The Initiative for Green Habitats represents a long term commitment towards providing solutions for the creation of Sustainable Built Environments. This blog attempts to provide an insight to our views, commentaries on our work, ideas that we are working on, and provoke thought where there are more questions than answers.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Two windows, two doors, toilet, kitchen... deconstructing housing schemes for the poor

The  final product of the Slum Resettlement project at Lazar Road in East Bangalore
Whenever you hear of the inauguration (or the building) of a housing set-up for the underprivileged and marginalised, it seems like the implementation of an 'inclusive' policy on the ground. Is it?
In most cases not. The sight of these reconstruction efforts only makes you wonder- were these people better off before such an intervention? Also, you cant but think that one could have done better (much, much better) in terms of design, construction.... and most importantly as an urban intervention.
Let us take the example of a resettlement project for a small scale slum colony in East (now more North) Bangalore. Consisting mainly of squatters, settled earlier as construction workers working on nearby projects, this colony of sorts had grown over the years to a strip that leaked on two sides of the nearby road. Soon enough, functions like a small church, and a few shops that catered to the local community and to passers-by sprung up.
The hutments were predominantly temporary structures, not very dissimilar from scores of such self erected structures that house nearly 30% of this city's population (or any other big city in this country for that matter). These structures were modest, just about an adults length in both length and breadth. Roofs covered with blue plastic sheets, or, canvas; ram-shackle masonry walls, just high enough to keep rain splash and pests at bay; cloth flaps for doors in some cases; you get the picture. There were the more fortunate ones who had built themselves slightly more 'pucca' (hardier structures) with Tin/GI corrugated roofing sheets, and full masonry walls, windows, doors et al. All the structures served mainly as shelter from the weather and as shelter to retire in after an exhausting work day. Most of the activities were carried out in the open; from washing clothes to preparatory activities for food, washing utensils, and other daily household chores. Bathing was out in the open, children defecated out in the open, the nearby railway edge (and embankment) served as an outdoor toilet for this community and passers-by. Women, conducted themselves in the privacy of the early hours of the day. There was no proper drainage or sewerage system in place and during the rains, conditions of living would get worse.
This slum is commonly known as the Desyeshanagar slum and has been a recipient of a JNNURM fund for rehabilitation... read housing for the slum dwellers. Some dailies in Bangalore had written, a while ago, of an 'unenviable'; existence of these Lazar Road slum dwellers and the delayed resettlement as promised to them by the Karnataka Slum Clearance Board (KSCB). Now, after a few years of waiting, four storey apartments have come up, painted white. These RCC framed structures with concrete block masonry walls come with living quarters and toilets for each family. The walls are plastered and there are windows and doors to all units. While there are issues of the allotments versus the original 112 odd families who called this slum home, I would like to focus on the homes that have been made.

The activities are still on the outside...
I am not sure that the beneficiaries are much better off than when they were living in their temporary tenements. Yes, these slum dwellers now have a 'pucca' home, but has the quality of their lives improved? One could remain satisfied by justifying the very fact that they now have shelter, toilets and sewerage, but is that all? Let's take a look at the built.
  • Being four storey structures, there are three blocks, crowding on this not so wide a plot. That being the case, the gaps between these blocks are too narrow, with barely any light in the access stairs/corridors and the rooms that face this, even during the brightest of days. Each unit has two 3' x 4' windows provided for light, but effectively only one provides any amount of light due to the stacking of blocks. One gets a feeling of being boxed in as a result. This prompts the inhabitants to remain outdoors during the day, and through the evenings... similar to their earlier lifestyle. Perhaps it also has to do with their way of life.. They surely are a more social group.
The railway embankment continues to be a drying yard
for the rehoused residents
  • As there has been no provision for these activities indoors, and also due to the dingy conditions, many activities like washing & drying of clothes, cleaning utensils, etc are still conducted outside. Once again there could be social reasons to the same and the new buildings have not catered to this.
  • The buildings are merely products of a mathematical approach to design. In fact they are replicas of similar slum resettlement housing that is being carried out elsewhere in the city. These structures are just that, buildings without an iota of sensitivity.
Without a doubt one thing that has improved is the fact that they now have been provided some element of basic facilities like toilets with piping for water, and electricity. But, how have these buildings contributed in a general betterment of their lives? Could it have been any better with an in-situ upgradation initiative (as against such rehousing), with improved structures in place of their previous hutments, better drainage, proper paving where needed, service yards for washing clothes, access to clean drinking water, better power infrastructure, etc? The new buildings that have been provided are mere shells that do not seem to consider the dwellers or their social requirements as important and it shows in the design.
The primary objective of housing for slum inhabitants and the poor is about inclusion, about giving them a good respectable place as citizens of the city. If it was only an aspect of sanitation and providing facilities, then why couldn't one have considered what I have suggested in the above paragraph. Dignity of life does not seem to be a part of any rehousing scheme for the poor. They don't seem to have any right to aesthetics! Matchbox type tenements reflect a general apathy of the so called powers that be.
The stacking of blocks... too close for comfort, and light!
Of course, sustainability does not seem to figure in any of these developments. How do we act on a degree of far term thinking in what their access to utilities would be? The building systems and materials leave a lot to be desired. Even the current mandatory inclusion of Rainwater harvesting infrastructure has not been provided.

As we sign off from this case study, let us reflect on our attitudes towards these citizens of our cities and ask ourselves do the poor only need houses, not homes?