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People of various marginalised scheduled tribes such as Irulars and Narikuravars, who find a place only on the peripheries of various towns, have been living in mud huts or makeshift tents, exposed to rain and shine, for generations. Their dwellings are virtually open spaces; only that they have thatched roofs. To provide them with proper housing, Aid India, an NGO, has been constructing houses free of cost for the past 10 years.
Balaji Sampath, founder of Aid India, says his NGO has been on a mission to provide concrete houses to the impoverished and oppressed people with the help of 400 volunteers. “We started with Thirukkanur village in Tiruttani where we built houses for Irulars. So far, we have covered over 190 villages,” he says.
When building houses in villages, the services of local masons, construction workers and the beneficiaries of the scheme themselves are used for labour, says Sampath, adding that each house has a kitchen and a bedroom, and that the roof is made with tin. “When there were complaints that the tin roof emitted a lot of heat in the summer and that water leaked into the homes on rainy days, we started making two-layered tin roofs so that it kept out both heat and leakage,” he says.
Balaji Sampath says that many people were initially sceptical about his NGO’s aim to build free houses for needy. “When I started constructing houses with my own money, and people saw the impact it was having on the beneficiaries, it inspired several volunteers to chip in with their contributions to our scheme,” he says, adding that volunteers are usually selected from the villages in which the construction is being carried out.
“When I started constructing houses with my own money, and people saw the impact it was having on the beneficiaries, it inspired several volunteers to chip in with their contributions to our scheme”
Asked if there were terms and conditions that beneficiaries of the free housing scheme had to adhere to, he says the Irular or Narikuravar family is selected based on whether they have lived in the same village for at least 10 years. There is a reason for this condition. People who live in a village temporarily could leave for some other place after a while, and then rent out the houses that were freely constructed for them.
Destitute senior citizens, people with disabilities and widows are given priority for the free housing scheme.
The second condition is that the beneficiaries must have a means of livelihood in the village itself. Also, the village selected for the scheme must have facilities such as free education.
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Asked how Aid India identified beneficiaries for the scheme, Sampath says, “Before embarking upon construction of houses in a village, we educate the children in our free tuition centres and conduct medical camps, encourage self-employment of villagers and launch activities supporting agriculture.” Working like this for a year in the village helps Aid India volunteers to identify people living below the poverty line. After this, Aid India builds houses costing Rs two lakh each for them. “We have so far constructed 17 houses at Karumbakkam and work is going on at nine more houses,” he says.
Aid India’s services have spread to other states too. Sampath says houses were constructed for Adivasis in Bihar and Odisha way back in 1997. In Tamil Nadu since 2014, Aid India has built 500 free houses spread over 190 villages, he says.
The free housing mission has covered Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, Idukki and Wayanad in Kerala and Tiruvallur, Tiruvannamalai, Vellore, Ranipet, Tirupattur, Sivaganga, Kanchipuram, Chengalpattu, Cuddalore, Villupuram, Kallakurichi, Nagai, Thiruvarur and Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu.
Before embarking upon construction of houses in a village, we educate the children in our free tuition centres and conduct medical camps, encourage self-employment of villagers and launch activities supporting agriculture. Working like this for a year in the village helps Aid India volunteers to identify people living below the poverty line
Some time ago, Balaji had approached the state government in order to help reach Aid India’s free housing scheme to more beneficiaries, using government subsidy. But he says his experience was anything but pleasant: The government’s subsidised housing scheme is riddled with procedural hassles and hurdles.
“Before constructing houses in a village under the government subsidy scheme, permission must be obtained first from the officials concerned. Then we must approach the panchayat chief and contractors. Even if permission is obtained, government subsidy will not be granted in one go. It will only come in dribs and drabs over a period,” says Sampath. “The first instalment of funds is given after foundation work is completed and further instalments released after walls are erected and flooring is completed. In all, the funds covering the total subsidy are released staggered over two or three months. By that time, the house under construction may undergo wear and tear,” he adds.
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According to the government scheme, the construction of a house costs Rs 3.5 lakh and the subsidy provided is Rs 1.5 lakh. But the release of the funds for the subsidy is always stuck in delays. “So, instead of waiting for government subsidy, we plan the construction of houses in such a way that it costs no more than Rs two lakh and, moreover, we complete it within a fixed timeframe,” he says.
Though Aid India is unable to get government subsidy, Collectors of districts in which the NGO works, welcomes their free housing scheme and asks that houses be built for tribal people in areas identified by them, Sampath says.
Apart from housing, Aid India has also set up mobile libraries in 2,000 villages and appointed volunteers, each in charge of five villages, to monitor them. Once a month, old books are replaced with new books. Aid India has also instituted little writer awards and conducts writing festivals to nurture children’s reading habits.
The organisation has also been supplying seeds and fertilisers to villagers to grow veggies and it also trains them in kitchen gardening. In addition, Aid India has been offering services such as medical camps, football training for girl students and interest-free loans for self-employment ventures. It helps villagers make use of government welfare schemes, get their names corrected in land documents and Aadhaar cards as well as obtain ration cards and insurance cards.
By doing work in education, micro-finance and housing, Aid India has been improving the lives and living standards of many people of the Scheduled Tribes who live below the poverty line in villages.
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