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Wisdom of the illiterate: Working with Dalits keeping in view community interests

By Gagan Sethi*

Is there a place for city-bred architects and planners in rural housing? Both poor and rich in villages have been building houses for centuries in accordance with their needs. Obviously, if these city-bred experts chip in for such projects like Indira (IAY), there would be issues.
The year was 1988. As many as 108 houses were to be built for the Dalits who had faced the wrath of the dominant caste Darbars in Golana in Kheda district two years earlier. Four Dalits were gunned down because they had demanded the land that was meant for them but was encroached upon by the Darbars.
As social workers, we were worried about the type of houses these Dalits would be given. It was a “mega project”. But to Golana’s Dalit Vankars, for whom the project was meant, it wasn’t a big deal. They seemed to know the type of houses they should have. They told us, they could illiterate, but they knew what they wanted– “ame bhanela nathi pan abhyas karelun che”, they would tell us confidently.
Fortunately, a young architect from Chandigarh, who was looking for internship as part of his studies,, joined Janvikas, the NGO we had just founded. Janvikas was the new avatar for the work that we were doing at the Behavioural Science Centre in Ahmedabad. We were committed to see the Golana housing project through.
Sandeep Virmani, young and enthusiastic, began living in the village, immersed in their reality, looked at their environment, ecology, and made himself available for running around with the Dalits to choose and procure material, so that the costs remained low. The aim was to build double the size permitted under the IAY, even as keeping the costs low.
Traditionally, Dalit villagers are familiar with a row house-type concept. In their Vankar Vas, they would live in a row, with common side walls – they generally had a room inside, and an Osri or courtyard serving as living room.
But armed with his knowledge as architect, Sandeep ncreated a new model and went to the village to discuss the layout. The option he offered was a unit of four houses, with common walls on the backside, plus a front courtyard. They were square shaped units, each house enjoying complete privacy.
Sandeep tried to explain the privacy concept to the Dalit villagers, which he said was the need for a normal city-based home. Men and women together rejected it outright. The elders, who don’t go to work, said this wouldn’t do. After all, they were used to sitting in the Osri together.
I distinctly remember how one of the elders – called mahetars– guffawed at me and said, “In our Vas anybody’s business is everybody’s business, and don’t mess around with our community”.
More recently, during a high-level discussion with experts and policy-makers on Unique Identification (UID) number, I recalled this experience, and wondered if privacy wasn’t a western concept. Should communitarian rights automatically get transferred to the state? I asked the participants.
Following discussions with the Dalits, Sandeep worked out a new design, which kept in view the interests of the community.
Ever since, Sandeep has travelled a long distance. He is known to have created innovative housing designs sensitive to women, wherein he makes sure to incorporate a bathroom anda kitchen, from where the smoke from the chulha could easily move out of the housetop.
Sandeep’s ideas as an architect have been published as a monograph. They have been a handbook for many technical personnel who wanted to learn the appropriateness of embedding modern science to rural needs.
Indeed, Sandeep is an example of how an urban bred young person ably declassed himself, of how he has developed to respect of the “abhyas” or wisdom of those whom many consider as illiterate.
Based on his ideas, Sandeep began working as head of Janvikas Ecology Cell in Kutch,which later became independent organisation called Sahjeevan (http://www.sahjeevan.org/),a resource centre meant to address community needs, which later on set up one the finest schools of rural barefoot architects, Hunnarshala (http://www.hunnarshala.org/).
Sandeep is an example of how Janvikas began becoming the hub to train youngsters who wanted to explore themselves and rural reality, and find meaning in the vocation of developmental work.

*Founder of Janvikas and Centre for Social Justice, Ahmedabad. First published in DNA

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