Bring back the Assam-type houses

SANJOY HAZARIKA urges the need to push the Assam type house: safety above looks, greed, profit


sanjoy hazarika
Sanjoy Hazarika

The disaster in Nepal has not just grabbed media headlines and drawn an outpouring of sympathy from across the world. It probably has sent tremors down the spines of those living in areas where there is high seismicity and acute threat of quake-impacted disasters such as in the Northeast of India.  Those who should be even more worried are those who live in several storey high concrete clusters, cheek to jowl, built on hill slopes (the best or worst examples are to be seen in Gangtok, Aizawl and parts of Kohima) or in the plains as in Guwahati (where to make matters worse, wetlands have been encroached and built upon, filled up to make way for malls and buildings; these are most vulnerable when the earth shakes).


So, naturally, desperate calls go out from the largely ill-informed but vociferous media, architects and professionals, a few public-minded civil engineers, as well as some scholars about the need for safe technology in such quake-prone areas.


The problem is that we do not see the ground beneath our feet, literally, in our own region.  Does it need to be pointed out to us that the safest building technology in the Northeast is hundreds of years old, it’s indigenous, green, inexpensive and certified as safe? It has a local name by which all of us know it in Assam – the ‘Assam type’ house or Ikora style.


Yet, despite the horrific casualties (in the tens of thousands) and with places yet to be reached in the remote areas of Nepal, there have been few voices from the builders’ lobby, the construction engineers, architects and housing groups which have made thousands of crores by setting up the concrete clusters of monstrosities and high-rises for homes and offices that we see sprouting across India including the NER.  This lobby and their protectors and beneficiaries in government, both at the political and bureaucratic levels, those who pass such buildings as technically safe or who push for them resolutely, are criminally responsible for the potential death and disaster that will be inflicting on communities who are at risk. Are they bothered? 


Will they go beyond the standard questions (starred or unstarred) in the state assemblies and Parliament or in the media before the next event and challenge and political pressure point takes over – ‘Bangladeshis’, explosions, identity, statehood demands, insurgency, elections, human right violations, corruption … the list is unending.


There is no need to hastily describe earthquakes as ‘killer tremblors’:  these descriptions are a manifestation of media stupidity which plays into public fears. In truth, quakes are a manifestation of the natural processes of the earth. As the great plates of continents grind ever so slow but surely against each other, shaking the surface and inner body of the world in which we live (an uncanny resemblance to the phrase about how the ‘wheels of justice, grind slow but they grind exceeding sure’). For nature, water, rock, soil, air – all these are science. Without them, we would perish.


What kills people is not earthquakes but the buildings in which they choose to live or are expected to. And when the technology exists for safe building, why doesn’t each government, at least in the region, decide that from now on not only will there be controls on medium-rise buildings (e.g in Shillong, it is Ground +3 floors but this government edict is often violated despite High Court orders) but Governments must wage an active campaign through new laws, regulations and public education and awareness to promote the Ikora-style or Assam type house. This is the starting point: there must be a legal, official agreement on this as far as building codes is concerned. 


The Central Government’s ambitious plan to develop smart cities of Shillong and the other hill capitals of the NER must first ensure that the dangerous, criminal stupidities of the builder-politician-engineer nexus is broken. It would be worth, as part of the survey that I refer to first, to know how many unsafe buildings are owned by politicians/officials and their collaborators and/or partners; this could be publicized extensively by the media, always on the hunt for good stories and exclusives.


The second is to wed new technology to a vernacular or traditional system that is hundreds of years old.  Of course, individuals and communities need new facilities in a modern age. I am not asking them to go back and live in the past.  Ikora is hard to come by. At a time when there are plantations for rubber, spices, teak, jute, oranges and apples, is it so impossible to grow ikora in controlled patches?  What about find a material that could substitute ikora such as bamboo-board: light, strong and durable?  The foundations could be strengthened further with cement and brick.  Strengthen the foundations with cement. A survey shows that it is the foundations of these which are weak while the walls and roofs are excellent overall; in a cement house, it’s the walls and roofs which are killers! So a combination of sensible technologies is the key. It is critical that we live safe. What is the point of pouring hundreds and thousands of crores of rupees of personal and public funds into buildings which end up killing people although they may look fancy and be held up as an public expression of the ‘status’ of the owner!  What’s the value of that if it takes not save lives?


The third is to get a network of registered architects who are experienced and trained in retrofitting quake-damaged buildings as well as modern and vernacular architecture to conduct a safety audit of all multiple storey buildings which have been built in the past 25 years in cities such as Guwahati, Shillong, Gangtok, Aizawl, Kohima and other  state capitals as well as buildings in large towns. This could be developed upon a direction from the National Green Tribunal – a motion could be brought before it in Delhi or the bench in the Northeast.  Where do we find these architects? There are a list of award winning architects and groups which were recently award national awards for their pioneering work by the Urban Development Ministry; these are called the HUDCO Awards.


And finally, for heaven’s sake, transform teaching in engineering and those institutions which teach architecture, seismicity, earth sciences and geology to ensure that traditional architecture is developed and promoted and not treated as it is now, as a sign of poverty.  This is nothing but unmitigated nonsense propagated by those who are too tutored by colonial ideas and whose ideas are embraced by greedy politicians, babus and builders who eye the vast profits that are to be made, legally and illegally from concrete procedures.


These are the four critical changes needed: without this happening, especially in curricula, regulations, building promotion  and mindsets, we are doomed.


Let me quote in closing what Geo Hazards International of California said what would happen if a quake measuring 7 on the Richter Scale hit Aizawl: “The scenario paints a stark picture: collapse of 13,000 buildings, 1,000 landslides, 25,000 fatalities, and major damage to utilities and infrastructure …. The city’s many concrete buildings­–built up to ten stories tall, without earthquake-resistant features and on landslide-prone slopes–are especially vulnerable to collapse. Poor land use policies and poor construction practices exacerbate the hazards. Aizawl’s extremely high levels of risk have overwhelmed local mitigation capacity despite dedicated efforts by local technical professionals.”


Sanjoy Hazarika is a columnist, author, filmmaker, Saifuddin Kitchlew Chair at the Academy of Third World Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia.