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Rebuilding Lives: Muzaffarnagar Diaries looks at the rehabilitation of those displaced in the 2013 riots through a multi-institutional project

The book highlights the collaborative design spirit that engaged the community, developing a common understanding

muzaffarnagar diariesMuzaffarnagar Diaries: Post-riot Resettlement Story By Sandeep Virmani and Tanvi Choudhari Hunnarshala Foundation for Building Technology and Innovations 159 pages Rs 900 (Source: Amazon.in)

By Lakshmi Krishnaswamy

Muzaffarnagar Diaries outlines its aim to foreground ways in which responsive rehabilitation could be served, with Muzaffarnagar as a template. In 2013, a riot in the area displaced several individuals and they were struck with a choice to return to their devastated homes with memories of violence or resettle elsewhere.

The comprehensive resettlement process began in the district of Shamli, as a multi-institutional effort. It has been a partnership between communities and institutions like Hunnarshala, through an owner-driven process.

The physical reconstruction of new homes is based on local constructional, artisanal, architectural sensibilities, which is possible when architects establish partnerships with displaced communities. The Joint Citizens’ Initiative (JCI) group, created after the riot, included the Vanangana and Sadhbhavana Trusts, responsible for much of the community-based work on the ground. The rehabilitation project was generously supported by Misereor, Germany. Hunnarshala Foundation (Bhuj) was invited to lead the design and construction effort of shelters for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

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Hunnarshala specialises in post-disaster, owner-driven housing, combining local design and engineering practices with its expertise in eco-friendly design and construction that seeks to “uplift and empower” society.

The first part of the book documents the design of the home as it existed with a glossary of terms corresponding to living spaces, with vivid descriptions of their use and the underlying cultural and climatic origins. The writing captures the multivalent use of spaces, objects and furniture. The documentation recorded the colour schemes, proportions, elemental parts of the built form and decorative motifs. The high-plinths mitigated heavy flooding as the gallery came alive as a gathering point, connecting interior to exterior. The ceilings were high and enabled rooms to remain cool despite shared walls. It captures the lifestyle of the community, as it visually documents facets of design sensibilities evidenced in the built form. The book has a keen oral and dialogical quality as it often recounts words casually spoken by the stakeholders. In a deep hearing by the community workers, these words or what may seem as lay everyday statements, valiantly informed design directions.

The second part documents the collaborative design spirit that engaged the community, developing a common understanding. The first draft of plans was reviewed by them and suggestions were incorporated on the location of the toilets such that it does not compromise the privacy of the women. Community members were encouraged to buy plots close together. The book documents seven distinct plans that emerged based on the unique requirements of the users. Their previous lifestyle was invoked and understood, with many of the gestures remaining intact in the new scheme. The architects took care to leave room for incremental growth and were mindful of the community’s vision for their mohalla; the street-focused neighbourhoods they were used to living in. Some homes demarcated a sizeable proportion of the plot for domesticated animals like buffaloes, building ramps for their ease of access. The design process culminated in an agreement, Sahamati Patra, between the beneficiary and the JCI, with every single owner’s participatory plan attached, detailing the kind of engagement expected from stakeholders, including the state government.

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The women of the community took on leadership roles while also forming the majority of the staff. The Sadbhavana and Vanangana Trusts were led by women, so was the housing team’s coordinator; she was an engineer supported by women site-engineers and architects. The region is notorious for the abject condition of the sanitation infrastructure. However, the community sought ways to access clean water and waste disposal. The community found strength in each other and at times in the local bodies to re-integrate into a semblance of the life they were used to, only with renewed ties with each other. On August 12, 2016, the homes were inaugurated and a Lucknowi artist performed qawwali, with faith slowly being restored in the rights of citizenship. This book is of value to universities, students, social organisations and academicians involved in rehabilitation and in articulating a rehabilitation project that is humane.

The author is an academic in the field of architecture and design

First published on: 09-04-2022 at 09:30 IST
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