The success of building the Integrated Child Development Centres by Suhasini and her team, shows that Auroville's tradition of ‘Quietly building the best', is being continued
In April 2006, one of the last of the 27 Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) centres in the Villupuram and Kanchipuram districts was inaugurated by Jasmine Withverad the CEO of the UK-based Save the Children (STC). This multi-crore project was successfully handled and completed by the architecture department of the Auroville Building Centre, headed by Suhasini.
“The story began when Hemant from the Tsunami office was visited by STC officials,” explains Suhasini. “They wanted to rebuild the coastal ICDS centres that had been destroyed by the tsunami, and had funds to build 154 of these in Puducherry and five districts of Tamil Nadu.” What STC wanted from Auroville was 2 design prototypes that could be adapted to field conditions with a manual outlining the construction technology. Could Auroville help?
Two modular designs had to be manifested, keeping in mind the centres' various functions (see box). The floor area was to be 85 square metres, costing within 5.2 lakhs rupees per centre (Rs.6000 per square metre) and it had to be built within one month. The team felt the project was doable, and accepted.
“When we took up the job,” says Suhasini, “we had the naive idea that we had to make two designs, and then hand them over to the Collectors of the five districts and Puducherry, who would execute them with local NGOs. And then we would only play an advisory role. It was quite unwittingly that we got so deeply involved.”
However, there were no NGOs in Kanchipuram or Villupuram districts to build the 27 structures earmarked for those districts. “So they requested us to take charge of these two districts and by now we were already so involved in the project that it was difficult to refuse.”
The task seemed impossible – twenty-seven centres to be built within four months. Says Suhasini: “Not just that, the paperwork that was required of us was overwhelming – weekly and monthly reports on all kinds of issues; surprise checks on our financial management and book keeping, and unannounced site visits from STC officials or the Collector's office.”
Luckily for the team, the grant got delayed and that gave the team an extra month to get organized. “During this time, we found reliable villagers with whom we could work, and they in turn found the masons and the workers. In the end we had seven teams of masons and workers organized.”
Work began at two of the closest centres where all teams received their training. With an Auroville mason as the mason-in-charge, masons from other villages worked under him and learnt the job. The intention was that these masons would go and train others in their village. “In some villages, this was not easy,” says Suhasini, “because of the lack of basic knowledge. They are used to making very rudimentary houses, and learning double brick masonry with all kinds of technicalities was very difficult.” All this meant that the small team of 3 persons had to constantly be everywhere to monitor the work.
But what amazed the team from Auroville was the positive cooperation from most villages. “It was amazing,” says Suhasini. “In some villages the people cleared the land for us, in many the neighbours offered to store the construction material and tools to save on the cost of building a store room and use it for the project. They'd also fill our water tanks in the evening so that we didn't have to wait in line in the mornings.
“The only places we had problems with social cooperation were the villages in and around Auroville. In Kuyilapalayam for example, after we cleared the land, garbage was dumped overnight on the entire site to prevent the construction. It was finally with Dhanapal's help that we got another site allocated by the panchayat. In the village of Chinnamudaliyarchavadi , the temporary ICDS centre was partially demolished to force us to build on the spot they wanted, leading to problems from the NGO that had built the centre. In Bommaiyarpalayam, there were several instances of damage and destruction to the buildings. But whenever a situation was not manageable, the Officer on Special duty and the Collector intervened directly.
“We also tried to get two centres allocated and built for dalit villages, in the neighbourhood of Kottakarai and Sanjeevi Nagar, but it didn't work due to resistance from other castes.”
Problems notwithstanding, Suhasini and her team have completed the work successfully. “From an evaluation of all of STC's projects in Indonesia , Thailand , Sri Lanka and India , the centres built by us were deemed to be the best, and now Auroville design and technology is being adopted in Sri Lanka.”. The team also performed well during the surprise financial check from the Chief Financial Officer of STC – UK . “Our book-keeping, expenditure monitoring, project reporting and management were found to be ‘exemplary'.”
For Suhasini and her team at Auroville Building Centre, this experience of building the ICDS centres has reinforced the belief in the quality of their own work. “This is the first time that we had to work on such a large scale within a tight time frame,” observes Suhasini. “And we've found out that not only are we capable of it, but we could even do it well.”
The Integrated Child Development Scheme Centre
The Integrated Child Development Scheme, a programme run by the Tamil Nadu government aims to achieve community well-being in all its villages. Its main focus is to meet the basic health needs and requirements of children, adolescent girls and women. The centre is a multi-purpose building that functions primarily as a day-care centre for 2 to 5 year olds in the mornings, and offers other programmes during the rest of the time, including evenings and weekends. Examples of programmes are nutrition and health education for women, child health monitoring and record keeping, dental care, adolescent girl counselling, gynaecological check-ups, antenatal and postnatal care, psychological counseling, and immunization. Each ICDS centre has a staff of two full-time ladies. One has some education and training, and the other assists as a helper. Doctors and health workers also visit at regular intervals to oversee special programmes. Once a month, the centre also serves as the meeting place for the Panchayat with the Women's and Men's Self-Help Groups. Studies have indicated that ICDS centres have a positive impact on the village community.