‘Is It Written Somewhere That Architects Cannot Work In Rural India?’

Posted by Nishan Nazer in Education, Society
December 13, 2016

I am an architect by profession and I am proud to be one. I am proud because as an architect I am able to observe problems from different angles and create innovative and pragmatic solutions to the problem. But immediately after my course, I moved to rural Orissa instead of practicing as a professional architect in the city.  Many questioned my decision to work in Orissa, that too for a tribal population, where my skillset as an architect would be of no use. But I was very confident about what I have planned – I just wanted to escape the captivating hold of consumerist, money-centric, extravagant and non-sustainable architecture which is commonly found in the professional field. I wanted to know how an architect can contribute to the lesser privileged people of the country.

I have one question for those people who questioned my decision. Is it written somewhere that architects cannot work in rural India? I can be wrong in my observation since I am a newborn in an architect’s world. I have been trying hard to observe the kind of professionalism and ethics architects keep towards social good, environment and sustainability from the beginning of my course in architecture. It has been a deep disappointment to see when a majority of the architects who boast of sustainability, end up consuming a good portion of natural resources. Numerous fancy and non-fancy LED lights, tall rooms later lowered with gypsum false ceilings, glass walls with air conditioners etc. are few of the self-contradictory concepts that architects have successfully bombarded in the general public’s mind. When I saw every magazine and website glorifying these ridiculous designs, I recognised that sustainability is a concept at stake in an architect’s hands.

With and without media, architects have shrewdly managed to transform the concept of shelter to a mansion. Everyone is ready to invest their lifetime savings to create a junk of natural resources and happily call it a ‘house’. When I gently question them about the extravagance, they give this innocent answer, “Architect asked to invest money if you need a beautiful house, so I invested.” That is when I realised the negative impact the architects have created in our minds is too deep that it even changed the concept of beauty attached to a home to a squanderer’s dimension.

To withstand the increasing competency among architects, they have decided to evolve to the role of a pest – a pest on the richest. The architect’s money is the money of the rich. The architect’s pocket swells when the building he designs grows bigger and fills with useful and useless materials and spaces. The energy for architects is the embodied energy which he maximises in his projects. This successful pest life is attracting a huge chunk of young architects. I am not saying that everyone is a pest. But most of us have safely and silently accepted that role. We are apparently serving the consumerist, extravagant and non-sustainable dreams of the public to come to reality.

I never wanted to serve anyone as an architect or as a human at the expense of nature and lesser privileged sections of society. This created an aversion towards the ‘pest’ profession. I searched for new avenues where I can work without creating a negative footprint. I shifted my focus towards the rural parts of our country where the pest attack was not prevalent. Pests won’t attack them because they do not have any money. But does that mean the lesser privileged don’t need architects? This question had been cooking inside my mind for years. I decided to explore the solution to the problem by myself. I applied for many volunteering programs where I can get a chance to live with the poor to understand their problem. Now I am working in a renowned NGO called Gram Vikas which does fabulous work in rural sanitation and education.

After spending a few days in the village, I quickly realised that the kind of problem that rural India is facing is very fundamental. These problems seemed simple on the outside. But when I dug deep into it I understood that everything in the village is intermingled with sensitive elements like culture, tradition, belief and lifestyle. I cannot correct one without altering others. This was a new set of problems that I had never encountered in my life. It is totally different from the problem statements that an architect receives in design studios or from a city client. But through my architecture course, I have generated a decent storehouse of knowledge on various subjects like sociology, human settlements, climatology, sustainability, planning, product designing, landscaping, estimation, specification, material properties, housing, sanitation etc., which helped in narrowing down the complexity of the problem. These broader sets of knowledge were very helpful in analysing the problems from different angles.

I focused my attention on housing and education. It was observed that there is an acute shortage of infrastructure in schools in rural areas. From a pilot study, I came to know that the infrastructure limitation in rural houses and schools are one of the reasons for the underperformance of tribal students. These students who are not prejudiced by any concepts have a raw thinking ability. This rare quality, if properly moulded, will help them achieve great heights. But even primary infrastructure like bench and desk is missing in schools and houses.

I decided to work closely with schools to study more about the dynamics of the life inside the school. School buildings in rural areas are generally blocks of stones arranged to create a space with a concrete or thatch roof. Since education is in its state of novelty in rural India, people are generally unaware of the built environment and infrastructure required for education. Lack of infrastructure is actually creating severe health problems as students sit in wrong postures while learning. Both houses and schools must have some furniture for learning which is multi-functional and affordable, as families are generally below the poverty line and most of the houses are very small to keep furniture like study table. I accepted this challenge with pleasure as the solution to this problem will directly benefit rural houses, students, education and on a long-term – overall development of the village.

I designed a product that can serve multiple functions of a student like reading, sleeping and drawing. The product is being used by students in school everyday. Testimonies from students prove that it is student-friendly furniture. I felt proud as an architect when I came to know that an innovative solution to a problem was actually helping the students in improving their academics. With the new furniture, students are able to study for a longer time with better concentration. This is the achievement that I had been waiting for, as an architect. I have not designed any school but a simple piece of furniture that can be an aid for tribal students. It is the analytical and creative aspects of an architect in me that I am proud of. I realise that architecture is not just about building houses. If architects can divert some of their attention to rural India where the majority of our population lives, simple and powerful innovations from creative minds will definitely help in transforming the rural life.

There are many more issues in rural houses that are happening due to the invasion of modern technology in rural areas. For example, when they have replaced thatch roof with concrete roofs, the thermal comfort parameters have come down drastically and adversely affects their living in summer seasons. They have not developed passive architecture solutions to counter the problem. Simple techniques can be derived to control such problems using available local resources. Such interventions will help many people in improving their standards of living.

I invite every young architect to dedicate some time of their career to study and attempt to solve problems in rural India and thereby create a positive social impact. Rural India is where an architect can observe many principles of sustainability, social planning and ecology getting practiced. I am experiencing happiness and contentment unknown to me while working in rural India as it is creating significant positive social impact with very low negative footprint. This realisation that most of the problems in rural India are universal and these can be addressed wherever one is, is giving me confidence to continue such interventions in future too.

I finally have found the answer that I was pondering about a long time. Architects can really work for the poor wherever they are. Work for rural India without expecting any reward in cash, instead, your life and profession will be rewarded with invaluable experience and knowledge.