Fellow Since 1989
This profile was prepared when Aromar Revi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1989.
Aromar Revi is producing a comprehensive report and a film series on the state of and possible policies for human settlements/housing in India that will serve as usable yardsticks and frames of reference for policy-makers, activists and the public local as well as national.
The New Idea
Aromar's engineering background and his leadership of Development Alternative's "Shelter Group" (which created and demonstrated alternative building technologies) was topped by his participation in the National Campaign for Housing Rights (NCHR) to make clear to him the need for a status report on housing. While a large number of documents have been published dealing with various accounts of the problems of human settlement in India, there is no single document that presents a holistic picture and a possible package of solutions based on programs and experiments that have actually worked.Aromar's report would not only meet this need but would also test and refine a methodology to undertake "state of housing and living conditions" studies at district, regional, and state levels so that local groups could monitor progress. The network of groups that would be involved in the preparation of the study would then continue as an effective forum to extend the effort. A series of multilingual films would complement the report and focus on case studies and the human issues involved.
If the state of housing and living conditions in a country is an important index of the quality of life of its people, India ranks among the least developed countries of the world; most of its people live in self-built houses composed of earth and thatch, in increasingly overcrowded conditions. In many areas, more than 90 percent of the households do not have access to proper sanitation, and over 30 percent do not have adequate drinking water. In poorer states, the rate of degradation of the housing stock is more than that of its gradation.The quality of maintenance and rate of new construction are much below the rate of new household formation, and the cost of new construction is rising much faster than are real incomes. Despite large-scale, enormously expensive housing programs launched by the government, government-built housing is a tiny percentage of the total housing stock--a suboptimal utilization of resources, a reflection of lopsided economic and housing policies.Though the private sector has an important role to play in the production of building materials and large-scale organized construction efforts, it has limited capability and interest in dealing with a highly decentralized nonformal housing market with low client purchase power. Moreover, Aromar feels that the private sector is facing seriously distorted financial, pricing, and regulatory incentives.It is consequently urgent that all the actors step back and get a fresh view of what is happening now, re-evaluate and consider new financial, fiscal, legal, and policy alternatives. Aromar hopes to provide new frameworks for understanding what is and what might be combined with tools that both local groups and authorities can use to see how they are doing and what, quite practically, they could do.
Aromar's objective is to change how people see the manmade environment they are creating both overall and at local and district levels. He consequently wants to produce something quite different than a report. He wants to engage the key actors in the process of preparing it, and he wants it to become a tool everyone from local groups to the planning commission will use year after year. To do this, he is planning both a highly participatory method of developing the work and a strong communications strategy.To involve all the actors, and also to gain access to more data and to have it understood that he is an independent, Aromar is managing this project alone. However, he is maintaining close working ties with the government on the one side and the NCHR on the other. NCHR is a participatory national network pushing for fundamental changes in housing policy.Aromar has a number of strategies for ensuring major and continuing impact. Involving many of the most important members of his intended audience from the start will help. Focusing it more broadly than most "housing" analyses to include economic, environmental, and other closely linked fields will also help. Specifically, designing part of the end product to enable local people to zoom in on and play with the data in their area in light of his analytical categories promises to make it a working tool as well as a spur to more locally initiated follow-ons.He is also planning to translate at least parts of the results into many of India's languages, to update the materials every five years, and to prepare special presentation materials for use in teaching professional and postgraduate courses. The TV series is intended for use on national television to reach the mass of the non-report-reading public. The NCHR network will also be a built-in distribution channel.
Formally trained as a systems scientist, technologist and civil engineer, Aromar came to realize during the early 80s that his education had little relevance to the potential problems that his country had to grapple with. While the bulk of his training as an engineer involved perfecting the science of designing multi-story buildings and large dams in cement, steel, and brick, it was clear to Aromar that most people in the country could not afford to live in or use such structures even well into the first quarter of the next century. Thus, after graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology, Aromar undertook an initiation into the problems of economic and production systems in rural India and joined an NGO, "Development Alternatives." There, he spent six years working with and ultimately directing a determined, multi-disciplinary professional team called the Shelter Group in developing, commercializing, and marketing a cluster of appropriate building technologies.Strong resistance from professionals and administrators in formal institutions brought Aromar back to the fundamental need to examine and project sound realities and decision-making to bring about structural change. Aromar made an initial attempt to do this via his book called Shelter in India. But he subsequently felt the need for a more detailed "bottom-up" study drawn up from a national perspective. His subsequent involvement in the NCHR helped to further crystallize his objective.Widely traveled both within and outside the country, Aromar's memberships in international bodies include the Balaton Group, the Habitat International Coalition, the International Systems Dynamics Society, and the International Simulation and Gaming Association. He is also a member of the Working Group on Housing, Planning Commission (Government of India), and a member of the standing committee on rural housing (Council for the Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology. He is also a vice president of TARA Nirman Kendra (Delhi's second building center set up to promote commercialization of cost-effective building technologies and training of artisans).