Alykhan Mohamed: Urban Infrastructure Design
Mid-Year Public Progress Report
As a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Architectural Studies, Alykhan Mohamed is partnered with Hunnarshala. He is currently exploring how environmental sustainability and social equity relate to architecture. He has both collaborated extensively with the local youth as he develops an urban resource center and a city-wide slum-community survey.
Hunnarshala Foundation was formed by a group of like-minded people to coordinate design and engineering resources in the wake of the 2001 Kutch earthquake. Since then Hunnarshala has evolved into an architecture firm with the goal of supporting and further developing traditional building technologies. While the organization regularly works in other parts of Kutch and India, Hunnarshala’s urban team, taken forward by former Indicorps Fellow Prashant Solanky, focuses specifically on engaging with the citizens and government of Bhuj to provide housing and infrastructure in the city and its slums.
While Hunnarshala’s expertise is housing and infrastructure, the urban team has partnered with three other local NGOs – Sahjeevan, ACT and KMVS – to address city-wide issues, such as solid waste, sanitation, and drinking water. Outreach workers from these four NGOs work with self help groups and community organizations in slum-communities as well as some prosperous sections of Bhuj to to raise awareness and support for policy changes and infrastructure.
My Fellowship with Hunnarshala focuses on assisting slum-communities organize themselves and decide how to secure access to physical infrastructure and social services. I spent the initial months of my project shadowing our outreach workers, Vishram and Hirji, and attending community meetings with them. Through these exposures, I learned that many of the communities have established themselves generations ago, when Bhuj was a kingdom. Whether it evolved around caste, religion or occupation, each community seems to have its own history and social identity.
My understanding of the communities has been enhanced by living in Sardarnagar – a housing project designed and built by Hunnarshala for poor families displaced by the 2001 Kutch earthquake. The families in Sardernager seem to lack the sense of solidarity that is present in the older more organic slum-communities. Neighbours have gradually begun to grow closer and have organized celebrations for Navratri the past two years, but when I walk through the neighborhood in the evenings, each family is still huddled around their own small campfire.
Project Vision: Community Driven Infrastructure
The lack of social cohesion in Sardarnagar manifests in the state of its gutter system. Along with the housing, Hunnarshala built a DEWATT system – a decentralized wastewater treatment facility – which could be maintained by the residents with only occasional support in case of repairs. When I arrived, the system stopped being used, because many residents would not take the personal responsibility to pay 30 rupees per month and the community was not strong enough to enforce this fee.
In a sense, this scenario embodies the essence of the project as I understand it. In the communities Hunnarshala works with, water, electricity and toilets are often communal by necessity. Even when they aren’t, the infrastructure beneath them – sewers, power lines, etc – are shared by the entire neighborhood, not just one house. Since the majority of these communities lack tenure and don’t pay taxes, they must take the initiative to demand infrastructure from the government or build and maintain it themselves.
My project vision is to help Hunnarshala and its partner NGOs find and engage with slum communities in Bhuj. So far, the urban team has identified almost fifty different communities at various stages of development and with different needs. My actual role has evolved as my communication skills and relationship with different communities has developed.
Everything that the urban team does is so intertwined that I initially had a hard time defining what my project actually encompassed. I split my time working on small projects – developing a solar still, playing Frisbee with neighborhood kids, developing an urban resource center and a citywide slum-community survey. Meanwhile, I spent as much time and energy as possible exploring the slums and familiarizing myself with Hunnarshala and our partner NGOs.
In the last few weeks, my role and responsibilities have become more defined. In the coming months I plan to contribute to Hunnarshala’s efforts by:
• Taking responsibility for our slum survey, focusing on social aspects. This will involve finding and implementing a methodology that can be repeated dozens of times and creates a relationship between each slum community we identify and NGOs that serve their needs.
• Working with Bhimrav Nagar to find a small project (possiblly an aganwadi) that will challenge their ability to work as a community and prepare them for the more complicated task of securing legal housing.
I am learning how to sustain a vision, how to avoid making excuses, and how to turn my frustrations into inspiration. Sometimes I wake up and I can’t remember what compelled me to come here. Rather than spend my first waking hour trying to piece everything together, I start my day with the faith that doing the small tasks will clarify the vision behind them.
When things don’t work out, I try to return to those small pieces and find the mistakes. This may be the most crucial aspect of my personal growth because when I look at external factors first, I find myself rationalizing away my own mistakes and restricting my ability to grow from the experience.
Forcing myself to emphasize my own mistakes is often overwhelming because frustration is directed at myself rather than at others. While it is sometimes much more satisfying to direct my frustration at others, I try to remember that by placing blame elsewhere means that I am increasing the parts of my environment that I cannot control and setting myself up for future frustration.
The lifestyle that I have chosen for this year has provided many frustrating moments. I live with two very small very mischievous kids who often amplify the frustrations that come from leaving behind personal space and other comforts I used to take for granted. But if I can’t deal with them, how can I be a role model for them? I have realized that they are not frustrating me – they are just kids being kids – and if I was frustrated by them it was because I was misplacing the frustration that came from other parts of my Fellowship and lifestyle. As annoying as they can be, Ramesh and Mahesh and the questions they make me ask myself are probably the driving force behind much of my personal growth this year.
Alykhan Mohamed, August 2009 Indicorps Fellow