Thursday, June 1, 2017

One with the tribe

What makes a home? The people, of course. And also the surroundings. Can a house made of cement and concrete find itself in harmony with the greenery around in a forested area? Not really. Gone are the days when every region had its unique architecture, suiting the landscape and lending it an exclusivity. For instance, Konkan was known for its chiryachi ghara (red brick houses) and Marathwada for its dhabyachi ghara (flat-roofed houses). Now, these structures are few and far between. Cement and glass constructions have mushroomed both in rural and urban landscapes. We have gone wrong trying to bring in a ‘homogeneous’ look, and, more importantly, ignoring the region’s climatic conditions.

The house of a farmer at Palsunda village which won the Design Jatra team HUDCO prize
It was this which acted as a trigger point for architect Pratik Dhanmer when he returned to his village Murbad near Dahanu. “My village consists of 70 houses. In the past, we relied on traditional architecture — like using karvy (reed grass) and bamboo to build them. They grew in plenty in our region. However, in the new constructions, cement was being used. When I objected to it, a villager pointed out, ‘You have lived in a cement house in Mumbai for several years. You have consumed natural resources far more than us. Who are you to tell us where we should live or not?’ That hurt me. But it was also the truth,” explains Dhanmer.

He and his architect friend Shardul Patil, who also hailed from the same region, decided to renovate the latter’s home using traditional architecture. They are now in the process of building Dhanmer’s home using karvy and red bricks. “My old home was 100 per cent made of karvy. In the new construction, the walls and partitions are made of karvy and wood, while the columns are made of red bricks. The foundation is of mud,” he adds.

Dhanmer, Patil and their two friends Anuradha Wakde and Vinita Chiragiya form the core team of Design Jatra — an architectural firm, adhering to Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings. They are all students of Rachana Sansad’s Academy of Architecture, Mumbai.

Work ethics
Dhanmer cites Gandhi’s conversation with architect Laurie Baker on how we should ideally be using the material available within a five km radius of the construction site. “However, we are finding it difficult to construct houses using material within a five km radius. So we have extended it to 20-25 km radius. We are primarily a tribal village, so we want our construction to meet their needs. A tribal earns Rs 200 as daily wages. So how can he pay Rs 350 for a bag of cement? He then gets caught in a debt trap. Plus, cement curing requires a lot of water. We don’t have enough water resources, so the process of cement curing isn’t done properly. That results in poor quality construction and in a year or two, the houses collapse,” he adds.

Tribal life
Having observed the tribals closely in Jawahar and Palghar districts (near Mumbai), Dhanmer and his friends realised that their work shouldn’t disrupt their natural way of life. “The tribals have an organic way of living. They toil in the fields and live in homes made of mud, bricks and stones which are available in plenty. They live in close proximity to nature. So why burden them with extra funds?” he asks.

The Design Jatra: (from left) Shardul Patil, Anuradha Wakde, Vinita Chiragiya and Pratik Dhanmer
City-based architect, Mayukh Gosavi, who has also collaborated with Design Jatra in the past, says, “The walls of tribal homes are made of kud or karvy. The dried, long, slender reeds are woven into a mat, which becomes a wall panel. Over this panel a thin layer of mud and cow dung is applied. Cow dung stabilises the structure. In about two years, the wall partitions decay. Instead of wasting them, the tribals use them in the field, where it decomposes into manure. This manure is used in growing crop.”

The tribals are also fond of their animals and want to live in close proximity to them. And, unlike us urban dwellers, they are not comfortable with the idea of toilets at home. “I think their needs and beliefs have to reflect in the architecture. The Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana (PMAY earlier known as Indira Awaas Yojana) didn’t take these realities into account,” adds Gosavi.

The Design Jatra team was appointed as sub-consultant to PMAY and they have also signed a contract with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to build low-cost houses within a limited budget. “PMAY offers Rs 1 lakh for the beneficiary — families living below poverty line. If we use modern technology, they get a 267 or 270 sq ft (approx) house. Most villagers are reluctant to live in small homes. Plus, many districts in Maharashtra are drought-prone. So cement construction is doomed from the beginning. A farmer in Palsunda village had approached us with his brief of building a small house, but not like the ones constructed under the government scheme. So we used mud, bricks from his old home, and brick and mortar locally available and constructed the house. Many of his neighbours too joined in, thus making it a community project,” explains Gosavi.
“The house,” adds Dhanmere, “gave us the second prize from HUDCO for designing low cost houses. That was a start we were looking for and now we have built six such 1,500 sq ft houses.”

The team members of Design Jatra, who call themselves ‘social architects’, have turned their attention to creating sustainable living. “We have realised that people are not averse to the old way of living. It’s just that the resources are dying, because of ignorance and lack of dependency on them. There is no good utilisation of wood, because forests are being cut down. So we formed two self-help groups in the village and have been encouraging villagers to turn to community farming, steering them away from using chemical fertilisers and eventually taking up forestation. This is our long-term plan,” says Dhanmer.

The group has also coordinated with Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation (BAIF) and procured 50 native rice varieties to be grown by the villagers. They are also working on a native seed bank and motivating village women for backyard farming.

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