'It insults us if the government thinks it can buy our rights. I have the right to build a house. And so have my sons. And my grandsons and all their future generations should continue to have the right too.' Rural leader Tang Siu-tong BUT MR TANG'S daughters do not have this 'right'. Nor do his granddaughters. Nor do future generations of indigenous female villagers in the New Territories. And as long as you or your forebears may have lived in Hong Kong, if you cannot trace your roots to a New Territories village you also have no such 'right'. It is not, however, just the blatantly discriminatory nature of what is termed the small-house policy that calls for urgency in scrapping this concession to New Territories villagers. The big problem lies in big numbers. The policy, which was clearly intended as temporary only when it was adopted in 1972, entitles any indigenous male villager over the age of 18 to construction of a three-storey dwelling on a 700-square-foot site within the boundaries of his village once in his lifetime. If he cannot find land within his village or an extension of it, he may apply to the government for a land grant at a concessionary price. As of last year, 28,000 such buildings had been approved under the policy since 1972. Take note that this is an open-ended entitlement. The number grows as long as there are male births to fathers who can claim to be indigenous villagers. No census has ever been taken of the total number of men it covers but the mooted figure tacitly accepted by government is 240,000. Now do the maths - 240,000 people times 700 square feet of land area for each times three storeys per dwelling and you get a figure of 504 million square feet of floor space that could be built in the New Territories. Let us put this into perspective. According to the Census and Statistics Department, private developers completed only 10.8 million sq ft of usable floor area in residential developments in all of Hong Kong last year. Even if we raise this figure to 15 million sq ft for gross floor area, we are looking at potential construction of 33 times as much floor area in the New Territories alone and that figure can only grow. We are talking here of a truly gargantuan overhang of development rights. But are they rights? The champion of the villagers' cause, the Heung Yee Kuk, points to Article 40 of the Basic Law, which states: 'The lawful traditional rights and interests of the indigenous inhabitants of the 'New Territories' shall be protected by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.' The trouble is that no documentation exists for the claim that indigenous male villagers traditionally had such a right and, in fact, there was no mention of it in a 1910 New Territories Regulation Ordinance that sets out other traditional customs and rights. Nor does the small-house policy confer such a right. It was only an administrative measure of comparatively recent origin and, technically, it gave the villagers only the privilege of being able to apply for construction of a small dwelling. We shall have to leave this question to the courts in the end, that is if the courts ever get round to it, but let us at least say that the Heung Yee Kuk's case appears weak. Let us also remember that this 'right' is widely misused. Although it was intended to provide accommodation for village families, it has turned into an easy source of cash for the lucky villagers who have taken advantage of it. Walk through even the remotest villages these days and what you see regularly is expatriate tenants or owners. The original villagers have gone to the lands from which the expats came. But now that the Heung Yee Kuk has four members in the Legislative Council, it is pushing once again. The big idea now is to lift the height restriction for village houses and allow villagers to bundle their entitlements. Get set for it, high-rise blocks in country parks and a massive bill for the rest of us to connect water, sewer, power and transport links. There are only two ways to go here. The first is to continue the existing approach, which is to make no formal change but choke the application pipeline. The second, and more honest, is to say it was a temporary policy, that 32 years is long enough for something temporary and New Territories villagers must now go in the same boat as the rest of us, tough luck for them, no special deals. I entirely agree with Mr Tang that it is an insult for government to buy villagers out of these entitlements but it is not one to him. It is an insult to the rest of us. You could have struck while the iron was hot, sir. It is cold now.