The Problem

The last few decades have seen the dramatic rise of the problem of housing for very large numbers of people in the third world. In these developing countries, the shift into a cash economy has been reflected in the dramatic rise of urban migration. As larger and larger numbers of people get drawn into the cash economy, the requirement for a home is transmuted into the need for a house which is a commodity. Traditional rural-based communities are fractured and groups are transferred to fringe urban situations where the new ethos of the cash nexus dominates. Problems arise of physical resources, social organization, and the search for new values of living. And the experience of providing “mass housing” for the ever increasing numbers has shown that as the problem has increased in magnitude, the solutions attempted have gone further and further away from providing acceptable and lasting answers. The search for solutions has largely been concentrated on tackling the problem of rising numbers by reducing the capital costs of making housing provision, and by evolving strategies for restricting the extent of urban migration. It is clear that if the problem is seen primarily as one of resource allocation, then real solutions will continue to elude us, as has been the case in the recent past. This is because the planning methodology has focused on individual needs, not recognizing that the atomization of communities into individuals is itself the source of the problem. The vital community aspect of housing is thereby obscured and the problem assumes purely quantitative dimensions.

The requirement for a home is interwoven with the essential human task of defining order in the universe, creating a stable habitat for the family and society, and ensuring that man’s search for a larger truth is continued. If this is ignored, and considering that urban migration is not likely to be reversed within the foreseeable future, the quantum of physical resources required for housing becomes so great as to be even theoretically untenable. The question then arises whether and how a community-oriented approach is likely to be fiscally and organisationaly more parsimonious. One important reason why this is likely to be the case is that cohesive communities alter slowly, they evolve, and the change in their housing needs will reflect the characteristic of slow, marginal change. What exists will become the primary resource, instead of the usual practice of developing anew. This will prevent the cycle of objectification without a reflective subjective core, a cycle which reduces the human endeavour to a pointless turmoil which threatens the very nature of human existence.

Towards a solution – the method

If we are to see the “housing problem” as a reflection of the larger problem facing humankind today, the first task would be to redefine the problem in terms of man’s continuing search for an unchanging truth – for the core which makes man whole again. And yet the statement of the problem has to lead to physical solutions which are specific and buildable. Thus, the second task would be to redefine the act of building. How can this activity create an order which is the true expression of our being?

The issue is clearly not one of finding new technical solutions for what is essentially an age-old problem. If man is faced today by a bewildering set to technical choices, and this is only a reflection of the contemporary situation in almost all fields of human activity, then solutions will have to be found in the perspective of man evolving to a stable future, with technical means and ends subservient to this larger purpose.

The theoretical construct

The act of building will, I believe, emerge out of the true relationship between the elements – the earth which provides us land and grounds us within the cosmos, water and air which dominate the quality of our physical well-being, and the fires which energise and regenerate our productive capacity – the materials which are fashioned from the elements and which allow us to construct and realise built form, and the organization of the materials and human energies for the process of building, from the understanding of the requirements to the delineation of the construction techniques. When this relationship is correctly set out, the problems of environmental degeneration can be seen not just as the destruction of discrete physical objects, such as trees and rivers, but as the disturbance of the essential cycles in nature. The choice of materials for building would be determined not just by technical inventiveness of putting together concrete and steel or mud and bamboo, but by concentrating on the ordering principle which keeps the balance between nature and man. The problem of discovering alternative sources of energy would be seen not just as an unending search for new sources, whether solar energy, wind energy or geo-thermal energy, but as the establishing of a continuous cycle of energy transformation. This relationship, properly framed, will ensure that the cosmic dimensions of man’s reality are suitably grounded in a home within the world.

The application

A practical application for developing the ideas mentioned is proposed for a site in New Delhi. This site is the ‘urban village’ of Sarai Kale Khan, which is a community of about 10,000 people, established over generations as a village, originally on the outskirts of Delhi, and now surrounded by the urban spread of New Delhi. This urban village has been declared a ‘slum area’ by the Delhi Development Authority which is facing the problem of integrating and redeveloping this as well as other such traditional settlements in the city. Thus the village of Sarai Kale Khan presents a test case for developing a model of contemporary housing provision in the context of a historical rooted settlement, facing typical problems of crowding, lack of social and physical amenities, economic constraints for the inhabitants, and increasing disruption/ divisiveness in community life. The proposal is to start with an intensive survey of the existing socio-economic and physical features of the settlement. The survey would be conducted by a small team of professionals (architect/planners and social scientists) working with the village inhabitants to set down the patterns of social, economic, and community life in relation to the physical configurations of land, water supply and drainage, movement patterns, community amenities, and housing provision. The survey material would be documented in the form of maps/drawings statistical data, and audio-visual material if funds permit.

The process of the survey activity would be so designed that the inhabitants are sensitised to their environment, both social and physical, and made more aware of the range of problems and potential for development.

The second part of the exercise would be to articulate sets of solutions alongwith the inhabitants. The team of professionals would translate the possible solutions into technically appropriate guidelines (in the form of maps, drawings and instructions) which could be used by the village people as a tool for improving the existing environment and developing new housing.

The frame and preliminary estimate

The first part of the study, i.e the survey, would extend over a period of 8 – 12 months. The second part, dealing with solutions/guidelines would extend over 4 – 6 months. The finances necessary for carrying out the above proposal should cover :-

  1. fee/stipend for 4 professionals: Rs 10,000/-or 1,000 p.month
  2. costs of traveling: Rs 2,000/- or 200 p.month
  3. incidental establishment costs, e.g. telephone, water, power, and maintenance of working premises: Rs 1,000/- or 100 p.month
  4. costs of documentation: Rs 25,000/- or 2,500 lump sum
  5. unforseen expenses: Rs 10,000/- or 1,000 lump sum

Thus the total cost envisaged for the minimum period of 12 months would be: Rs 1,91,000/- or US $ 19,100.

And for the maximum period of 18 months the cost would be: Rs 2,69,000/- or US $ 26,900.

M.N. Ashish Ganju 10 February 1983

C 170 Defence Clolony
New Delhi 11024.