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RDC: An initiative to document and disseminate traditional building knowledge systems

The past is important: it tells us where we have come from; it shapes who we are and influences what we will become. In today’s mobile, urban society we distance ourselves from our habitat.

By living and working indoors, and doing our shopping in enclosed malls, we even shelter ourselves from even from the views of the changing weather conditions. Yet in our traditional building cultures, there is no such separation between the natural habitat and people’s spaces, behaviour or traditions. However, we are still quite attached to the habitat where we grew up, whether that was a city or a rural community. Often, we think of our origins in building terms, as "our temple", "our verandah/balcony" or "our school". But still, many present- day habitat problems can be traced from values, attitudes and actions that have been part of our building traditions for many generations.

Culture also filters the way we see the habitat, like windows. The view from these depends on our cultural beliefs. For example, we may see the trees as a protector or a welcome sign to visitors. Similarly, we may perceive elevated houses as signs of prosperity, and accessibility to roofs as unsafe. Our point of view depends very much on how these things have been presented to us when we were children, how they have been depicted in stories, in art or in the media. Although our responses to habitat problems may be changed by more knowledge or personal experience, they are certainly influenced by this viewpoint. In order to help protect the habitat, we need to understand not only the habitat but ourselves as well. We must understand the traditions, attitudes and past events that caused the problems we have today, and what solutions may have worked. We need to open our minds to the knowledge that other generations and cultures, past and present, can share.

But, just as two people might report a conversation differently, so may there be different interpretations of what happened and why. The evidence studied, the point of view reflected, and the questions asked will produce different histories. In most cultures, part of what we call "history" is not written but is passed from one generation to the next through song, story or ritual. This is also called traditional knowledge. It is important to keep in mind that all that is there today is the result of a cumulative, collective knowledge base of know-how, technologies, experiments and innovations and learnings of people bygone...and what we have to is a gift from our forefathers and hence the value of traditional or local or indigenous knowledge systems built over the millennia should be conserved or else we will help create an environment that will erase the thriving diversity of the past and replace it with a mindless uniformity.

So we need traditional building knowledge systems:
• To ensure the survival of the living culture that is under constant threat in a globalizing environment
• To offer valuable insights and learnings from ingenious solutions in the vernacular
• To create opportunities for developing alternative employment, alternative markets, and means of production that are independent of national and international negotiations
• To empower the poor and marginalised people who struggle for everyday survival
• To restore the dignity of the traditional master craftsman
• To fosters belief in one’s own culture and tradition

This knowledge is at risk even in normal situation but a disaster and consequent reconstruction only serves as a vehicle that hastens the process a hundred times over. The Reconstruction for Development Campaign (RDC) is one such post Tsunami initiative from a people’s perspective that mobilises all such resources and expertise on habitat related issues and works towards enhancing people’s capacities at the grassroots level. This is by sharing, promoting and popularizing indigenous knowledge systems and also working towards adapting these traditional systems and fusing with modern technologies.

The RDC will initially cover geographically three districts of Tamil Nadu and is a center of expertise and material resources. It involves collection of information on habitat and building systems from various communities, various areas, production of pedagogic materials in forms that are accessible and relevant to people, conducting trainings, awareness activities, campaigns etc. Social workers are responsible for determining people’s attitudes, responses and reactions to habitat and often forums like film screening, are used as a tool to stimulate discussions at the local level.

RDC is being done through the following activities:
• Documentation and popularization of traditional and modern day know-how, practices and experiences through the Village Knowledge Centres
• Training of unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled professionals to strengthening local competencies in construction through the Development Technocrats’ Forum
• The ‘binome’ concept where two persons of different cultures/ professions/ nationalities/ qualifications work together in a equitable partnership
• Reconstruction using adapted and innovative technologies with community participation

This project is being implemented by Architecture & Development (A&D) which aims to fill the growing gap between international expertise and local competencies, in partnership with 4 NGOs; Centre for Education and Documentation (CED) who functions as a hub (has experience in documenting and disseminating primary and secondary information on issues of development); interacting with Praxis and Institute for Social Education and Development (ISED) ) who are working at the ground level (whose missions are to work towards empowerment of the poor and marginalized communities and take up study, research and training on issues related to development and social change); and Orrisa and Tamil Nadu Development Technocrats Forum who gives the technical support.

The questions we ask of the past are shaped by our current interests and concerns. If we ask different questions, we’ll get different answers. Today by studying the changing connections between people and their habitat, and how and why these changes came about, we can learn about those activities that were harmful, and those that respected the habitat. In this way, we may rediscover more positive practices. At the same time, habitat isn’t a pursuit for only trained specialists. Just as traditional knowledge has been passed down through generations, we can each participate and contribute in studying and recording our own habitat.