New Delhi: Scores of newly built duplex homes dot the landscape of Supaul. In a destitute district of northern Bihar, such houses would have always seemed out of place, but coming up just two years after the region was devastated by floods makes them still more noteworthy.
These and other houses have been built thanks to the efforts of the Owner-Driven Reconstruction Collaborative (ODRC), which comprises a number of civil society groups and international aid agencies.
What is truly remarkable about them is that instead of being the shabbily built shacks that post-disaster “relief housing” tends to be, these are the dream homes of their owners—designed in consultation with them and built by their own hand.
On 18 August 2008, an embankment on the Kosi river broke away, unleashing the sort of destruction that takes years to repair.
“The scale was unimaginable,” says J. Radhakrishnan, head of disaster management at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), New Delhi. Some 230,000 houses were destroyed, mostly in Supaul, Saharsa and Madhepura districts.
G. Padmanabhan, a disaster expert and emergency analyst with UNDP, compares the Kosi floods with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami—one of the world’s worst natural catastrophes. He says the suddenness of the tsunami had taken more lives, but the gradual rise of the Kosi caused more damage to property.
Recovery is a long drawn process. Radhakrishnan says it typically takes four years worldwide, and poor coordination among agencies delays it further in a country like India. “In the initial stages, of course, the government-level focus is on quick relief and recovery comes later.”
Yet in just two years, some 140 families already have their houses. And this is just the beginning. Impressed by its work, the state government has asked ODRC to help build 100,000 houses for flood victims across the region.
Small steps: Barun Mandal, second from right, joins other workers to build his new house in Jorgama, Bihar. Jay Mandal/Mint
UNDP is a partner of ODRC, which includes the Kutch Navnirman Abhiyan, Hunnarshala, Unnati, SEEDS and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
“The challenge is the coordination with the district administration and the state authorities and the local communities. Getting all that together can take much more time than usual. But the network of NGOs helped getting them all together,” says Padmanabhan.
As its name suggests, ODRC’s focus is on offering flood victims an alternative to contractor-driven housing. Owners are given a cost-effective option that uses locally available and ecologically benign material. Radhakrishnan says a similar approach had been successful in Kutch, albeit on a smaller scale.
A least 141 million people have been rendered homeless due to natural disasters in the past 20 years; 97% of these have been in developing countries, according to a 2008 paper released by the Swiss Development Agency.
The paper compares reconstruction work in Gujarat after a 2001 earthquake with Tamil Nadu after the tsunami, and concludes that owner-driven reconstruction achieved the highest levels of satisfaction among all categories of victims. It was also the fastest and most cost-effective.
In the Kosi reconstruction project, the initial design of the houses turned out to be too expensive.
“The initial cost was Rs 1 lakh (for building each house), but we brought it down to Rs 55,000 approximately,” says Padmanabhan. “The Bihar government also wanted to tie up the project with the Indira Awaas Yojana, under which the Centre provides Rs 35,000 for each house. So the state said they could put a little from their side. The design was tweaked without compromising on technical parameters, which is disaster resistance.”
There were two final designs: brick-based and bamboo-based. After consulting the victims, ODRC leaned towards bamboo which is easily available in the region.
Bamboo is used for construction after treatment. At first, the soft pulp inside the bamboo pole is flushed out, the pole is then treated with chemicals to harden it against exposure to water and weather.
Radhakrishnan says this process also helped create job opportunities for villagers.
“Bamboo was easily available in the area, but what was not available was people to treat the bamboo. So ODRC organized this capacity building, because the houses should not be damaged in the next flood,” he says.
The bamboo treatment unit is compact enough to fit on the back of a bicycle. The trained villager can thus easily go with it to each site to treat the bamboo poles before construction. ODRC also trained villagers in masonry and carpentry, so that the whole project could be in their hands.
As people could handle the construction themselves, whatever savings they had could be plowed into the house. “If a contractor did this, a lot of money would be spent in engaging people, Padmanabhan says. But here they do the labour themselves.”
Dunu Roy, director of Hazards Centre, a Delhi-based NGO that focuses on community housing needs, agrees with Padmanabhan. “The pros of owners building their own houses is that people build according to their needs and assets,” he says. “Incremental construction works better as they can afford and build what they need… Also, maintenance costs are lower than contractor-focused approaches.”
The Kosi project also has a minimal environmental impact. The use of bamboo means sand was neither mined locally nor imported from other states.
“In Tamil Nadu reconstruction, there was an interesting observation on how much firewood was required to bake the bricks.
With so many houses being brick-based, a lot of firewood was needed, which meant cutting down forests—which didn’t happen here,” says Padmanabhan.
It was the locals who came up with the idea of duplex homes. With the Kosi’s flooding being a recurring concern, they want to use the upper storey for storing grains.
“As it is mainly an agriculture-dependent area, one of the main demands of the people was safety of crops and only they could have come up with this,” says Padmanabhan.
Both he and Radhakrishnan say that for them, the reward of such a project lies in the satisfaction that people feel when they move into houses they have themselves built.
“They develop an attachment,” says Radhakrishnan. “It is even more satisfying when you implement such a project in such a difficult area, where people think nothing can get done.”