A tiny club with only 21 members in the Northeastern Indian State of Assam — Rotary Club of Dispur, RI District 3240 — has provided an excellent example of how focus, dedication and smart partnerships with corporates, in this case headed by its own members, can provide innovative solutions to the problems caused by regions prone to natural disasters. And, dramatically transform lives in the community.
This project was done to serve Majuli, a river island about 340 km east of Guwahati, and situated in the Brahmaputra River. This is the biggest river island in the world, being home to some 20-odd Vaishnavite Sattras (monasteries) where spiritualism and culture are celebrated. It is also a celebrated tourism spot. In 2016, this island with a population of over 167,300 people became the first island in India to be made a district.
The shelter is made from locally available material such as bamboo, wood, steel and plastic. The design is totally flexible and can be improvised using traditional wisdom, local material and expertise.
According to Rtn Sundar Bordoloi, President of the club (2017–18), over the years, due to severe erosion, the island is rapidly losing its land mass and has almost become half its size. But the biggest problem for its inhabitants is that it is plagued by at least four to five spates of devastating floods every year and when this happens it cause unimaginable misery to its inhabitants.
“The floods force thousands of people to run out of their homes and take shelter on a high land mass or elevated roads such as a national highway. Along with people, livestock and other animals are also badly affected,” he says.
Living in the island becomes virtually impossible when the river floods with virtually everything going underwater. “Drinking water and clean water for washing and other chores becomes an absolute scarcity. The schools remain closed and women suffer the most as they are the main caregivers,” says Bordoloi.
So when the noted writer and innovator Sanjib Sabhapandit spoke to him about gifting this community a floating shelter that contained all the vital facilities and could be home to some 50-odd people, he was really excited.
The concept of the design that Sabhapandit shared with him was a floating shelter made from locally available material such as bamboo, wood, steel and plastic. “He had conceived the design in such a way that the model of the shelter was totally flexible so that people could easily improvise upon it using traditional wisdom, local materials and expertise, and when he explained the details I was totally convinced,” says Bordoloi.
The shelter they discussed could accommodate up to 50 people and would come equipped with a hygienic toilet, hand pump for water and an overhead tank for water storage. “Sabhapandit explained that though the product is technical in nature, it is holistic in approach and humane in character. All components can be detached for ease of transport and storage, and when there was need it could be quickly assembled. And, if properly handled and maintained, the life of this product is estimated to be 25 years.”
Hooked to the idea, Bordoloi approached two Rotarians from his own club, Biswajit Hazarika and Utpal Kumar Hazarika and they readily agreed to sponsor the floating shelter costing around ₹5 lakh from their respective Guwahati-based companies — Transvirtual and Intsys Services.
And thus the project christened ‘Mother Shelter’ was born and the floating barge was made using PVC or HDPE tanks/crates, fitted in a steel frame covered by bamboo platforms and the structure completed with a sturdy and durable plastic sheet as roofing.
Bordoloi says the size of such a barge can be increased by a unit of 8 ft and its multiples and can be made large enough to accommodate 100–200 people, if the available space permits it. The design encompasses storage space for water, food, valuables, important land and academic documents. “The bathroom and latrines have been made using a steel frame and canvas cloth. The commodes are made of stainless steel and are portable. The septic tank has been specially designed for flood-time use above the water level, though it can be used at other times as well. This septic tank is reusable. The washing and flushing are by way of pressurised water dispensed through a spray nozzle,” he explains.
The shelter is complete with a solar-powered LED lighting system with a battery backup and it can light up to five LED bulbs. It also contains, for children and adults, a study table made with sun mica plyboard fitted on a collapsible steel frame. Shelves are also provided for keeping books and other study material. A sturdy cooking platform is included in the design.
A 400-litre water tank is provided on top of a 20 ft bamboo platform and through a hand pump water is available to the occupants. In this totally environment-friendly contraption, the innovator Sabhapandit has made a provision for rainwater harvesting too. The flow of the rainwater falling on the plastic-sheeted roof of the barge is directed through ducts into the storage tank.
Bordoloi adds that this shelter was awarded the Best Innovation Award at this year’s National Science Day exhibition organised by the Institute of Advanced Studies in Science and Technology, under the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India.
He adds that Senior Director General of Police (SB), Assam, Pallab Bhattacharya, extended all help from inception to the commissioning of the ‘Mother Shelter’ in Majuli.
Deba Prasad Mishra, Deputy Commissioner of Majuli district, Superintendent of Police and other district officials and Rotarians from RC Dispur attended the event held in June.
Addressing the gathering, Biswajit Hazarika, Managing Director of Trans Virtual, said, “If each one of us takes up some social responsibility, we can address many problems of the State.” Managing Director of Intsys Services Utpal Kumar Hazarika said, “It may not always be possible for an individual to take up major responsibilities, that’s why teaming up and collaboration make things doable, provided we have both compassion and commitment.”
Says IPDG Sunil Saraf, “This small club, the smallest in our district, deserves total appreciation for coming out with such an innovative project that will effectively serve a crucial need of the community.” At the well-attended meet held on June 26, the shelter was officially handed over to the NGO Bohniman Majuli Krishi Samabay Samiti that operates in the Molapindha village of the river island.
Asked if this project can be replicated by other clubs in areas prone to flooding, Bordoloi says, “Of course; it can be designed and fabricated anywhere using local material and is easy to transport too.”
Asked how many more such floating shelters does a State like Assam need, his cryptic reply is “An unlimited number”!
So has his club’s iconic floating shelter been put to use already? “Not yet, but knowing how prone this river island is to floods, it can be required any day,” he adds.