Touria Prayag's Blog

L’express Weekly 13 January 2012

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on February 28, 2012

The matchboxes we can afford

Father Jean Maurice Labour brought the housing polemic to the forefront again by publicly deploring the housing units being built to relocate the homeless. He qualifies these as matchboxes which are totally inadequate for the families they will be offered to.

Whether Jean Maurice Labour is right in looking a gift horse in the mouth or not is not the question here. We have far too much respect for him and what he stands for ( and he knows it) to engage in a polemic with him. The point rather is to draw a parallel with some other countries which are economically much better off than we are.

If you or I were living in Tokyo, for example, the best we could arguably hope for is a long thin, shoe- box shaped apartment, with a kitchen area and, with a bit of luck, a bathroom and a living space which would also serve as a bedroom. If we were very lucky, we would have a tiny balcony which we could jump off if we decided to join the 30 000 Japanese who commit suicide every year. Some of us would not even have the luxury of a bathroom and absolutely no privacy. Some of us would queue up at a public place to have a shower and rent a hotel room whenever we could afford a few hours of intimacy with the people we are legitimately married to. Not a bad thing, come to think of it, in countries where abortion is still a crime.

The point is that, as Architect Henry Loo says, “ By the end of the day, lodgings are merely a place to sleep. It is the organisation of social life which has to be taken into account.” We can talk about norms until the cows come home but, at the end of the day, the only norms are the norms that you and I, as taxpayers, can afford and what our priorities are. Is our priority getting people off the streets, away from the insalubrious squatters’ quarters and tea factories or to build a few big lodgings with a garden and one bedroom per child and leave the majority of the homeless in the tea factories until further notice? That is where the debate should start.

Yes! The lodgings offered are small. Yes, some large families may be cramped in them. Yes, families may not have all the privacy they want.

Neither do middle- class people in many parts of the world who pay for their lodgings. What Father Labour should fight for is the organisation of common areas around the housing estates: community centres where children have room to do their homework supervised by volunteers who really want to help them out of poverty; common playing grounds which would help children stay out of harm’s way; meeting places where women can get away from their houses, meet other people and learn a trade or a hobby… And Father Labour should also understand that large families, who are generally shackled with unwanted children, will always have insurmountable problems of promiscuity, lack of resources and lack of proper care for children. No government can afford to give an eleven- bedroom house to a large poor family. So, next time the debate on abortion crops up, maybe he should lie low and let other voices be heard. For the problem is much more complex than what it appears to be at face- value. This may not sound politically correct but giving families the dignity they deserve begins by empowering them to decide how many children they can afford to have.

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