Vidya Viswanathan, New Delhi
On 15 July, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi hosted a group of professionals working on rural housing in diverse geographies of the country. The agenda for the meeting, which was co-hosted by several partners, was to present a portal built for the rural housing sector (www.ruralhousingnetwork.com) and to get feedback before the portal goes live in a month.
“It will be www.ruralhousingnetwork.in when it goes live. We have been at it for a year now,” says Professor Vijayaraghavan M. Chariar, coordinator at the Centre for Rural Development and Technology at IIT Delhi.
The idea was incubated a year and half ago by the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD). BK Sinha, Secretary, was very passionate about it. The government funds several million houses under the Indira Awas Yojana, but does not have any information on the relevant technologies to adopt. The MoRD wanted to deploy tested, eco-friendly, cost-effective and disaster-resilient technologies. So they contacted IIT Delhi and the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (Hudco) to create an accessible repository of knowledge, resources, success stories, best practices etc.
Both the institutions have gone to great lengths to ensure that the portal is owned by the community. They have pooled together all their contacts and invited architects, building technologists, civil engineers, companies, non-profits, panchayat members and government professionals working in the sector.
The interaction between participants in three different parallel sessions was lively. Some of the suggestions were practical. For instance, it was felt that if an end-user has to access the portal, the site has to offer a decision-making tool and the supply chain has to be available too.
Some suggestions were philosophical. “We feel poor people deserve poor solutions. We have to overcome that mindset,” said Joe Madiath of Gram Vikas who was chairing a session. “We believe three generations of them will live in one room. They deserve privacy not pigeon holes,” he added. “Houses should be an economic asset for the poor much like it is for us,” said Kirtee Shah, a respected architect from Ahmedabad.
“This is what we want,” said Chariar. “We want the community to own and generate content. We recognize that the final user may not be ICT enabled. But a local organization whether it is a building centre, NGO or the panchayat can help him,” he explained. State governments that want to implement schemes currently have no idea about what other governments are doing. Alternative materials have not become popular because they are not on the list of the government’s approved materials. Creating a database of success stories validated by experts would make them more acceptable.
The team’s first charter is to document all good construction practices and case studies of projects across the country. For example, the Laurie Baker Centre has implemented projects with some of its technology and Auroville has worked extensively with compressed mud blocks. “We are looking at vernacular or traditional practices, innovations and also modern materials,” says Chariar. The technology profile in the website for each of these methods would have two levels – a simplified level for the end user and a detailed technology description for an architect or an engineer. The site would have a directory of practitioners in rural housing.
“Housing is not about technology alone. It is about aspirations and social acceptability. Habitat has a strong bearing. It is also livelihood dependent,” explains Chariar. So coastal zone housing would be different from a house in an arid zone. A fisherman’s house needs to be differently designed from that of a weaver. Also, it is never a single house. It is always a settlement, which means the process should have the participation of people.
The initial updates would come from a team that is travelling across the country. Hudco is the technical consultant. Hudco’s building centres in districts across the country have provided their inputs even though several of them are now in a state of disuse. They also have partnerships with non-profits in each region. The Laurie Baker Centre will serve as the secretariat in the South. Other partners are: COStFORD in Kerala, Unnati in Gujarat and Gram Vikas in Orissa.
It is expected that partners will update the portal with their own innovations and what they see in their neighbourhoods. “We expect 25 to 30 organizations to actively contribute content and share their innovations in project methodology and financial structure too,” adds Chariar.
The idea is also to build the portal into a solutions exchange where experts will answer specific queries and get their own queries answered. However all contributions to the site will be peer reviewed by a panel constituted by the team. The panel includes researchers from academia and practitioners. “After all even Wikipedia is moderated,” says Madiath.