The Housing of the Working Classes

The problem of housing of the working classes is a natural off-shoot of the growth of industrialism, which leads to a heavy con-centration of workers at an industrial center. In the days when individualism ruled, owners of factories never thought it any part of their duty to provide for suitable accommodation for the wage-earners whom they employed. Naturally these had to shift for them-selves in the cheapest class of houses which were without even the minimum conveniences of life. Absence of proper hygienic and sanitary arrangements increased the evils of over-crowding, and created what are known as slums or busters. The rapid spread of industrialism multiplied these evils almost in geometrical progression, and this might have continued unchecked but for two factors. First, the infiltration of socialistic ideas in Trade Union organizations created widespread dissatisfaction among workers and an insistent demand for better conditions. A class of conscientious men also lent their moral support to these demands on grounds of common humanity. Nor must we forget sensitive-minded men like Ruskin and Morris who were disgusted at the sight of too much avoidable .ugliness disfiguring the landscape. Pressure was brought to bear upon the owners of slums and factories to effect reforms and these could not always be resisted. Secondly, the insanitary conditions in the slums became the breeding ground of infectious diseases and threatened the health of the locality, which no Government could long ignore. Finally, the standard of welfare for the working class that was set up in Russia after the Revolution imposed upon the non-communist countries the obligation to prove, that similar conditions might be provided equally under a capitalist regime. It is in this way that the problem of providing suitable and sanitary houses and to be taken up by the government and local authorities.

Undoubtedly slums have to be removed. But there are enormous difficulties in its way. The slums belong to private owners. To interfere with private property in any form strikes at the root of the individual's right to do or not to do what he likes with his own property. How can a private owner be compelled to spend money on improvements in what is his own property? Governments have often initiated legislation for fixing rent and repairs of tenements, but workers are not always in a position to pay the enhanced rent that invariably followed repairs. This naturally forced the renters to forego necessary improvements in order to avoid increased rent. Hence the only alternative is for the government to build suitable .houses for the working classes--and let them out on a small rental. If this is done, the prospect of competition with state-owned houses is likely to exert an indirect pressure on private owners to initiate reforms. But even if a government accepts the liability, it is usually made contingent on the availability of funds which are always wanted for more spectacular projects. And hence reform in this direction is not as rapid as it could be. In America, enhanced wages paid to workers are re-absorbed through the accommodation that owners of factories provide in close proximity to the factories. But in other countries in the West it is claimed by owners that their profits are not such as to enable them to afford such enhancement in wages, for which reason the problem in these countries have continued to remain intractable to a very large extent.

If these difficulties exist in the more prosperous Western countries, how much must they be in a poor country like India? It is therefore, necessary to apply socialistic principles in dealing with this important problem. In the first place, it must be made incumbent on employers to provide proper and adequate accommodation for their employees on a non-profit-earning rental. This could be easily done if a ceiling were fixed for profits. At the same time, the State may for this purpose subsidies newly established factories for a limited period over the initial stages. Alternatively, the State may impose suitable taxes on profit and utilize the enhanced revenue for the purpose of building accommodation for• workers. At the same time the State should compel existing slum owners either to effect proper improvements in accordance with municipal laws, or, on the failure of the owners to comply, to expropriate their property with-out compensation. After all, recognition of the well-being of every citizen should be a fundamental principle of governments, and if accepted should go a long way in removing the obstacles in the way of reform.