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India: When Home is the workplace

By Shwetha E. George | PUBLISHED: 23, Feb 2017, 19:25 pm IST | UPDATED: 23, Feb 2017, 20:30 pm IST

India: When Home is the workplace Thiruvananthapuram: Mary, 58, is one of the many impoverished residents in Kerala’s state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, whose life so far has been riddled by struggles. Not only has she had to live with the pain of rejection and abandonment after her husband walked out on her, she’s also had to figure out a way to earn a living and fight for a roof over her head.

These days, Mary stays in an overcrowded building, eagerly awaiting the completion of her very own home being constructed in vicinity. At 7 pm everyday she leaves her small room, which she shares with her ageing sister and divorced son, to hit the streets for scrap and other recyclable waste. “After the local shops shut down I step out to collect whatever I can sell to a recycling unit. After walking around for two hours my sack usually gets full. It’s quite heavy and at my age it’s not easy to haul it single-handedly but what choice do I have,” she rues.

Whereas gathering scrap is hard work in itself Mary’s next hurdle is the lack of space to sort everything – “it takes time segregate everything and I can only manage to do it thrice a week”. She sells for Rs 8 per kilo and makes around Rs 300 a day. Her son, unfortunately, is of no help because even though he does manual labour at the busy Chalai Market he is reluctant to give his share of household expenses. According to Mary, having dedicated space she could use to store and sort the scrap daily would make her life much easier. “Right now we are three adults staying in a small 100 sq. ft. room. It’s impossible to keep the large bag of scrap there. I have to find places to stash it safely and often I get into fights with the neighbours. I’m waiting to move into our new home. I have been told that we will have a common work area facility as well,” she says.

Mary is right. If all goes well then soon she will be a happy homeowner in a Laurie Baker-designed low-cost housing complex being built under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. It’s the redesigned, improved version of the infamous Karimpadom Colony, once the site of dilapidated shanties and the stronghold of drug peddlers and crime mafia. Located near a government sewage overflow pond, communities living here may have been used to the stench and squalor that is a part of slum life, but they are optimistic that the memories of that deplorable existence would fade in the years to come. Laurie Baker’s institute, the Centre of Sciences and Technology for Rural Development (COSTFORD), is spearheading this massive rebuild, which began in 2010 and is expected to come to a close sometime this year.

“We understand that life in shanty settlements is challenging. Living in airless, dingy tenements, usually without adequate basics like water, electricity and sanitation, doesn’t just impact the health and well-being of families but also impairs their earning capacity. Most people in Karimpadom survive on daily wages and the earnings of male members are not enough. Women are forced to not just take care of children and do household chores but whatever free time they can spare goes into doing home-based work to get some extra cash. Keeping all this in mind, our intention is not just to present them with a beautiful brick structure but to develop a socio-economically empowered space, particularly, for the female residents,” shares Sajan P.B., COSTFORD’s chief architect.

The housing plans have been designed on three parametres –build quality, livelihood enhancement and social interaction. With airy rooms and sturdy walls, the 300 sq. ft. houses that are being built in a stacked, pyramid style – five flats on the ground floor, three on the first and two on the second floor – are a far cry from the unstable shanty structures. In fact, the two households that occupy the top floor get balconies on both sides, which, can be secured with grilled windows to create extra space, if the need arises.

Significantly, the layout has factored in a common working area, television kiosks, study centres for children, a community kitchen, and a central sitting area for women with foliage and benches. Apart from superior homes and civic services such as roads, electricity, drainage, and rainwater harvesting, two Community Cluster Centers are being created to support activities under the state’s Kudumbasree scheme.

Two phases of the Rs 26 crore-project are already done. The first included an anganwadi centre, an open market, and a Community Health Centre along with 80 houses, while in the second phase 60 houses and a common working area for women has been created. The third phase, under which 180 houses are being constructed, is ongoing.

Awasthy, 42, is one the few who has already begun living in her reconstructed accommodation on the second floor. Although the climb is a bit inconvenient she has access to the terrace, which she has closed up to make another room. Awasthy is a liaison worker with COSTFORD and she makes it her business to know how families like Mary’s, who is currently staying in the transit accommodation, are faring. “The building, which is the designated common working area is presently the stand-by accommodation for 50 families. Naturally, it’s not an ideal living situation and there are times when tempers flare up and things get out of hand. However, everyone is hopeful that the wait will be worth their while.”

Like Mary, Geetha, 40, is a single mother of two who works hard to make ends meet. Her husband left her after a nasty brawl in which she broke a leg and an arm. “I stay in the one room we’ve been provided as a temporary shelter. As the space is inadequate I have sent my younger daughter to the village while my elder daughter is around to help me. Despite my injury I can’t afford to rest so I go daily to a roadside eatery where I work from 5am to 3pm, making snacks. I can’t wait for my home to be ready because I want my family together,” she says.  Geetha also hopes to be part of the units for tailoring, chips manufacturing, pickle packing and umbrella making that COSTFORD plans to set up. Interestingly, the women suggested manufacturing of umbrellas and recycled paper shopping bags.

As someone who has closely worked on urban planning issues, Prof. Usha Raghupathi of the National Institute of Urban Affairs understands the problems of staying in transit housing. “Transit living is rough but unavoidable. One cannot provide housing that is 20-30 kilometres away from the redevelopment site because that will disrupt people’s lives completely. In any low-cost housing initiative one is mindful of the fact that livelihood comes first for residents. COSTFORD’s project work may have been slow but the design is a well thought – the ventilation, strong walls, improved sanitisation will have a positive effect on the lives of the women. Moreover, they would have multiple work-at-home livelihood opportunities once everything is complete.”

Shalini Sinha, an expert on home-based workers agrees with Prof. Raghupati’s observations. “For an informal worker, the home is the workplace. Therefore, housing policies need to keep those needs in mind. If you re-locate them three kilometres away, transportation costs go up. If housing is poor quality then that affects their productivity, too, because it can spoil their wares and also affect their health. A well-designed dwelling empowers them through a renewed identity and the promise of physical safety. It increases their productivity and thereby, their earnings.”

Mary, Awathy, Geetha and scores of other women from Karimpadom do believe their new home will give them a much-deserved new beginning and better earnings.

(© Women's Feature Service)
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