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Housing a dream

Slums are a perennial question mark to the powers that be. The people-friendly scheme adopted at Mattancherry to rehabilitate slumdwellers is a healthy step which can be emulated. PRIYADARSSHINI SHARMA on the project, nearing completion.

THE CITY keepers are open season for all. Bad roads, traffic bottlenecks, bus services, potholes, beggars, power cuts and even phone faults, anything regarding governance, and the bashing begins. Generally one curses any inconvenience that occurs in day-to-day living, on to the city fathers. But here is a side to them, which deserves whole-hearted commendation.

Far from the swanky Marine drive and the smart newly built highway, Kochi has pockets of squalid slums that need attention. And plans are afoot to clear the shanty dwellings in a very novel and laudable way.

More easily said than done, `Live life king size', but what will this mean to a person who does not have a safe, secure roof over one's head? There are many who survive under a stretched blue plastic sheet and shield themselves from the sun and the rain. For them the broken walls and cracked floors of very old buildings seem almost a wonderful home, however unsafe the premise might be.

Makeshift houses, slums and shantytowns are hotbeds of crime and disease. Life in such dwellings generates a dysfunctional society, which leads to innumerable social problems.

In Mattancherry, the historically rich part of Kochi, a dichotomy exists in its present façade. While history has left relics of some old, dilapidated structures on the one hand, its business interests have given it some ornate and modern buildings. Certain areas carry the aroma of tea and

spices while certain other localities reek of the putrid stench from clogged drains and garbage heaps. Many live amidst this unthinkable filth. The slums in Mattancherry pose for the town planners their biggest challenge.

Having successfully re-established eight families in their first project at Kallarackaparambu, the Kochi Corporation is all set to present 14 families with new dwellings by the end of this month, under its Cochin Urban Poverty Reduction Project (CUPRP) that aims to rehabilitate slum dwellers in a better and safer environment.

Having declared an old building, the `House of Ameena Bai' unsafe for habitation, the occupants refused to vacate the premises on grounds of penury and sentimental attachment to property. " They were mainly old women and sick ladies who were left behind and had nowhere to go," explains Mr. Johnson Jacob of C-Earth, a master planning engineering firm who under the Corporation's resettlement plans have undertaken to demolish and rebuild the house.

While town planning of an undeveloped area is fairly regular, relocation and redesigning of an existing slum is a task, which requires considerable calculation, lest it further complicate the problem. Rehabilitation of slum dwellers entails both a social and a fiscal angle, which has to be carefully attended to. Each case is different as the situation posed is specific and unique to it. Sentiments of the habitants, their means of livelihood, proximity to essential services is matters that have to be considered carefully making slum eradication an uphill task. "It needs a multi pronged approach with socio-religious -economic-psychological, all factors coming into play," explains Mr. Jacob.

Under the Urban Poverty Alleviation Department scheme funded partly by the British Government the inmates of a `not-fit-for-habitation' certified building are being resettled in vertical Multiple Family Dwelling Units. " Though we do not prefer constructing a two floor structure as most dwellers are old and sick, in this case we had to make do with just 6 ½ cents of land, which housed these families. For each unit Rs 47, 500 is given by the UPAD and the rest Rs 2,500 has to be contributed by the beneficiary. Some are so poor that they find it difficult to do so. But they can contribute it by joining as daily labourers in the project," says Jacob, Chief Project Co-ordinator.

"This was a perfect case of a growing slum as the dwellers had made extensions to the building. It was a two-floor structure but many wooden beams of the floor were missing. People could easily fall through the gaps, but as most were sick and old they just lay around. The building got much attention from political parties, media, religious organisations but the problem of vacating and rehabilitating persisted. Finally the Corporation, with the UPAD, took over the land and short-listed 14 out of the 23 families, which had mushroomed on the land. As we have to work within a very tight budget, our approach is totally different; whatever material from the demolition is reusable is consumed to keep the costs low. We have actively involved the women folk, as they were the ones who remained in the building long after their men folk had either passed away or deserted them, or moved elsewhere. A committee of these women has been formed under this socio-rehabilitation scheme of women empowerment. So, along with all these social requirements, the project was inaugurated last year, but work started only in October. We worked under all odds. From space limitations, to disposal of rubble or its utilisation, the water scarcity problem of the area, everything had to be attended to. We have built an overhead tank to harvest rainwater and use it during the lean season. As all families here are Muslims, we have built an internal courtyard, which will be the backyard for each unit, as they are conservative. Essential sanitary facilities form top priority, and basic privacy too is stressed on. As in the last project we managed to give the units, a mezzanine floor, and hence some privacy, which is a luxury."

Says Habib, a local resident of the area, pointing to the few who have already begun to live in the unfinished concrete, " They have no where to go, so during the daytime, they just wander around, but in the night they sleep here, unmindful of the sand and stones. A new house will be a big boon to them."

Mr. M. R. Abhilash, Projects Director, CUPRP, seems upbeat at the way things are going.

A great work indeed is taking shape, overcoming all bureaucratic hurdles. He proudly announces the sanction of another similar project at Mehboob Park, Mattancherry, where a 50 cents corner of the park has been allocated to rehabilitate 63 families.

A stable house is the first step in the formation of a healthy and vibrant society. The first step to allow one to dream... .

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