Juan Community Centres
The research project was initiated over 2018-19 in collaboration with KIRDTI, a grassroots NGO in Keonjhar, Orissa. The project studied the traditional architecture of the Juan tribe in North Orissa and the gradual impact of rural housing policies on its architectural vocabulary, construction technology, sustainability and culture.
The Indira Awas Yojna, now repackaged as the Prime Minister Grameen Awas Yojna, is a social welfare programme to provide housing for the rural poor. Launched in 1984, it has supported the construction of millions of houses in rural India, though with the caveat that they need to be ‘pucca’. In its classification of materials, traditional building materials such as mud and even stone were classified as ‘kuccha’. Even though it has undergone several revisions since, its initial definition of ‘pucca’ promoted a wave of concrete structures in villages across India, be it coastal or mountainous areas. Its effect over the last few decades has been that ‘pucca’ has become synonymous with concrete and traditional architecture is now seen as ‘kuccha’ or undeveloped.
Traditionally, every Juan village has a community centre or ‘manda ghar’ where all community meetings and incidental meetups take place. Communally built by the village, the walls are built in mud with clay tile roofs, plastered in beautiful colours of the 5 varieties of locally available mud. Every village displays its traditional tools, weapons and drums on its walls and at the heart of the centre, lies the holy fire or ‘dhuni’. It’s a fire that is constantly kept lit and considered sacred, with an idol-less shrine to the Mother Goddess installed outside the centre. If there is a visitor to a house, the food is cooked by taking embers from the holy fire. The youth of the village are responsible for the upkeep of the centre, with the boys collecting firewood regularly and the girls responsible for its cleaning. The community centre also acts as a grain bank where every house keeps a reserve of grains for contingency.
With funds coming in for ‘development’ from schemes supported by the Indira Awas Yojna, these community centres are now gradually being replaced by community centres built in concrete with iron sheet roofs, along a formulaic model developed by local contractors. There is one issue, however. The holy fire cannot be lit inside the new structures as the soot makes the corrugated iron sheets sticky. While some villages have moved the fire to an adjacent house or school, others have moved them outside in the open. Concurrently, the community space has also moved to an adjacent house or school, and in some cases, this deconstruction is gradually leading to its erosion – as the villagers told us that they have stopped meeting as often as they used to. We realised that not only have our housing policies led to an erosion of the traditional building practices but also of the culture and sense of community in the Juan villages.