As India rapidly urbanizes, pockets of rural Gujarat continue to remain home to smaller communities of the Jamat. Anchored to their land and with strong ties to their community, they often live in areas that are seismically active. Since 2012, the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat’s Rural Habitat Development Programme, has focused on working with these communities to improve the resilience and safety of their built environment. In transforming their living spaces from houses to homes, the programme has helped improve residents’ quality of life.

While India’s overall rural population is shrinking due to migration to urban areas, there are those for whom the allure of urban life holds little promise. Consequently, as the new generation moves on, small towns and villages are left with family members from the first and second generations who have a significant attachment to land, history, and community.

With a long coastline, the state of Gujarat is known to be at high risk of natural disasters, including earthquakes, cyclones, floods, drought, and extreme heat. The southern Saurashtra region is at risk of events causing substantial damage to communities, many of whom already face multiple economic challenges arising from their dependence on rain-fed agriculture. This risk of natural disasters creates an imperative to invest in safe and secure housing, strengthening the community’s resilience.

The challenges of vulnerable housing were especially apparent on 26 January 2001, when an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale shook the town of Bhuj in Gujarat. The quake caused severe disruption and exposed the physical, social, and economic vulnerabilities of the rural community. Soon after this event, a number of interventions have been strengthening its capacity to address these needs, leading to the genesis of the Rural Habitat Development Programme (RHDP) in the Saurashtra region.

With its origins in 1971, the Ismailia Central Housing Board was incorporated into the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat in 2015, with quality housing always central to the agency’s mandate. This was inspired by Mawlana Hazar Imam’s vision on the role of housing as a tool to uplift families from poverty. At the opening of Aga Khan Baug, Versova, in 1983, Mawlana Hazar Imam said that the “visual, physical and emotional impact of a decent home can light the spirit of human endeavour.” He reiterated how a proper home could “provide the bridge across that terrible gulf between utter poverty and the possibility of a better future."

It was with this goal of building a better future that the Rural Habitat Development Programme aims to address by tackling issues of rural housing. An assessment was conducted as part of this programme, which studied the pre-existing housing condition in these villages. The results highlighted that the housing of the vulnerable families were in a detrimental state due to the lack of quality in construction and materials, lack of knowledge, awareness, and technical assistance on building codes and regulations, inadequate preparedness, and poor response capacity to natural disasters.

“The house we were living in was in bad condition,” said a young woman from Amrapur, who lived with her ageing parents in a home where the monsoons often brought in the rain through a leaking roof and the summers brought in unbearable heat. It is these families for whom an improved home has meant a new lease on life.

The programme formulated its projects based on the four main principles outlined by the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing in 2016. The principles include environmental protection, economic effectiveness, social inclusion and participation, and cultural adequacy.

Each component of the sustainable housing development programme used varying design strategies based on the building design, site context, and budget constraints. Some of the strategies include reducing the heat gains through shading devices and natural ventilation, using local materials, waste management on construction sites, optimal use of daylighting, use of renewable resources through solar panels, and the use of china mosaic tiles which have a high solar reflective index.

For the families who can now call these new spaces home, the actual structures also hold added value because the designs evolved through a participatory process that included discussions with the families. It is why they have been able to transform their residents’ quality of life. "We no longer need to switch on lights during the daytime. We can do a lot of activities inside the house,” said a family from Chitravad Gir.

“The new house has enough windows for light and air,” said a middle-aged couple from Kenedipur. “The way the windows and doors are designed and located, we will get more oxygen. We shall be healthier!”

Rather than adopt a “one size fits all approach,” the Agency’s interventions straddled multiple typologies of safe housing by evaluating people's preferences, acceptance, and affordability, resulting in varying projects like group housing, restoration and repair of existing housing, and new construction of independent housing units. The building design was also conceptualised to consider traditional construction practices and strengthen them with advanced engineering techniques. To date, 151 houses have been constructed, 31 have been repaired, and 176 houses have the design approved under the Programme.

Nearly a decade after the Rural Habitat Development Programme was launched, the Agency’s work in rural housing is helping to build a secure and resilient environment for the Jamat. Looking to the future, Tameeza Alibhai, who is the CEO of the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat India, said the leadership has great aspirations for the programme.

“Mawlana Hazar Imam has guided on many occasions on the importance of a safe and secure home and its impact on enhancing the quality of human life, not just for one generation of a family but for multiple generations,” Tameeza said. “Therefore, a very important part of AKAH’s mandate is to assist in addressing the Jamat’s evolving housing needs. We hope to continue to do that with the Jamati Leadership in India and in the other countries where AKAH works.”