These age-old definitions in India are still valid, but with sustainability discussions taking centre-stage, they can also represent low- and high-embodied energy approaches. A look by Sathya Prakash Varnashi
Two words not originally part of English vocabulary, but now well understood in India, which distinguish between the local informal and proper formal buildings are ‘cutcha’ and ‘pucca.’ In Hindi, cutcha buildings are supposed to be temporary makeshift arrangements, while the pucca ones are durable professional constructions.
These age-old definitions are still valid, but with sustainability discussions having taken centre-stage, they can also represent low-embodied energy and high-embodied energy approaches.
Everything that we can name, like building bye-laws, design codes, college education, contractual systems, bank loan procedures and such others, have continuously discarded the cutcha approach in urban areas citing many reasons, but at a huge environmental cost and a lost opportunity for possible personal savings.
When the British introduced professional and formal modes of construction, backed by elaborate procedures documented in writing, no one would have then realised that the eco-friendly and cost-effective architecture of pre-colonial India was to change forever.
Over those decades, many instruction handbooks had to be produced to change the local practices and finally when the PWD manuals got published about a century ago, with clearly stated specifications for materials, sketches for details and procedures for construction as an all-India standard, the formalisation of Indian construction had come to stay.
The PWD influence
Today the PWD may represent only government projects, but the PWD approach altered the way even the private buildings were designed and built. The societal desire for such pucca buildings has never stopped since then, moving from mud walls to brick walls to cement blocks to concrete construction to aluminium-coated panels and tinted glass boxes. Alongside the above shift in materials, the parallel journey of cost, wastage and energy has also been one of upwardly consuming.
Paradoxically, more than half of the Indian population still lives in cutcha houses, in rural structures, urban slums and low income homes, with many such houses being centuries old. It is common to see high-end resorts build in cutcha style, charging us astronomical tariffs. Private roadside facilities work 24x7 in simple local materials, seemingly permanently. If we take a long train or bus journey, every settlement along the trip appears to be cutcha. Driving through our State capitals, even today we see old schools, tiled roofs, thatch huts, open verandahs, lime constructions, surface decorations, urban villages and such others, performing on average like any other formal city building.
We not only see the cutcha everywhere, we hear that such simple buildings are cooler in summer, have no cracks and are cheap to maintain. If this is true, there must be something wrong in the propaganda about the cutcha as temporary and makeshift. Equally, there must be some lessons on ecology and economy to learn from them, for modern-day application, if not for blind repetition.