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TBI Blogs: How a New Housing Project Is Giving Hope to Women in Kerala’s Infamous Karimadom Colony

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The Karimadom Colony from Thiruvananthapuram is notorious for poor living conditions and many anti-social elements. However, an organisation hopes to change the lives of the colony’s residents by giving them new housing with better working environments.

Mary, 58, is one of the many impoverished residents in Kerala’s state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, whose life so far has been riddled by struggles. She has had to live with the pain of rejection and abandonment after her husband walked out on her, and also had to figure out a way to earn a living and fight for a roof over her head.

These days, Mary stays in an overcrowded building, eagerly awaiting the completion of her very own home being constructed in vicinity. At 7 PM everyday, she leaves her small room, which she shares with her ageing sister and divorced son, to hit the streets for scrap and other recyclable waste. “After the local shops shut down, I step out to collect whatever I can sell to a recycling unit. After walking around for two hours, my sack usually gets full. It’s quite heavy, and at my age, it’s not easy to haul it single-handedly, but what choice do I have?” she rues.

Whereas gathering scrap is hard work in itself, Mary’s next hurdle is the lack of space to sort everything. “It takes time to segregate everything, and I can only manage to do it thrice a week,” she says. She sells for ₹8 per kilo and makes around ₹300 a day. Her son, unfortunately, is of no help because even though he does manual labour at the busy Chalai Market, he is reluctant to pay his share of household expenses.

According to Mary, having dedicated space she could use to store and sort the scrap daily would make her life much easier. “Right now, we are three adults staying in a small 100 sq. ft. room. It’s impossible to keep the large bag of scrap there. I have to find places to stash it safely, and often I get into fights with the neighbours. I’m waiting to move into our new home. I have been told that we will have a common work area facility as well,” she says.

Mary is right. If all goes well, then soon she will be a happy homeowner in a Laurie Baker-designed low-cost housing complex being built under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. It’s the redesigned, improved version of the infamous Karimadom Colony, once the site of dilapidated shanties and the stronghold of drug peddlers and crime mafia. Located near a government sewage overflow pond, communities living here may be used to the stench and squalor that is a part of slum life, but they are optimistic that the memories of that deplorable existence will fade in the years to come.

Laurie Baker’s institute, the Centre of Sciences and Technology for Rural Development (COSTFORD), is spearheading this massive rebuild, which began in 2010 and is expected to come to a close sometime this year.

The Laurie Baker-designed low-cost housing complex in Thiruvananthapuram. The dilapidated shanties of Karimadom colony make way for larger, well-ventilated brick homes. (Credit: Shwetha George\WFS)

“We understand that life in shanty settlements is challenging. Living in airless, dingy tenements, usually without adequate basics like water, electricity, and sanitation, impacts the health and well-being of families, and also impairs their earning capacity. Most people in Karimadom survive on daily wages, and the earnings of male members are not enough. Women are forced to take care of children and do household chores, and whatever free time they can spare goes into doing home-based work to get some extra cash. Keeping all this in mind, our intention is to present them with a beautiful brick structure, but also to develop a socio-economically empowered space, particularly for the female residents,” shares Sajan P.B., COSTFORD’s chief architect.

The housing plans follow three parameters—build quality, livelihood enhancement, and social interaction. With airy rooms and sturdy walls, the 300 sq. ft. houses are a far cry from the unstable shanty structures. COSTFORD has built them in a pyramid-style, with five flats on the ground floor, three on the first, and two on the second floor. In fact, the two households that occupy the top floor get balconies on both sides, which can have grilled windows to create extra space, if the need arises.

Significantly, the layout has factored in a common working area, television kiosks, study centres for children, a community kitchen, and a central sitting area for women with foliage and benches.

Apart from superior homes and civic services such as roads, electricity, drainage, and rainwater harvesting, two Community Cluster Centers will support activities under the state’s Kudumbasree scheme.

Women residents of Karimadom colony are hopeful that the common working area will lead to increased earnings for them. (Credit: Shwetha George\WFS)

Two phases of the ₹26 crore-project are already complete. The first included an anganwadi centre, an open market, and a Community Health Centre along with 80 houses, while the second phase has created 60 houses and a common working area for women. The third phase, under which COSTFORD will construct 180 houses, is ongoing.

Awasthy, 42, has already begun living in her reconstructed accommodation on the second floor. Although the climb is a bit inconvenient, she has access to the terrace, which she has closed up to make another room. Awasthy is a liaison worker with COSTFORD, and she makes it her business to know how families like Mary’s, who is currently staying in the transit accommodation, are faring.

“The building which will be the common working area is presently the stand-by accommodation for 50 families. Naturally, it’s not an ideal living situation, and there are times when tempers flare up and things get out of hand. However, everyone is hopeful that the wait will be worth their while,” she says.

Like Mary, Geetha, 40, is a single mother of two who works hard to make ends meet. Her husband left her after a nasty brawl in which she broke a leg and an arm. “I stay in the one room we’ve been provided as a temporary shelter. Because of inadequate space, I sent my younger daughter to the village, while my elder daughter is here, helping me. Despite my injury, I can’t afford to rest, so I go daily to a roadside eatery, where I work from 5 AM to 3 PM, making snacks. I can’t wait for my home to be ready because I want my family together,” she says.

Geetha also hopes to be part of the units for tailoring, chips manufacturing, pickle packing, and umbrella making that COSTFORD plans to set up.

Interestingly, the women suggested manufacturing of umbrellas and recycled paper shopping bags.

A well-designed dwelling empowers communities through a renewed identity and the promise of physical safety. It also increases their productivity as well as their earnings. (Credit: Shwetha George\WFS)

As someone who has closely worked on urban planning issues, Prof. Usha Raghupathi of the National Institute of Urban Affairs understands the problems of staying in transit housing.

“Transit living is rough but unavoidable. One cannot provide housing that is 20-30 km. away from the redevelopment site because that will disrupt people’s lives completely. In any low-cost housing initiative, one is mindful of the fact that livelihood comes first for residents. COSTFORD may have worked slowly on the project, but they planned the design well. The ventilation, strong walls, and improved sanitation will have a positive effect on the lives of the women. Moreover, they will have multiple work-at-home livelihood opportunities once everything is complete,” says Prof. Raghupathi.

Shalini Sinha, an expert on home-based workers, agrees with Prof. Raghupati’s observations. “For an informal worker, the home is the workplace. Therefore, housing policies need to keep those needs in mind. If you re-locate them 3 km. away, transportation costs go up. If housing is poor quality, that affects their productivity too, because it spoils their wares and also affects their health. A well-designed dwelling empowers them through a renewed identity and the promise of physical safety. It increases their productivity, and thereby, their earnings.”

Mary, Awasthy, Geetha, and other women from Karimadom look forward to a much-deserved new beginning and better earnings.

Written by Shwetha E. George for Women’s Feature Service (WFS) and republished here in arrangement with WFS.

Find out more about COSTFORD’s facilities and how they’re changing lives on their website.

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