Opening of the Aga Khan Baug, Versova

His Highness the Aga Khan speaking at the inauguration of the Aga Khan Baug at Versova, Mumbai, India. AKDN / Christopher Little

Your Excellency the President,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me profound pleasure to be in Versova again to open the housing project which I inaugurated here almost exactly five years ago and to be performing the ceremony in the presence of such distinguished guests.

The Trustees of the Muniwarabad Charitable Trust and I are most happy and honoured to have His Excellency the President with us this morning. It is indeed a privilege and a very great encouragement to have him here.

I also warmly welcome His Excellency the Governor of Maharastra and Mr H.T. Parekh, Chairman and guiding spirit of the Housing Development Finance Corporation, with which I am proud to be associated, as well as many other important citizens of this great metropolis.

We are appreciative that they have given their time, on which there is such constant pressure, to come here today and so acknowledge an important duty which we all share: the duty to offer both our efforts and our resources for the benefit of the poor.

There are those, as I said when I inaugurated this project, who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their lot. Unless these unfortunates can be touched with the spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination, they will only sink back into renewed apathy, degradation and despair. It is for us, who are more fortunate, to provide that spark.

That is why declaring the Aga Khan Baug ready to receive the first of the 344 needy families who will eventually fill its apartments means so much to me. This occasion is not only a part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations, marking the 25th anniversary of my accession to the Imamat of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. It is a milestone in the Muniwarabad Charitable Trust’s hopes of making a positive contribution to India’s housing efforts and of improving the quality of life for some of this great city’s urban poor people who might otherwise see no glimmer of hope in their futures.

Bombay, as many of you here will know, is a city with which my family has very long established links. It was to Bombay that my ancestor, Aga Khan the First, Aga Hassan Ali Shah, came in 1845, two years after his arrival in India from Persia, and it was on Malabar Hill that the official residence of the Aga Khans was built. This is the property which was sold in 1980 to provide the bulk of the funding for the Muniwarabad Charitable Trust and so for the buildings we see completed here today. I am sure you will appreciate that this gives a particular emotional intensity to today’s ceremony so far as my family and I are concerned.

Malabar Hill was the home of my great grandmother, Lady Ali Shah. From her it passed to my grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah. It was from Malabar Hill that he was sent to be India’s representative at the Geneva disarmament conference in 1931 and 1932, and again it was from there that he departed to take office as President of the League of Nations in 1938. It was where I stayed during my Takhtnashini in 1957. Malabar Hill has been a place of marvellous memories for our family.

You may wonder why we decided to relinquish a place so close to our hearts. With the passing of time Malabar Hill had become less and less used by us. A developing country like India cannot afford under-utilised assets. I feel confident that if the previous generations of my family were alive today, they would have agreed with my feeling that the value of such assets ought to be released for better purposes. That is why, despite the sentimental attachment of all my family and the Jamat to Malabar Hill, we decided to donate the property so that it could be sold and the proceeds devoted to re-housing the poor. At the same time we gave land in Pune to the Muniwarabad Charitable Trust.

A moment ago I mentioned the soul-destroying poverty into which many children are born, in which they grow up, live as adults, and in which, often prematurely, they die.

The demographic surveys which we carried out in 1971 showed conclusively that families of immigrants to the city can rarely succeed in generating enough income to meet the most basic urban needs within the whole lifetime of the head of the family concerned. The gulf between the way such families live and the lowest acceptable standards can seem unbridgeable? They live in appalling conditions, they easily fall prey to disease, their children cannot achieve a proper education. Not only are they miserable the social and economic cost of their plight is enormous.

This is what convinced us that the best way to assist these unfortunate people is through a policy of all-enveloping support: improving health care, educational facilities and housing. One of my earlier concerns in social welfare in India was with housing. As I said at the inauguration ceremony five years ago, the visual, physical and emotional impact of a decent home can light the spirit of human endeavour. A proper home can provide the bridge across that terrible gulf between utter poverty and the possibility of a better future.

If a man is enabled to buy or rent a reasonable roof over his head he will have been provided with the first ingredient of his self-respect. He will feel it worth working harder to have a little more to spend on food and clothing. If he has children he will be more inclined to educate them and take proper care of their health. Perhaps more important than anything, his children will grow up against a secure background, with all that implies. By building new homes we lay the social foundation of man’s betterment.

This belief has governed the activity of the Muniwarabad Charitable Trust and the Ismailia Central Housing Board, which provides the Trust’s housing development and other projects with professional and technical expertise. The buildings we now see before us are the first completed result of their endeavours and in this connection I must pay a warm tribute to the voluntary assistance the Housing Board has received from such distinguished experts as Mr Charles Correa and Mr Ruston Dubash, Mr Akber Merchant and Mr Farouq Chinoy.

I need not repeat the construction details of the Aga Khan Baug given in his introductory speech by the Chairman of the Trust, Mukhtar Munjee, whose own contribution to the project together with that of Salim Maladwala and their respective Boards, has been invaluable. However, I would like to mention that the building specifications have improved on the basic standards set by the Urban Land Ceiling Law. Four water taps instead of one per dwelling, glazed tiles in the bathrooms, more electrical points and such qualitative differences as cross ventilation and two rooms instead of one per family, have, we must admit, increased construction costs. But they will also add much to the quality of life enjoyed in the Baug.

It is my belief, and a very strongly held one, that where the climate degrades the fabric of buildings more rapidly than elsewhere and land is at premium, new housing must be conceived and executed in such a way that it will provide permanent, valid, homes for many successive generations. This is especially so in view of the near-certainty that net disposable incomes in India will not grow fast enough to out space constructional costs and so eventually enable the present owners of apartments of their children to sell and purchase substantially better accommodation. Their families are likely to remain in the Baug. Tomorrow’s children will demand higher standards. So far as is practicable, we must build for the future as well as the present.

Here, of course, one enters upon the familiar arguments concerning housing for the lower income groups. As we all know, low cost housing can escalate into becoming so high cost that the people it is intended for cannot afford the end-product offered. Yet too strong an emphasis on economy can equally reduce quality to such an extent that ten years later an apartment block degenerates into a slum and living standards become little better than those in the hutments and dilapidated dwellings from which the unhappy occupants were originally moved.

Somehow a correct balance must be struck. In the case of the present project, costs were pushed up by a number of factors, including long delays in obtaining cement and unexpected price rises. I have already mentioned the limitations on the growth of the net disposable incomes of the poor. It would be unwise to imagine that the people who will take over the apartments here are ever likely to achieve sufficient growth in their incomes to be able to repay the true costs of the property they are acquiring.

Accordingly we are subsidising the selling prices and will help the purchasers to obtain loans, an approach which we believe offers the best solution to assisting the urban poor whom we want to re-house in the Baug. At the same time, we must recognise that those housed here will be taking possession of an inflation proof capital asset and we will not look kindly on any who try to convert this subsidised housing into an immediate windfall profit.

It might be argued that there is more urgent need to give increased support to the rural populations and dissuade them from seeking to become urbanised – a need which we are planning to address through our new rural support programmes. But this does not alter the scale of the existing problems of the urban poor and it is most desirable for the Trust to continue this work.

The Trust does, however, feel that, in any future housing developments, efforts should be made to achieve a reasonable social mix so that the better educated and better-off people allotted space can provide stimulus and guidance to those people who are less socially advantaged. The better-off allottees would be both prepared and capable of paying a price closer to the “market” and if this were permissible, the Trust would charge different prices to the different income groups. The intention would not be to develop any property at a profit but simply to achieve the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ by varying the degree of subsidy according to need.

You can see, here in front of you, what the Trust is capable of building. Yet housing is the most difficult area of social development to appraise in terms of human, as opposed to architectural, results. It is far easier to quantify the effects of providing better education or health care facilities against their costs. How do you measure the benefits of a family having a decent home, of the father’s dignity, of the mother’s pride, or the children’s sense of security, of better family and better work potential? Nonetheless the beneficial impact can be tremendous.

I am deeply convinced that improved housing has a substantial multiplying effect from generation to generation and I intend to encourage our institutions to make even greater efforts in the housing field in the years ahead.

Thank you very much.