The Cyclic Habitat

Talk by Durganand Balsavar : 9 May 2020

(As part of the REVIVE series hosted by eCoexist during Covid 19)

This talk covers three main aspects :


What does Resilience really mean? How do we define community in the context of the natural environment?

During my student days and my early career, I travelled to many regions of India and the world. The travels took me to magnificent cities like Paris, Rome, London Varanasi and Venice, and also to the remotest villages of India. In the times before the mobile phone, we had little access to communication while travelling , but we were all open to taking a lot more risks. When I travelled I lived with communities in remote rural hinterlands, and was exposed and inspired by the stoic frugality with which they lived their lives. In spite of their limited resources, they lived full lives, because they were always in harmony with Nature’s process of ‘Making’. And the artefacts they were making reflected the natural universe.

The act of ‘Making’ is a way to understand self. Making is a measure of resilience. It involves a conversation with our mind and the material world, that embody the timeless laws of nature.

The Latur earthquake in the early 90’s, was my first experience of disaster. I was an assistant professor at CEPT, Ahmedabad. Most of the habitat solutions being provided were primarily engineering solutions. They did not take cognizance of the socio-cultural context, they were being imposed upon. A few years later, when we returned to Latur, most of these homes had either been abandoned or were being used as storage or completely dilapidated. During this time, we were working on the design and planning of new townships and cities in the atelier of Prof. B.V.Doshi. So at one end of the spectrum, I was experiencing towns affected by natural calamities and at the other end, we were discussing new cities.

Following this experience, I spent several years in Chennai working on mass housing, rainwater harvesting and exploring alternative technologies..

In 2001, Gujarat experienced a massive earthquake. I was invited to join a team at CEPT, that was mapping the impact of the earthquake in Ahmedabad, and we evolved a rebuilding plan with Prof. R.J.SHAH, Prof V.R.Shah and several others.

Looking back, I have been involved in rebuilding efforts of 6 major disasters in India (1990-2020). In all of these experiences, the fundamental role of an architect has come into question for me. What is the role of an architect? If communities have the skill and the ability to rebuild their own homes, do external agents, participating, disrupt an organic process?

Quite often architects and engineers impose urban concepts of development and urban standards of building on rural hinterlands, often with disastrous impacts later.

As I observed this process repeat itself, I surmised we need a paradigm shift. I saw how this imposition of unfamiliar urban standards, diluted the inherent resilience of the village community.

When Artes-Human settlements research collaborative, our group, was invited to participate in rebuilding Nagapattinam after the Tsunami(2004), I consciously decided that we would be ‘facilitators’ and not architects, in the conventional sense of the word. Our role would be to empower and assist the community to rebuild their habitat. We began with an assessment of the skill base existing in the community, as well as an assessment of vulnerability of the community. The community was free to ask us to leave when they were ready to stand on their own, and that would be the true measure of success of the project. It indicated that self-reliance was more important than dependence.

During this time, I had the good fortune to meet Architect Laurie Baker, after several years, who was 88 at the time. I visited him in Trivandrum, spent long hours, to seek his advice on how we should approach this project of rebuilding. We received advise from Architect Baker, Sajan and his team, in construction practices like rat-trap bond and filler slabs. And in turn we trained the community. Trainings were organised for about 50 villages. An overall of about 18000 homes were constructed after this training process. We hope to share the documentation, which is under publication, over the next few months.


Our approach to this participatory way of community building, provided several profound lessons in appreciating the spirit of Community. While we may use the term loosely to describe a group, every community is made of several diverse individuals with differences of opinions, ideas and aspirations. We started a process of inviting and celebrating this diversity. We drew up a matrix to address the pros and cons of each view and engaged in discussions with the community to evolve a larger consensus and understanding. PRAs were also conducted, in collaboration with Dhan Foundation and TISS. The first few homes were built, as a demonstration to the community of what could be done. The indigenous building skills of the community, were the foundation for this rebuilding process, enriched by the alternative technologies of Architect Laurie Baker, which the community desired to imbibe.

I have observed that during a disaster or a sudden change there is a desire to start afresh – to wipe out everything that happened in the past and think that we can start all over again. However, the human species is inherently very resilient. We ned to build on the learnings of the past as well as the new. Humans have survived diverse harsh climates (from deserts to snowy regions to mountains) and eaten a diverse range of foods – both carnivorous and omnivorous.

When we come to ground reality, we need to assess Resilience in tangible terms.

Usually the leaders of a community have an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of their communities. However, these processes need to be without such pre judgements. Unknown strengths often emerge during a crisis. The collaborative spirit also builds new strengths. Its only when we feel alienated, we lose the spirit of resilience.

During the floods in Chennai (2015), the Corporation, Army and our teams had to move food and rations to people via trucks and helicopters. The supplies were in 200 trucks that had lined up near a stadium. However they had to be moved, packed and transported. We needed 500 volunteers – with no telephone lines working we had no communication channels. However when we uploaded a request for volunteers on Face book –TV channels broadcasted our requirement. The next morning at 5 am, 6000 volunteers showed up and all the supplies were moved.

Human resilience is unimaginable. Its not measurable. We will never be able to assess the true strength of a community. It has the ability to emerge in the most challenging moments.

Today it is Health that has taken centerstage – the health of the individual and the health of the community, the health of our environment. When an economic system does not factor in “health and well being” of the community, it may not be resilient. It will be prone to recessions and collapse. True costs have not been factored into such economic systems.

On another hand, the natural resources available to a community differ from context to context, however it is the cohesion within a community that builds resilience. The natural environment is our larger community and when we protect it, we protect our immunity.

Community in harmony with environment, is immunity. Health has many expressions.

There has to be a balance between continuity and change. The choice of what to retain and what to change has to emerge consciously. In the rebuilding of habitat we involved the community in the design process. To gauge the true aspirations of the community, we recognised that women had a better understanding. Their resilience stemmed from a concern for family. The women in our team engaged in dialogue with the women of the community. The quality of the conversations changed tangibly when the women spoke to each other. Humane insights emerged. Similarly, the elders are repositories of knowledge and records of history . The insights and experiences of village elders enriched the rebuilding efforts. When these insights are shared with the next generation, Resilience is reinforced.

Trust building takes time. Cooperation and collaboration requires gestation.

Rural communities are sensitive as they live close to the Earth, close to nature. We earned their trust after several months, when the community recognised an egalitarian collaboration and the respect for indigenous knowledge systems they possessed. The observation is the learning.

We need a paradigm shift. We assume that infinite exponential growth is essential for the economy. But this would only be possible if the planet was an open system, that could absorb any amount of pollution and provide endless resources for unfettered human consumption. The planet, however, is a closed system, within which, growth has its limits. It is a cyclic system, not a linear one – the idea of endless consumption comes from a misplaced linear way of thinking. The consumerist society needs a paradigm shift to a cyclic habitat.

PEACE and conflict

Conflicts are inherent to disasters. However, often, our inherent fears, aggravate this reaction. When we see the broader context, we inevitably find resolution to conflict and paths to amicable resolution. Conflict emerges only, in the inability of the human mind to seek cooperation and co-existence.


Creative ideas often emerge from such calamities, when our survival is tested. For eg. our makeshift office with computers was turned into a classroom for children in the village in the evenings, to learn computers and surf the internet. The kids came up with a way to translate global newspapers, into Tamil, the local language. A village that was isolated was suddenly connected to the world, through the creativity of children. It builds Resilience.


The role of the architect may be redefined when re-building habitat for disaster regions, where communities possess the skills to rebuild themselves. An architect could be a facilitator. Our role as architects involved addressing several other aspects, besides building as described earlier.

There are several learnings from this process.

One resident who bought a new motorcycle insisted that the bike be parked squarely in the middle of his living room, as it was his most prized possession. It was akin to the cow they owned. The family was happy with this decision and so lived around the motorbike. The idea of home has so many layers that an architect may never comprehend it fully.

We designed for incremental growth so the community could adapt and build their habitat over time and take full ownership of the rebuilding process. The process provided opportunities to learn as many building skills as possible. We created a rural architectural school, creating parallel vocations for them to earn from. President Abdul Kalam visited our sites and suggested it be replicated in the Vidarbha region to empower agricultural communities. President Bill Clinton visited our sites and had the plan and process conveyed to President Nelson Mandela, in South Africa.


One has to ask why migrants were forced to leave their rural homes and travel to cities in the first place. Usually it is to earn a decent wage – livelihoods. The reverse migration that is happening in the lockdown will shift the centres of development to the hinterland. This may result in a healthy redistribution of communities and densities.

What could the strengths of such a natural redistribution be?

It is during a crisis that our true belonging to place is revealed. We want to return to our homes in the village, because our heart is at home.


This is a moment to think long-term for lasting solutions rather than hasty reactions. We could reflect upon and redesign our systems of engagement. We can perhaps think of controlled precincts where economic activity continues within it. Discuss and brainstorm on alternatives being tried out in different parts of the world.

Community in harmony with environment, respecting bio-diversity, reinforces our resilience and immunity. It’s a realisation that we share this unique planet, with several million conscious living beings, like us.