International Women’s Day: How women lead climate adaptation in eastern India’s Adivasi areas

Wattle and daub houses maintained largely by women in tribal parts of Odisha and Bengal provide cool shelter to families when temperatures soar

By Mitashi Singh, Harikrishnan CU
Published: Tuesday 08 March 2022

It was near Bisoi (Mayurbhanj district) in Odisha that we came across Paaki, a 12-year-old girl, who was decorating a mud-plastered wall with colours and patterns. Attracted by the peculiar patterns in the artwork, we asked her how she learned to do it.

She pointed to her mother who was husking in the yard. The mother’s attention shifted from the grains to the guests who walked into her verandah — the one she had polished the previous week.

Our journeys through the remote villages in the tribal belts of West Bengal and Odisha revealed to us how women form the core of these rural communities and lead the struggle for survival and towards climate adaptation.

In most of these villages, the construction and upkeep of the house is done largely by the women of the house. These locations are dominated by houses made of thatch, bamboo and mud. From sourcing of materials to thatching to walling to plastering, all is done by women. Only roofing is done by men.

To make these houses, women prepare a mix of red and black soil with water to form a sticky clay called ‘daub’. This daub is applied to the interwoven frame of wooden strips forming the wall panel. This technique and structure is known as ‘wattle and daub’.

In another technique, the daub mix is made into bricks by both men and women. Up to four layers of these bricks are stacked to make the wall and left to dry for nearly four days.

The plastering of walls and flooring is done by preparing a mix of cow-dung, mud and water. This plastering and flooring activity is done by women only.

At the same time, the lady of the house trains her kids to paint and decorate the walls. She too had learnt how to develop her house from her own mother. And this is how these communities have learnt to shelter themselves from the harsh hot and humid climate of the region and lived with thermal comfort for generations.

The daub and plaster mix is much cooler than cement. It uses locally available materials and does not cost much. But women have to travel to the nearest forest or distances of nearly10 kilometres to source the different types of soil and wood. Still, this cost is nothing as long as the family gets to live in a comfortably liveable house.

While the residents are fully aware that mud keeps their house cool in the harsh summer, the dream of a pucca house dilutes this awareness. The perception that cement is a ‘modern’, expensive and strong material supercedes the cooling that a mud house provides to them when the mercury rises to 38 degrees Celsius.

However, these travels have demonstrated one thing clearly, that beyond the functional roles that these women play, the villages, tribes and communities are strongly dependent on the women for their survival.

This builds a great case to nurture this role further by skilling these women on new materials and building techniques that are stronger, more resilient and sustainable. Schemes like Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Grameen) or Deen Dayal Upadhyay Grameen Kaushal Yojana must recognise and internalise this.

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