Shelter: Post Disaster
Nature in all its fury, thousands dead, millions rendered homeless, unimaginable damage to lives and property the world wakes up to a disaster of unprecedented enormosity. Relief pours in from all over and amid tales of heroism, bravery, compassion and sympathy, many lives are saved. Plans, schemes, projects are hatched by all concerned to mitigate suffering –time for reconstruction and rehabilitation.
Millions of pounds and dollars are committed in earnest to make an indelible change, a change for the better, a change hinging on processes designed for sure shot success; process interventions that not only provide houses in the short term but also provide people access to information, skills, materials and technology to make their own houses themselves with little or no external inputs in the long term.
A year and a half on, a lot has been collectively achieved in Orissa, but then what happens next. Interventions in shelter through projects are already fizzling out and the earthquake in Gujarat has the world’s attention now. Have the results sought been achieved, have all these projects and schemes made any appreciable difference. Anyway what is a few thousand houses completed to the actual requirement? Are the people going to take over, look after themselves make their own houses now, tomorrow, the day after and always in future. A few thousand houses today with external inputs and homes for millions tomorrow with only their resources.
It actually does not need much to see that inspite of all that has gone in, the results are not at all that flattering. More so when design, dissemination, adaptability, replicability and multiplication were key words inbuilt into most project interventions. Appropriate technology, sustainable technology, cost effective technology call it whatever you may, but these were meant to be the solution to all shelter needs. They not only would provide safe and affordable houses but the knowledge would be transferred to the population (dissemination) for adoption as future practices. Take a look around, have these technological interventations really worked (perhaps these are early days) but other than houses being built through projects, grants, aids etc the people have not taken up these technologies for construction on their own. I suspect that the major reasons among a host of others could be the following:
w Technology/ies yet to be demystified
w Lack of community participation in decision making
w Insufficient skill upgradation
w Unassured availability of quality products and services.
Demystification of technology
The common man looks more in sceptism rather than in awe at the various technology options integrated into his house, for example the thin ferrocement channel, the scooped out filler slab or the pieces of planks etc all going into making his roof. Firstly, he is not sure how they would perform but most importantly he does not understand the language the architects, engineers and supervisors speak. Presumably, high levels of skills required to construct appear perplexing to him. He is unclined to wonder that in the event of his wanting to try out the same, where would he get the material and importantly the masons, engineers and supervisors to do it for him. The engineering knowledge in these technologies and products have yet to be broken down to make sense to the common man. Thumb rules will have to apply rather than detailed scientific calculations for mix or water cement ratio. Technologies in themselves have to be idiot proof taking account of errors of omission. It is only when people understand the basics behind the technologies and products will they be able to accept, adapt and use them; albeit after some initial failures.
Technological information should not be the sole purview of the engineers and supervisors but rather the property of the common man. Awareness camps, mobile building centres, technology clinics, exposure visits are all avenues for creating an enabling environment. Unfortunately most project interventions do not address this issue as they are mostly oriented towards targets.
Community participation in
Community participation in decision making – be it for layout, design, form, materials etc. is critical. Failure to do so will spell sure rejection. Each person is to be made aware of what he or she is getting into and should expect. Transparency is a must; strengths and weaknesses must be laid out. The beneficiary of a project should understand what is expected of him and roles and responsibilities of the actors involved should be clearly laid out. In the context of technology, limitations if any should be explained and precautionary/preventive measures required (if any) should also be clearly tabled. The community is to be involved in the process of planning and management for successful implementation. Here again this is an issue that is often contentious and the community is initially involved in decision making but left out altogether once the project intervention is underway. The community, it has to be understood, is the major stakeholder and ownership has to be built up in them, specially when we expect them to carry forward and manage the resources created. The standard fate of housing projects, once they are completed is that they are not owned and more often than not, decay through disuse and zero maintenance.
The non-availability of skilled masons is one complaint you hear a lot about. The good ones are to be found in the towns and cities of our country only. But where do they come from; from those little villages where we are today. It is farcical to think that unless we make masons in the villages to take care of our technologies and products, we are going nowhere. No crash courses – a long term effective training strategy has to be drawn up, unifying all the present projects in the state, proper skill assessment, training, monitoring, follow-up training with certification should be the order of the day. A data base on masons trained at block level or Gram Panchayat level would be an useful tool. Most projects are designed for short training sessions whereby mandays lost are limited and other attempts which are too ambitious and results are meagre.
Availability of quality products
So where does the villager go to when he decides to build his roof, say with planks and joists? The project production centre may have long since closed as the project is over. The nearest building centre which was opened with much fanfare is also not operational, or products not available, or are of inferior quality. Where is the mason who knows how to lay a roof with planks and joists? Where is the supervisor who would help him in the correct estimation and planning? What does he do? Give up the idea? Sure enough, and why not? What choice does he have other than to go to the nearest town and buy Asbestos Sheets or negotiate with the local contractor for an RCC slab roof—the local contractor adds to his charges, service charges for bringing in cement, steel, chips, shuttering material and labourers from the town. Either he entrusts the contractor with the job or in the worst case he would probably have to get himself and a few friends together and cast his own roof. The non-availability of quality products and services to the user is by far the greatest contributor to why dissemination is not being effective. Surely if such products and services were available to the villager why would he go to trouble of getting himself a contractor or much rather buying and transporting materials himself for a RCC roof, and then look for labour and provide them food apart from wages to work for him. Limited availability of products and services are the most determining factors in the failure of dissemination of all technologies.
In order that the dissemination actually happens, projects, schemes and all such interventions in the area of shelter have to realize that a concerted thrust has to be made in the areas of community participation (not just lip service), awareness generation, skill upgradation and making quality products and services available, possibly at the doorstep of the common villager. In this context social organisations, NGO’s, CBO’s etc need to be entrusted solely with the purpose of participation and awareness generation – not turned into contractors. Long term training strategies need to be drawn up and a state level training mission commissioned. The existing building centres and hopefully a few new ones need to be supported, with proper technical and managerial backstopping. Small and micro enterprises in building materials should be encouraged. Of course, these efforts would go a long way in enabling the real builders of India – people themselves to make safe, strong and economical houses. q
The author is an engineer and project manager of Ashraya programme in Orissa.
The contents of this article are not academic and are only meant to be taken for what they are-a random monologue on how "SHELTER" as an agenda is presently being addressed in the context of Orissa, following the devastating super cyclone of 1999.This article looks at what is being done presently, things that are not being done but need to be done, things that have to be continued and perhaps some that have to be discontinued. Readers will have to bear with the fact that the author has had experience in this subject for just about a year now.