, windows or even a roof. With all their savings invested in the concrete house, both families had no resources to start rebuilding the mud house. By this time, they had also borrowed significantly from friends, family and their contractors and had no more money to quickly complete the pakka house. For the next four years, both Hurji and Chunnaram’s families lived under a plastic sheet in their partially constructed concrete house.

Hurji Mud House

Hurji’s mud house collapsed during the monsoons, forcing his family to live under a plastic sheet for nearly four years.

In the villages of southern Rajasthan, seasonal migration is a rapidly growing livelihood strategy. Lakhs of men migrate to neighbouring districts, Gujarat and Maharashtra in search of work. Interestingly, for a majority of these families, the single most important aspiration is to construct and own a pakka house in their villages. Any surplus income from migration is invested in constructing a house until it is complete.

In southern Rajasthan, it takes a migrant family an average of four years to build a simple two-room house. The same house can be constructed in three months with access to affordable and adequate finance. The lack of formal land documentation in tribal areas hinders traditional collateralized housing finance. Mainstream financial institutions have either not created suitable products or distribution channels to reach migrant workers in such areas.

In the absence of any formal financial access, typically the house is constructed incrementally, as and when the migrant has some surplus money left or when informal borrowings are possible. In several cases, systems of communal labour help but also delay construction, wherein construction depends on the availability of a friend/neighbour.

Countless interviews reveal that a migrant family manages to construct up to six feet with some informal assistance. The construction and completion of the roof is a phase that requires a large quantum of funds within a short time period. Work on the roof cannot be completed piece-meal but has to be completed at one go. The large amount of funds required also means that this is the phase that requires the longest waiting time among all phases of house construction, often stalling construction for a minimum period of 18 months.

Navla Gameti for instance, started constructing his house in 2004. After exhausting all avenues of financing, he waited a decade to start again. When asked why he waited 10 years, he said ‘We save and build incrementally but there are numerous other unexpected events that occur during this duration, and our funds get diverted elsewhere’. The decision to build a house in a piecemeal manner thus results in diversion of funds, additional debt and a 2 times increase in the cost of building a house over a four-year period. In Navla’s case this would be much higher.

Navla Gameti

Navla Gameti with his family: He waited 10 years before resuming the construction of his house, more than doubling the overall cost of construction.

Vaktaram Meghwal’s preoccupation was with safety. As a migrant with a kaccha house, who is away working in the city, he was always pre-occupied with his family’s living situation and safety back home. The monsoons are quite challenging – if it rains at night, a roof that has not been reinforced starts dripping and the family is up at 1 a.m. huddled into a corner.

Unfinished Houses

Exclusion of migrants from financial services can leave houses unfinished, without a roof, doors or windows, for several years before construction is completed.

His choice was to not migrate altogether for 3 months during the monsoons, when the risk to his family’s safety was highest (risk of the roof/entire house collapsing) and in the process forgo a chance to earn better wages. For Vaktaram, an incomplete house also meant that he couldn’t work for long periods at destination even when he migrated. He would work hard in small bursts of 2-3 months, accumulate money, come back home and then continue the construction process. With a complete house, he could think of working for longer periods of time on more lucrative contracts. Just a few kilometres away from Vaktaram’s house, Fateh Lal, who used to work in Ahmedabad earlier, has now come back to Gogunda, reluctantly accepting a 25% wage cut in exchange for looking out for his family living in a precarious kaccha house.

Vaktaram Meghwal

Vaktaram Meghwal chose not to migrate for three months during the monsoons for fear of his family’s safety living in an unfinished house.

For some other families in the region, the inability to construct a house can even result in desperate financial choices, which often curb freedoms. Nathu Gameti, for instance, borrowed 30,000 rupees from multiple informal moneylenders to construct his house. Despite crowdsourcing this loan, the amount is hardly sufficient to complete the house. To avoid losing his land, Nathu’s two sons began migrating in their teens. Similarly Mangilal Gameti borrowed a measly 4,800 rupees for critical repairs to his crumbling mud house. He couldn’t repay the moneylender on time due to a sudden illness and instead found himself in an undignified arrangement of pledged labour with the moneylender, with restrictions on his ability to migrate elsewhere for work.

Nathu Unfinished House

Nathu’s two teenage sons had to migrate in order to pay back informal loans taken to construct their house. Their house is still not complete, but the loan has compounded to nearly three times.

The experiences of all these migrant families point to three very important conclusions. Firstly, having a pakka house at source is the single most important goal that migrant families have and in case of incomplete houses, any cash surplus keeps pouring into construction, leaving little for the attainment of any other meaningful goals or aspirations. Delays in construction will therefore only result in delaying other important goals for the family.

Secondly, the precarity of housing conditions at source are an important determinant of their work choices and experience at destination. A migrant with a crumbling or semi-finished house in the village is less likely to work on longer contracts, is more likely to have fewer days of employment (and consequently lesser income) and is more likely to make sub-optimal migration choices. And finally, the exclusion of migrant communities from access to finance for housing can result in forced financial choices, debt-bondage like conditions and migration that is driven by distress.

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