The plan to rehabilitate the victims of the devastating earthquake that shook Latur last year ignores the needs of the villagers and introduces alien construction techniques

-- HUNDREDS of tin sheds catch the eye as you drive down the narrow roads in Ausa taluka in the Latur district of Maharashtra. Coming up next to the sheds are long rows of one- or two-bedroomed houses -- the spanking new, permanent dwellings for those dislocated by last year's earthquake.

Beyond the ostensibly altruistic purpose of these "modern" houses, however, lies a desire to derive electoral mileage for the panchayat and state assembly elections, which are round the corner. On March 22 this year, the state government had belatedly tabled a white paper on its rehabilitation policy. The document emphasised the restoration of property, with the active involvement of the local people, in line with their lifestyles and functional needs. The rehabilitation programme has moved -- but with a dry, colourless logic of its own, completely ignoring the needs of the shelterless.

Protecting the body, but...
No different from anywhere else in the world, local socio-economic and cultural conditions have always determined the housing styles in this region. According to Panduranga Kapaskar of the Maharashtra Bhookampgrasth Sahayata Abhiyan, the people of the Marathwada region used to build stone masonry houses, with standards of comfort and protection deduced over centuries in this rain-starved and scorchingly hot area.

Manoj Singh, an architect with the town planning department of Osmanabad district, says, "Wars and the paucity of nature's endowments necessitated protection, which was manifested through thick, high walls. Old forts dot the landscape and even the temples are similarly styled." However, says Kapaskar, "After the quake, the villagers began doubting their own skills and the appropriateness of the materials they had been using."

A S Arya, professor emeritus of Roorkee University's earthquake engineering department, says, "There was nothing wrong with the material that the people were using. But the manner in which it was being used was not suited to resisting earthquakes." Says Protima Bose, also with the department, "Most of the structures in the area were made of irregular-sized stones and mud. There was a tendency to build thick walls."

The walls -- which crumbled at the merest shiver of crust movement -- consisted of two vertical sections of stones, sandwiching mud and stone mortar. To protect the wooden roofing from water and to reduce the incoming heat, layers of mud and reed were slapped on. In most of the houses, the walls and the roofs were at least 1 metre thick and the heavy roofs had no support, columnar or otherwise.

Says Bose, "Initially the walls started shaking. But soon the heavy mud roofs of most of the houses gained greater inertia. The rubble walls, which were built only to take vertical load and not lateral movement, caved in. Also, in the absence of any bonding, the two layers of walls reacted independently to the quake and collapsed."

Significantly, most houses, built by the villagers themselves, did not have proper foundations. Says Arya, "The villagers did not dig deep foundations because soil depth in the area at most places is very thin and the rock bed is easily accessible but not easily penetrable."

In Killari and adjoining villages, little else but dismal construction led to the collapse of even houses built with cement and RCC slabs. In contrast, the Neelkantheshwara temple, built about 700 years ago, stood proudly intact. Vinod Joglekar, a structural engineer with the Latur town planning department, says that, unlike the flattened houses, "most of the temples and old houses used uniformly cut stones, lime-mud mortar and wood."

Obstinate stipulations
Reacting unimaginatively according to the book, an overzealous Maharashtra government went to the extent of stipulating that houses to be constructed by donor agencies would have to conform to the norms set by it for walls and roofs, the materials to be used, and even colour schemes. This was bureaucracy at its obstinate best.

Besides, the World Bank -- which pledged $300 million for the rehabilitation exercise, according to the district collector of Latur, Praveen Pardesi -- brought in its own set of conditions about plot sizes. The surfeit of stipulations raised a furore and the ministry of urban development set up the Padmanabhan Advisory Committee, with venerated "alternative" architect Laurie Baker as a member. On the basis of the committee's recommendations, some of the specifications were relaxed.

Another crucial decision taken by the state government was to relocate 49 villages. Nitin Gadre, the additional district collector of Latur, says, "This was necessary because the people did not want to live where they had cremated their kin. It was also physically impossible to remove the tonnes of rubble from the damaged sites for reconstruction."

Further, said Maharashtra chief minister Sharad Pawar, "Satellite imagery has shown that under the existing villages there are weak spots that can lead to similar damage." Ironically, the villagers were already doing on their own what the administration had termed physically impossible: most of them sold the rubble of their devastated houses to stone crushing units and trucks began lifting the shards of stones from almost all villages.

Arya, however, sees no reason for shifting the villages. "How can a village be saved from an earthquake simply by shifting it 5 km away?" he asks. "The majority of the people will continue to live at the old sites. The quake affected more than 1.5 lakh houses." Asks Kapaskar, "How is the misery of people in 49 villages greater than those in others?"

The government's white paper says that factors such as soil conditions, water availability, proximity to fields and old sites, and public acceptance were the criteria for selecting the new sites. However, most of the new sites are bang on the main roads and based on hard rock. Kapaskar says, "There are no natural water sources near the relocated villages. What the white paper terms as 'availability of water' are the bores that the administration is planning to sink and the grandiose scheme of getting water from the Makhni dam on the Tirna river." The water from the dam is likely to take 2 more years to reach the area.

Hussain Sheikh of Yelwat village adds, "My field is approximately 3 km from the new site. Crops are standing in the fields and birds attack the crop before I reach there. People have been using tractors and bullocks to get to the fields."

He is supported by S Parsalge, the sarpanch of Killari: "Many people in Chincholijogan, Rajegaon and Killari villages own land elsewhere. The relocation has not considered these factors." Sunita Shukla of Oxfam says, "Women are the worst hit. They take care of the children, fetch the water and then walk long distances to help their husbands in the fields."

Alien plans
Everything about the houses is wrong, and smells of bureaucratic nitpicking. Functional needs have been ignored while constructing the new houses -- which are being built, in typical urban manner, in the centre of the plots, with the space around instead of being bound by them, and even the biggest house has only 3 rooms. The plan offers little privacy. Besides, the roofs are slanted, denying the villagers the facility of drying grain, which they used to do on the earlier flat roofs. Toilets are being built next to the houses, an idea the villagers, with a long tradition of socio-religious anatomical taboos behind them, find abhorrent. Even the soak pit that each toilet has been provided with will be prone to flooding, according to experts.

Houses in Indian villages are traditionally built for space multiplication. The new constructions preclude expansion of any kind, says Arya. Mohanram Kulkarni of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh says, "If materials like ferrocement and steel are introduced on a large scale, the local people will not be able to afford replication."

The cost of each house built by the Shri Mahila Udyog, an NGO, is nearly Rs 60,000. The cost of the smallest house being built by Caritas, a Madras-based Christian charity organisation, is Rs 50,000. On the other hand, Yashwantrao Gaekwad of Mangrul village says, "The houses we used to build never cost more than Rs 2,000. Apart from the high costs, we do not know how to handle the new material. I think most of us would prefer to build ordinary walls and thatched or tin roofs."

But there is hope yet. Laurie Baker and I M Kadri, a Bombay-based architect, are using the cluster planning method for the villages. This is in consonance with the rural lifestyle, leads to proper use of land and requires a smaller network of roads.

Baker suggests that local materials be used and only minor changes in construction be made in order to provide cheap, earthquake-resistant houses. He says that bamboo, "which has the strength of steel" should do for reinforcement. Crossframes of bamboo strips can be laid between the stone walls for tight bonding.

Arya says that the weight of the roof can be reduced considerably without sacrificing thermal efficiency by using heavy gauge polythene sheets, sandwiched between 2 layers of mud. A chicken wire mesh can be laid inside the walls to save them from crumbling during the rains. Buildings should stand on foundations of more than 0.5 metres to withstand the reaction of topsoil to changes in weather.

According to Kapaskar, there would have been fewer problems if the villagers had been provided with construction material and technical assistance. "Resources, skill and experience exist. However, the wedlock between science, common sense and political will is more important under such circumstances."

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