Convert Trees into Poor Man’s House post-Amphan, 2020

Bhaskar Majumder

A decade back I got the opportunity to get engaged in two research projects on rural housing – the study zones were Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand – sponsored by the-then Planning Commission, GoI. Very recently I got the opportunity to study the indigenous knowledge-base of the people that is often not much seriously taken by the west-educated people that covered the states on India’s Himalayan region that was ICSSR, MHRD-sponsored. Based on these studies and based on the visual impact of Amphan, May 2020 that affected the people of the states of West Bengal and Odisha in India, I now get the opportunity to suggest for consideration by both the state and non-state actors how the crises can be converted into opportunities for first, those directly affected by homelessness and second, for income-poor people in general.

It is reported that some 5,00,000 trees used to supply oxygen to dry-lung Kolkata. Kolkata residents felt fortunate that only 5,500 trees succumbed to the ferocity of Amphan super-cyclone on May 20, 2020. Middle section, however, did not waste time to criticize unplanned plantations and all that being affected by power failure for some days post-Amphan – so they had reasons to be annoyed – after all middle section! I am not going into the question of urban planning by planting trees by number and location and types. If the number of trees that felled in sub-urban areas and rural areas are counted, the number will be n times 5,500, n>1. Army was brought in to help remove the trees from the public roads and those that fell on electric wires and all. Here comes the core question.

In underdeveloped countries like India the felled trees, fly ash, wastes on the dumping areas, and things disposed of by households are thought of as things to be discarded or abandoned that are on no use as opposed to most of the advanced countries that re-use or re-cycle those. In fact, inter-farm transactions happen more when the country advances. It may remain a question further what kind of development the people of a country likes. What is known to my readers is every solution has a question – but that is what science or scientific outlook is about.

The core point that I would like to focus on here is to provide shelter to the homeless because of first Amphan 2020 and second to provide shelter to the urban income-poor. A home provides stable livelihood of people. A house is a living space by the indicators like protection from wild animals, safety from natural calamities, sleeping at night, cooking food and eating, storing consumables and keeping domestic animals. A house provides the space for performing rituals. I strongly believe one tree will be adequate to make one house by most of the components, namely, wall, floor, pillar. The ceiling will be better if it is inverted-V shaped tin-made. This means, 5,500 trees that felled will produce at least equal number of houses in Kolkata proper. A look beyond the frontier of Kolkata proper will show how many affected households may be encompassed by provision of housing.

These houses are to be single storey. What I observed in Arunachal Pradesh and many other states on India’s Himalayan region was an upper floor constructed inside house with wooden base and used one-piece wooden or bamboo ladder to climb up the first floor to remain safe and secure at night, say, from water logging and attack from wild animals. In the state of Uttarakhand there was Pannalal Agreement whereby the local community decided which household would get one tree to construct living house.    
In keeping with what I observed, the houses are to be made in clusters, each house separated from the other, generally with bamboo boundaries that also help in washing-drying clothes. These clusters will be a set of houses with households living separately and inter-dependently. One cluster may have 25-50 houses depending on the location and space-saving in towns.

The Amphan-affected region in West Bengal is not earthquake-prone zone. What happen are water logging, annexation of public space by both income-poor people and hawkers in the city of Kolkata proper and diminishing carrying capacity of the canals. The density of population limits the scope to replenish by planting more trees – and this time is not proper to go for that for the middle section may hardly understand the necessity of more trees at this stage. The task may be shifted to villages – plantation of more trees linking, if possible, with MNREGA. Thus, one plan of using the felled trees for housing of the affected and the poor will not go to cost anything more to the non-poor. After all, there has to be a social consensus on why the poor will get houses and why not the non-poor one more house.

The housing as I propose here has no extra cost other than wood-painting to keep it safe from termites and rainwater. I believe self-labour (Aatmonirbharshil) of the would-be-owner of the house will do it at zero labour cost. There is no disagreement that the number of trees felled because of Amphan will be much less than what is required to provide houses to the affected and the poor. Still, a beginning may be made on Gandhian trajectory – start with the neediest. Once the house is provided by the competent authority, the household not only will survive but will stand on its feet to help others.

This cluster of houses will also reflect in collective living based on minimum needs. Each house – one room called one house – may fail to reflect social distancing but a common adjoining space for the cluster may fulfil Corona, 2020 Advisory. The household will get a house to be home-locked with safety and scope to cook food to survive rather than sitting on public road ad infinitum at the mercy of the state or non-state actors.                                     

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Jun 5, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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