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Houses are a metaphor for a way of life, reflecting the social and economic background of the occupants. Rural economies, in their diversity and complexity, mirror subsistence strategies ranging from agriculture to foraging and fishing. And are interdependent parts of a whole. The dynamic links between the two involve continuous change and adjustment. Over-populated cities and poorly managed resources are causing the collapse of many a rural economy.
Ironically, several communities have benefited from their refusal to switch to architecturally ill-conceived housing offered by the government. For example, in Kutch, herders like the Rabari who traverse forbidding terrain live in dome-like mud and thatch dwellings (bhungas), which keep them cool in summer and warm in winter. Of late, however, these shelters are being replaced by cement structures that are ill-suited to this climate. During the earthquake of January 26, 2001, Judy Frater, the guiding force behind the Kala Raksha trust, reportedly said, Miraculously, there have been few deaths in the villages we work in. Even our centre, made of traditional bhungas, has not been affected." The dwellers were secure in bhungas , while Bhuj crumbled. Small wonder then, that only a small percentage of the quake victims have moved into government shelters.
On the other hand, it is to the credit of the local administration in the Nilgiris to have encouraged the building of the barrel-vaulted houses of the Toda. Tarun Chhabra, a practising dentist and an expert on Toda ethno-botany and the Niligiris, formed the Toda Nalavaaz Sangam, a charitable organisation and took the lead to help the Toda. Today, there are over 35 traditional Toda houses in the area.
On the island of Chowra in the Nicobar, houses are a blend of utility and comfort. To relax, families use an open wooden platform raised a few feet above the ground. Part of this platform is used as a kitchen where neatly stacked piles of wood are stored. A ladder leads up to a trapdoor that opens into the bedroom. The roof is thatched with a thick layer of grass found abundantly on the island. Newer houses are rectangular in shape and are built on stilts, but without a platform. Such huts, though economical in design, are poor substitutes and and cannot withstand storms.
The 'discovery' of the Cholanaickans of Nilambur valley, Kerala in 1970 shows how well these cave inhabitants have managed their forest resources Their nomadic lifestyle, an echo of the past, is reflected in the rock paintings scattered throughout the subcontinent. Twenty brick and tile houses were constructed for the Cholanaikans by the Kerala state government under the Integrated Tribal Development project. Predictably, the heat and humidity of the rain forests made the houses so uncomfortable that in 1989 only four of the fifty-three Cholanaikan families moved in. They preferred to live in thatched leaf shelters and riverside caves which are closer to their hunting and collecting areas.
The Kadar inhabiting the southern portion of the Western Ghats in Kerala have fared no better. The rain forests that were once their home, and the plants on which they depended, have been severely decimated by timber contractors. Typically, the government offered permanent brick structures to the Kadar. Instead, they built huts of split bamboo, supported with wooden poles. The thatch of oda leaves keeps the interior cool during the day, while the fireplace in the centre serves as a protection against wild animals during the night.
Alterations in lifestyles and the abandonment of age-old housing patterns have been deleterious to the health and well being of local communities. The only viable option appears to be a compromise between the use of indigenous materials and modern building concepts, as in the case of Toda houses. Government agencies should consult the communities they seek to aid and this concern should also cover environmental conservation issues.
The fundamental right of people to decide how best to adapt to changing circumstances and use the wealth of their indigenous knowledge and wisdom must not be compromised.
Zarine Cooper is an anthropologist and writes extensively on developmental issues