by Devika Narayanan and Prithibhusan Deka
Displacement is a concept familiar to the people of Assam. Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, Assam is a state in the north-east of India known for its tea plantations, iconic residents such as the one-horned rhino, and natural silk production. However, what is perhaps lesser known is the heart-wrenching dichotomy its people are subject to - the southern part of the state, known as the Terai zone, is extremely flood-prone while the northern part, known as the Bhabar zone, is arid and dry. What ensues is an annual pattern of over 200,000 people being forced to flee their homes every monsoon. In the summer heat, we ventured into a village in Assam named Nalbari, with a mission to understand what a home means to the people of a state where displacement is second nature, and to see how a Nostos homes community could service that need.
Our deployment partner Gramya Vikas Mancha (GVM) Assam, an organisation that had worked for the upliftment of the people of Assam for more than 2 decades, had suggested Nalbari as the site for the Nostos community due to its especially vulnerable positioning during floods. Nalbari is surrounded by three tributaries of the Brahmaputra, all three of which flood when the rains come, with the rising water closing in on Nalbari from all sides. Ninety-four percent of the area is rural and the local economy, heavily dependent on rice and mustard farming, is left vulnerable after the floods wash away crops. Prithibhusan Deka, the founder of GVM, had witnessed the changing geopolitical landscape of Nalbari over the years. He had led the reclamation of the land and the youth from the grips of militant activity. Over the years, he had also witnessed the increasing unpredictability of cyclones and floods in Nalbari due to climate change, and so Prithi ji and the rest of GVM knew disaster preparedness was the only way to reduce the inevitable devastation of the upcoming monsoon.
One day, while we were eating rice and a local herb dish named thekiya for lunch, we asked Prithi ji what he thought was the overarching theme that defined a home. He had one word for us - safety.
The Nostos model of modular deployment was able to service this proactive approach to disaster management. Despite Assam's hilly topology and winded roads, the houses could easily reach the site in their disassembled form in the back of a truck. GVM Assam brought together their dedicated local volunteers to construct the homes. These young adults, hailing from the village, carried a tacit understanding that these homes could serve as a refuge during the impending monsoon, should the floods wash away their current homes. Working alongside them, we witnessed their adeptness in figuring out the intuitive design and effortlessly fitting the components into their precisely engineered slots, seamlessly assembling the homes. They expressed their appreciation for the Nostos homes design, likening the process to solving a life-sized puzzle, a refreshing departure from the labour-intensive traditional masonry that demanded more physical exertion and time.
Building homes has an uncanny ability to bring people together and forge close bonds. Working closely with the locals, we could see the courage and resilience of the people of Assam. Despite the harsh reality of the daunting floods, every volunteer radiated unwavering enthusiasm. We continued working through both blazing heat and light rain, with the volunteers singing folk songs to keep the energy up. As the sun went down and the cacophony of the crickets began to fill the air, we continued working under the light of a solar lamp till all the homes had been built.
It was almost as if the children’s drawings had manifested into reality in the form of the Nostos community.
One day, while we were eating rice and a local herb dish named thekiya for lunch, we asked Prithi ji what he thought was the overarching theme that defined a home. He had one word for us - safety. In a land where traditional homes often could not withstand the precarious weather patterns, a safe and sturdy Nostos home becomes more critical than even we had previously imagined, as a place of refuge where families could rebuild their lives post a disaster. After the meal, the GVM team took us to a nearby school to show us craftwork the village’s young children had made for their school’s Annual day. For one of the prompts, the kids had created visuals of a home according to their imagination using sticks. We couldn’t help but notice the resemblance between their drawing and the Nostos homes design, characterised by the sloping roofs that allowed rainwater to slide off. It was almost as if the children’s drawings had manifested into reality in the form of the Nostos community.
After the deployment, we left Nalbari with a heavy heart with an understanding that the next flood-cycle was fast approaching and unavoidable. As Nalbari faces the imminent arrival of the monsoon clouds, we hope for minimal destruction and loss in the village and throughout Assam this year. While uncertainties prevail, the Nostos community we built, with its capacity to provide more than 131,000 nights of shelter, holds the potential to lessen the anguish and trauma experienced by flood-displaced families in Nalbari.