A house for the islander

Illogical plans for post-tsunami housing on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands omen trouble

By Sharbendu De
Published: Wednesday 30 November 2005

A house for the islander

-- A year has passed since the killer tsunami devastated the islands, but the Rs 600-crore corpus set aside by the Central government for rehabilitation of those who lost their homes, is yet to be utilised. The reason: the Centre can't make up its mind on the design for tribal housing, caught as it is between proposals from its own building agencies and from non-governmental organisations (ngos). While the ngo s are lobbying hard for their model of traditional timber houses approved by the Planning Commission and the home ministry, the Centre's building agencies -- such as the National Buildings Construction Corporation Limited, the Central Public Works Department and others - are pushing for the steel-and-prefabricated prototype houses that they have already put up on the islands.

Considering the minimum forest cover that has to be maintained in the islands, timber is scarce. Cement, on the other hand, is brought from the mainland and is abundantly available. But the question here is -- is this a conflict about using timber or cement, or -- more seriously -- a clash of interests?

Let us consider the case of timber first. Approval to timber-based models will certainly benefit the people, ngos as well as the contractors through whom they do their work. What could be the ngos' interest in this?

Most of them have raised mind-boggling amounts through their 'tsunami relief appeals', which they have to spend now. Infrastructure rebuilding is a direly felt need, and the money can certainly be directed towards it.

But ngos working on the islands might be carrying their own baggage of individual organisational mandates, perspectives and vested interests -- seasoned and coloured by their experiences in different situations; this baggage might not necessarily be apt for the islands.

Do the people on the islands want timber houses?

Until last year, they, especially the tribals, have been living in traditional, culturally accepted, wooden stilted houses. During our discussions with the islanders just after the crisis, most mentioned how their wooden houses did not fall apart and therefore, expressed their preference for timber constructions.

However, having said this, I must also point out that there were those among the victims as well who viewed this disaster as an opportunity for transiting towards a new lifestyle.

Coming to the business of cement and construction, the government's infrastructure-building machinery under the Union Ministry of Urban Development is rooting hard for the concrete or steel-and-prefabricated structures. But these, if accepted, will not be suitable for the islands. In all probability, those who are deciding the kind of kennels in which the islanders would live, have never lived on an island themselves and have carried along the burden of 'mainland' mentality throughout their lives.

There are, consequently, other questions that arise here: who will benefit from the construction projects and how strong are their interests? How much is at stake?

Contractors, public works department officials, bureaucrats and politicians -- all stand a chance of claiming a share of the Rs 600-crore booty. We need to start looking at the details, at the faces behind the faade, so to speak: the contractors bidding for the projects, the government bodies which wish to have a finger in the pie, and the political representatives who are in it too by virtue of their 'proximity' to these interested parties.

Instead of trying to satisfy any of them, the authorities should raise the fundamental question: why are we making these constructions and whom are they meant for? Once they start asking questions, the answers -- I believe -- will begin rolling out, though slowly and painfully. The people's opinion on what type of houses they want is crucial here, and should be sought.

Sharbendu De is an environment writer and photographer, and has been working on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

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