Teacher’s Day: Building Blocks

In a slum in Delhi, a primary school is made demolition-proof.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: September 4, 2018 12:47:34 pm
Back to school: Students at the Van Phool School. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

On the eastern banks of the Yamuna, in a slum hard to find on Delhi’s map, is the Van Phool school. It is built on borrowed land and has about 150 students. But most importantly, it has found a new resilience — if the bulldozers come lumbering again, it can be dismantled and set up again.

Students here have seen their houses and their farmland destroyed every time the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) arrives with bulldozers to reclaim the land on which the slum stands. The Chilla Khadar slum, however, has been home to farmers for nearly two generations. The residents are migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who work on farms owned by landlords in Haryana. In 2011, the brick cowshed, which doubled as the school, was razed by the DDA along with their crops and homes.

A social worker at Housing and Land Rights Network, Abdul Shakeel, moved court. The Delhi High Court ordered the school, which is about 25 years now, to be rebuilt. With help from the community, they managed a basic shelter using tarpaulin and bamboo. The seven-teacher school, run by local NGO Van Phool, is funded by GS Lobana, a senior advocate in the Delhi High Court, and comes under the purview of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.

In 2015, Shakeel approached mHS City Lab, a social enterprise that works towards improving the quality of informally built urban housing in developing countries. Architects Swati Janu and Nidhi Sohane of mHS took on the project voluntarily, having the experience of producing and distributing over 100 tents for homeless families in Delhi last year. They helped build a school, which would not only protect the children but which could also be dis-assembled, if demolition threats or flooding happened in the future.

“We met Naresh Pal and his brother Dev from the community in February 2016, and following that we held our own discussions with teachers and parents. We had called for volunteers, and had nearly 50 hands to help us on site, including architects, students and photographers,” says Janu, creative director, mHS City Lab.

This July, under the sultry sun, they began work on the site. It would have to be a structure that could be assembled quickly, and unscrewed and taken apart, with a corrugated metal sheet for the roof. This was possible with the engineering expertise of Vinod Jain, director, Vintech Consultants, who stepped in as the primary donor, and advised on the metal frame. The school has five classrooms in two blocks, to accommodate children up to Class V, after which they can enrol in government schools.

The bamboo skin allows for light and ventilation into the classrooms, but the partitions also make it possible to call out to a friend in the next room, when nobody’s looking. “Their parents are unlettered, and most of them have to help on the farms during harvest. They work very hard outside of the classroom as well,” says Radha Gupta, 35, one of the teachers.

From getting raw material like bamboo to drilling and cutting on site, the architects and volunteers worked for nearly 10 hours a day, for three weeks. “It was new for us. From laying the foundation to engaging with the metal fabricators, taking immediate decisions when things went wrong, we had to do everything,” says Sohane. They learnt how to tie bamboo strips to make the skin for the pivoted doors and windows. Woven bamboo mats were used as walls since they were ubiquitous in most houses.

“Most people who live 500 metres away from here don’t know that this slum exists. Accessibility was our biggest challenge. What could be done in Rs 10 took cost 10 times more, because people would go in circles when they had to deliver the raw material,” says Naresh, 24, who is studying for his Master’s in social work from IGNOU, and preparing for the UPSC entrance test.

Six-year-old Arjun stands before his class to recite numbers one to 100, and then his ABC. The older ones know the poem Lobana has written for them, which is a story of their school and their lives.

“We call it Modskool, for its modular design. We’d like to see other designers and collaborators come on board, and probably take this idea forward in other localities. Bastis such as these are not on Delhi’s map but the residents here, too, have a right to the city,” says Janu.

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