For the average Keralite, a house is not just a roof over one’s head. It’s a mark of pride, of social status, the fulfilment of a lifetime dream. Just like many of its phenomenal social changes, the houses of Kerala have also gone through a quantum leap during the last decades of the 20th century. From a region where the majority of the people lived in thatched huts or shacks, Kerala had suddenly woken up to the world of concrete dwellings that provided increasing levels of comfort and luxury. This had happened from the mid-70s with the rise of prosperity following the Gulf boom – the flow of people looking for a livelihood in the Middle East.
Within a couple of decades, Kerala’s landscape was dotted with houses in an assortment of designs and sizes, most of them resembling the buildings of the newly-prosperous and oil-rich Gulf countries. As more and more individual houses sprouted all over the place, Kerala’s vast paddy fields slowly started to deplete. Houses rose in a haphazard fashion, filling up paddy fields and wetlands. The laws were always there, but easy to flout. All the large development projects that sprang up in the State, right from universities to airports, sat in reclaimed land. As the more than 70 dams that came up along Kerala’s 44 rivers controlled the annual floods, people started to move closer to the rivers fearlessly. River banks became prime property. ‘Waterfront villas’ became the fashion statement for the elite. People had forgotten that their homes were sitting on wetlands, paddy fields or river banks.
But the water had not forgotten its route. As the torrential downpour of July and August lashed across Kerala, the water levels began to rise in all the dams and had to be let out into the already swollen rivers. As the water wound its way along its old routes towards the Arabian Sea, it gushed over everything that stood in its path, be it buildings, vehicles, roads or trees. While the low lands were devastated by the flooding waters, the hillsides collapsed like never before as a slew of landslides tore through the slopes and swallowed up houses and farmlands, burying whole families. In some cases, houses standing on the higher slopes of a hillside slid down smoothly to a lower level, separating themselves from the foundation, with the upper storeys remaining intact ! Videos showing houses crumbling like pulp as rivers of mud and water came tumbling down, flooded social media sites.
The trail left by the devastation was huge. The floods left some 2, 20,000 people homeless and around 18,000 homes need to be rebuilt to accommodate them. The Post Disaster Need Assessment (PDNA) report prepared by a United Nations team of 72 experts pegged the losses at roughly Rs.40,000 crore. And out of this huge amount, Rs.5,443 crore was estimated to be needed for rebuilding the lost homes.

Landslides added menace to the prevailing chaos during the disaster.

The housing sector faces both short-term and long-term challenges – the short-term challenge created by the destruction and damage to existing homes, and the long-term challenges calling for comprehensive remodelling of the existing laws related to construction and urban design. The State Government has set in motion some measures to meet both these challenges in as comprehensive a manner as possible under the circumstances.
The architects’ community, who certainly would have a great role to play in these challenges, has responded to the calamity with zeal and swiftness, the first response being focused on relief measures. Within two months after the devastation, the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA, Kerala Chapter) had organised an Architects Conclave on Flood and After, that created an opportunity for a comprehensive study and analysis of various flood-related issues. The regional studies conducted by the IIA Task Force led by Lalichan Zacharias by dividing the State into five zones, have come up with remarkable data about the flood-related damages and reconstruction.
While the IIA’s regional centres are working on consolidating their study reports and proposals to be presented to the authorities, the Government has already set in motion a two-pronged strategy to meet the challenges created by the floods. The primary attention, of course, is being given to the rebuilding of destroyed homes, as the homeless need their shelters at the earliest. The LIFE Mission (Livelihood Inclusion and Financial Empowerment), a comprehensive housing scheme under the Local Self Government Department, aimed at rehabilitating all homeless and landless families, has been put in charge of the rebuilding. In some districts like Ernakulam, the District Administration has formally accepted the technical support of the IIA regional centre.
“Construction of 100 houses in the district will begin in this month itself,” says Earnest C Thomas, assistant commissioner, Rural Development Department and Ernakulam District Coordinator of LIFE Mission. A total number of 3003 houses in the district require to be rebuilt. “We have accepted the technical support from the IIA Cochin Centre, and they have come up with designs for flood-resilient houses at a limited budget,” according to Thomas.
There are constrictions on the budget, with the allotted amount being just Rs.4 lakh per beneficiary. In Ernakulam district, the authorities are trying to find sponsors as well as cut costs through various measures like bulk purchase of material by tying up with startups like Build Next. Another means to cut costs is by using cement blocks made through the Mahathma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

Landslides added menace to the prevailing chaos during the disaster.

“The IIA Cochin Centre has provided typologies of design,” says Monolita Chatterjea, of the IIA Cochin Centre. “We, with structural engineers on board with us along with specialised estimation agencies, are providing all technical support for this exercise as well as supporting them to approach various funding agencies…and presentations they need for that.”
The designs accepted by the LIFE Mission in Ernakulam district will be double bedroom-hall-kitchen-toilet houses with an area of 425sq-ft. A front sit-out will also be provided. The basement will be 1-1.5m high with the foundation being 1-15m high, depending upon the topography. Concrete belt will be given for both the foundation as well as for the lintel level. In addition to this, columns will be provided in the four corners. All electrical fittings, including plug points, will be placed at a height of five feet. The rooms will be provided with floor-cleaning weep holes at floor level for clearing out the flood waters if the need arises in the future.
Apart from the IIA, the District Administration is also ensuring the support of the students and teachers of 14 empanelled engineering colleges in the district. For the masonry work, the services of the newly-formed women’s construction groups organised under the Kudumbashree Mission will be made use of, along with the locally available skilled labour. “These houses will withstand even earthquakes up to an intensity of 6-7 on the Richter scale,” discloses Thomas.
However, the models adopted by other districts need not be the same, as the District Administrations are free to take independent decisions on the rebuilding process.
“The success in rebuilding Kerala depends a lot on how we make plans to overcome the future floods in Kerala, as global warming has already become a reality,” points out Chennai-based architect Benny Kuriakose, one of the country’s leading conservation consultants who was behind Kerala’s prestigious Muziris Heritage Project. Kuriakose, who has come up with a ‘Manual for Retrofitting and Flood Resilient Design for Flood Affected Areas in Kerala’, which is being published by the Kerala Institute for Local Administration (KILA), has drawn upon his experience of having designed villages for the affected areas after the Latur earthquake, Bhuj earthquake and the tsunami of 2004. He recommends that, instead of demolishing the damaged buildings completely, the focus should be on salvaging the buildings as much as possible and ‘retrofitting’ them so that a large amount of resources could be saved.
The Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development (COSTFORD), the Thrissur-based organisation that focuses on providing technological assistance to people via alternative building technologies, has drafted a plan to work with three flood-hit panchayats in three districts – Nedumudy Panchayat (Alappuzha), Pozhuthana Panchayat (Wayanad) and Meloor Panchayat (Thrissur). The strategy will include how to turn the school buildings into better disaster shelters with more toilets and solar panels with elevated battery connections in case of power failure.
While all the rebuilding schemes are in progress, the Government is also making long-term plans that will include comprehensive changes in the building rules and urban planning. “Creating a legal and administrative framework that will help to avoid future mistakes will be one of the major areas that we would be taking up,” says Dr V Venu, principal secretary, Kerala Tourism, who is also the chief executive officer of the organisational structure created by the State Cabinet for overseeing the herculean task of rebuilding Kerala.

Recue operations
in progress.

The architects’ community is also joining hands with the Government in creating the long-term plans. The Trivandrum Centre of the IIA’s Kerala Chapter is working on the theme, ‘Rising Pampa – Rebuilding Aranmula’, which focuses on the damages created by the flood in River Pampa, selecting the town of Aranmula as the place to make interventions. “We can’t introduce a common design for all localities,” says Saiju Mohammed Basheer, chairman of the IIA Trivandrum Centre. “The lives of people in each locality are different, their lifestyles and the vocabulary of their homes are different. For example, the homes of the makers of the famed Aranmula Mirror – who suffered great loss during the floods – are designed totally differently from the average Malayali home, as their homes and work places are blended. We have to respect the individual situations.”
All set to begin the year on a war footing, the IIA Trivandrum Centre is planning a major event this month to further their project, ‘Rising Pampa – Rebuilding Aranmula.’

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