BANGALORE: Architect Alok Shetty, the conjurer of hope in a wasteland of plastic sheets and dire poverty is the man of the moment. His proposed housing solutions for slum dwellers in association with Parinaam Foundation (http://www.parinaam.org/index.html) have resulted in Time magazine calling him the 'young leader of tomorrow.' Mallika Ghosh, Chief Executive Officer & Executive Director of Parinaam met Alok Shetty first over lunch two years ago. Ghosh, has often rued the lack of tangible support for social initiatives and says, "The poor are invisible and we can't see them unless you go looking for them. LRDE slum is right next to Bagmane Technology Park but it is as if the families that live there in tarpaulin tents do not exist. They have no water, no electricity. Alok, I would say, was God sent."
Alok reached out to Parinaam at a time when Ghosh was struggling to find a place to organise a two hour tuition session for slum kids without success. He connected with Nirmaan over Twitter and Facebook and then wanted to know more about the ground reality they deal with on a daily basis.
Ghosh says, "Alok got in touch with my brother, and then I met him over lunch thinking he was just my younger brother's friend. But he was extremely meticulous and asked me questions about everything from our annual reports to particularities of field work!"
He subsequently visited the 'field' or slums inhabited mostly by construction workers and those who clean the streets. He met families and 'adopted' 10 children whose education and well-being he is now responsible for. "He takes these kids out for lunch and knows everything about them. He is a great guy," Ghosh says.
But his involvement did not stop here. He wanted to make a difference to the way these families live. And so came the idea of floodproof homes made out of scaffolding, bamboo and wood. Ghosh smiles, "We will launch the project soon with maybe just 10 pilot structures."
The young visionary
This urge to look beyond the blueprint is not new for Alok. At 19, he designed a hospital that focussed on the needs of the staff and patients. As the son of a construction businessman, he also began engaging with idea of upcycling and reinventing construction waste. Alok also turned a shipping container into a 250-seat auditorium for an assignment at Columbia University and hopes to adapt the idea to devise mobile schools and health clinics in India.
He is engaging with the fringe reality of urban development along with building commercial structures. Drawing from indigenous Indian architecture traditions and modern building techniques, he looks at contemporary Indian problems like the subhuman living conditions in slums and comes up with solutions like 'portable housing' for the poor. The idea is to solve existing problems, not wrap them up in concrete and steel.
The idea of affordable housing for the poor has been explored earlier too, notably by Laurie Baker who came to be known as the Gandhi of architecture.
Architect Chitra Vishwanath of Biome Environmental, also recalls architect B V Doshi's involvement in a development project called Aranya in the early 1980s in Indore (Madhya Pradesh) and the work done by The Association for Voluntary Action and Services (AVAS, initiated by Anita Reddy in 1978) in the Lakshmipuram slum near Indiranagar and the Sudhamnagar slum near HAL. But Chitra concedes that over the years, what was meant to be a movement has lost steam.
She says, "In the nineties, affordable housing was an idea explored either through site specific projects or by providing services on a parcel of land to the lower income groups to facilitate building and subsistence. It is a challenge for builders today to also include lower income groups in their scheme of things."
What about floating migrants?
While Alok also plans to design mobile solutions for the educational and medical needs of the poor, architect Dyan Belliappa, who has been involved in affordable housing solutions from 2007 onwards, says, "Affordable housing solutions in India have not focused on rental housing, which caters to over 30 per cent of housing stock in most Indian cities."
He is the co-founder of Aarusha Homes Private Limited (Aarusha), an initiative to provide shelter in the form of hostels and paying guest accommodations to low to middle income customers in the cities of Hyderabad, Bangalore and Pune. These shared accommodations, he says, help floating populations of migrants who cannot afford high rentals. For as little as `3000- `7000 a month, entry level software workers and others in lower income groups can find shelter, if not a sense of home.
What policy makers can do
Alok's conscientious architecture has created a lot of curiosity in its wake and Indrajit Kembhavi of Kembhavi Architects says, "I am curious to know more about Alok Shetty's work."
Looking at the disparity between the rich and the poor in Bangalore's urban sprawl, he adds, "In the West, downtown areas have high-rise buildings and the peripheral areas have low-rise buildings. In India it is the opposite and an imbalance in land prices has been created because of which affordable housing has been affected. BDA asks builders to earmark 10 per cent of land for lower income groups but most of this land is turned into commercial zones. In Mumbai, an attempt has been made to create high-rise homes for slum dwellers while the other half of the slum land is sold off for development to raise money for construction. Everyone wins this way. With inflow of more and more people into Bangalore, we need government to look at housing needs of the underprivileged seriously."
Till then architects like Alok Shetty can fill the gaps.