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Auroville Presentations at the NGO meeting at Koonimedu, 12.03.05

Bumping along the road to Bommiarpalayam, we're in a bus on our way to Koonimedu High School for a meeting of NGOs called by Mr. K. Balachandran, IAS, Villupuram District Collector . Auroville's Tsunami Rehabilitation Centre has been asked to share its knowledge base on settlement (community) planning, shelters, ecological restoration, waste water and solid waste management, and alternative building materials & technology with the NGOs working in the tsunami-affected villages up and down the coast from Auroville.

Hemant, our NGO networking Coordinator, is sitting there, so relaxed, having a good time exchanging remarks and stories with the talented young architects who've come to say a few words about their shelter designs. They had leapt at the challenge of creating housing designs that, while respecting the norms set by the Government, would be environmentally, climatologically and culturally appropriate, as well as aesthetically pleasing. Twenty-four hours after the invitation went out, half a dozen designs had been submitted to the Collector, and more were on the way. Now, we are bringing nine models for the NGOs gathered here to see.
I see the flash of amusement in Lata's eyes and her glorious, rare smile. Lata, our Shelter Coordinator, and Prashant, our friendly Planning Coordinator and GIS specialist, also spend much of their time co-creating Auroville's Tsunami Knowledge Centre. Their rapid-fire replies to Hemant's quips set everyone laughing.
And suddenly I am struck by how young they are, how carefree, as they talk and laugh and enjoy each other's company, these savvy Indian Aurovilians and Newcomers who have shouldered so much responsibility and who are representing Auroville today.

We enter the main hall of the school, where approximately 60 NGO members are gathered. Mr. C. Kathiravan, Special Deputy Collector (R&R), explains the purpose of the meeting: to discuss provisions for permanent shelters and for fibre boats, engines and nets. The cost of a boat with engine and net is 1.5 lakhs ($3,500), of which the Government will give Rs 75,000, the NGO Rs 35,000, with the remaining 40,000 as a loan to be repaid by the individual fishermen themselves. He invites the NGOs to come up and share their willingness to contribute.

The first NGO to accept his invitation is the representative of the Mysore Citizens' Forum (MCF), working on behalf of the 272 affected families in Mudaliarkuppam. MCF intends to spend 212 lakh rupees ($490,175) on occupational rehabilitation – providing 75 boats, engines and nets, a software soft-skills training program, 258 rescue shelters, water tanks and wells, a place of worship, a c om munity hall, and a program of reforestation which MCF would like to have c om pleted by Tamil New Year, in mid-April, a month from now.

A question and answer session between several NGOs and the Collector follows and information is exchanged and updated. Then it is our turn. Our large NGO team moves to the front of the hall. Hemant tells everyone that, for us, consultation and communication with each fishing c om munity is vital to our rehabilitation plans. “Keeping in mind the needs and wishes of the people, keeping in mind government policies and keeping in mind the donors, we want to harmonise the three together.”

Prashant has created a presentation on the topography of the affected areas in Tamil Nadu. He shows how low-lying areas even 2.5 kilometres inland were affected by the tsunami, while s om e places right on the coast were untouched because they were protected by a ridge of high land. Sand bars, mangrove trees, and coastal vegetation also help to protect coastal areas. His maps also show the extent of salt-water intrusion into river mouths, where the ecology and even the geography of the land has changed. Another map indicates the width of land 500 metres from the sea, all along the coast; there are 5 colours, each one representing a 100-metre strip of land. The position of the East Coast Road , weaving closer and farther from the shore, indicates where land may or may not be available for resettlement.

In order to gather information for the creation of guidelines for a land policy, Prashant and other GIS experts at Anna University are mapping the coast, to create a vulnerability map (to tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones). Several conditions should be met in choosing needed land for permanent shelters: they should be at higher elevations, not in drainage areas, not on aquifer recharge areas, etc. It may be impossible to find land which fulfils all the requirements, but 50-60% of the conditions should be met.

Prashant's second presentation is on ecological restoration: protecting the coast by creating mangrove forests at river mouths, such as in Pichavaram, TN , with sand dune ecosystems and by planting indigenous fringe forests. Education and the participation of the c om munity are crucial elements in the success of such projects: the people should own and protect the planted areas. The presentations are applauded. The audience is appreciative – this is new and interesting.

Tejaswini is the speaker for the presentation on shelters and community planning. Relocation criteria should include geographical, socioecon om ic and disaster concerns. She shows various aspects of good settlement layout planning: open and shaded areas (which are also wind breakers); street layouts (for ventilation, social interaction, livelihood activities, should be lighted); primary schools, health centres, shops, marriage halls, cyclone shelters, etc; rainwater harvest ing, solid waste management, lighting should be included.
Homes and other buildings should be placed so as to allow for easy expansion. In the prototype house designs, toilets are either incorporated or for future expansion; safety criteria are observed, appropriate building materials and construction techniques are vital.

Nine prototype house designs are shown on the screen, while the corresponding model is held up for our 3-D conceptualisation of the blueprints. Each architect explains the thinking behind the design, the approach taken, the materials and methods chosen. The designs are varied, but all have outdoor seating, a single large multi-purpose family ro om or a living ro om and a bedroom. The areas range fr om 20 to 29 m 2 and the cost estimates fr om Rs 60,400 to 79,000 ($1365-1785).

The shelter team is very keen on owner-driven choices. These models are in the process of being presented in the three villages where Auroville plans to build and the future owners are encouraged to examine, touch and compare the models. The feedback given – especially by the women – is very important; it is incorporated into the designs. Land has recently been found on which to build the prototypes; they will be ready by the end of April, so that villagers can enter, spend time in them, and make their choice of a new home.

The next presentation is by Satprem of Auroville's Earth Institute, who has had a great deal of experience in building with pressed earth blocks stabilised with 5% cement. He has built earthquake-proof h om es in Kutch, Gujarat, and in Iran . “Earthquakes don't kill people,” he says, “badly-designed, badly-built buildings do.” He shows example after example of buildings that that have emerged from earthquakes with little or no damage – most often buildings built long ago using traditional materials and techniques, and recent mud huts – and modern buildings of cement and steel that have collapsed completely.

He shows what kinds of buildings, vaults and domes can be created using earth blocks. Most are attractive, if not downright beautiful, and can be built in mere days or a few weeks. He speaks briefly about the ecological and environmental aspects of planning communities and shows integrated water collection and waste water treatment plants in community designs. The NGOs are restless. I wonder if they are having as much trouble understanding his French-accented English as I'm having in understanding the heavily-accented Indian English spoken by a few of the people here.
Hemant concludes by inviting the NGOs to ask for a CD of these presentations and to come to Auroville to visit the Knowledge Centre.