From Pontoons to Settlements



Boats are used as shelter spaces often by the boat-makers who would travel back and forth to the city from the hinterlands looking for job opportunities.

Have you ever thought of pontoons as shelters for a nomadic lifestyle? This blog post is about challenging such mundane objects and how it is defining the middle ground at the banks of Ganges.

To imagine objects like pontoons and boats transformed into holding spaces for transient livelihoods, it is important to understand their very inhabitation and settled condition. They demand thinking beyond the framework in formal and informal divide that binds us to settlement thinking. They rather suggest that we think in terms of fluxes and blurs where temporality becomes the lens to observe how people occupy these spaces.

Different objects like pontoons, boats, cloth and bamboo used as shelters or for building one.

For example, Pontoons are air filled structure that can float. Because of this ability, they have historically been used as transport blocks to create bridges spanning the river Ganga. These structures were also used during the famous Kumbh Mela[1] at Allahabad in 2013, the Disassemblable city [2] built for more than 100 million people. And in Varanasi, these structures were recently deployed as temporary elements connecting the Assi Ghat to Ramnagar while the construction of the new bridge was going on. Presently docked at the Assi Ghat, this wasted infrastructure has a functional use for communities.

The river changes its edges in the monsoon season when the level of the water rises up to more than 15 meters and recedes back within a span of 3 months. This fluctuation of water sometimes leaves behind elements like pontoons and silt that forms a new landscape at the banks. This fickle nature of the availability of the land becomes the most apt setting for nomadic communities and new comers to settle in for the rest of the year.

These communities are majorly involved as construction workers, boat-makers or indulge in making and selling art in different cities. They move in groups and their livelihood depend on moving from one place to another. The choice of lifestyle is more common than you think for a lot of micro economies in India and not because of the lack of a permanent shelter but the very nature of their work.

Floating pontoons in the Ganges docked at the Assi Ghat.


Some of these pontoons are left behind on the land with the silt deposits after monsoon when the water level decreases, forming spaces to host these nomadic communities.

Let’s talk about the various objects and materials that people adapt and utilize to construct their livelihood.

As you can see below, they use landscape created by the river to organize their activities. Dry activities happen on a higher ground and facilitates resting spaces, whereas lower ground provide privacy for activities that rely on water. This system make the clusters partially hidden when viewed from the riverside or when approached through the road.

By using all the available materials around them, they have adapted these pontoons to make a housing system on this middle ground. The shelters are temporary shacks with living spaces, playgrounds, green areas, and water facilities, that a pukka house (house made up of more durable materials like bricks, concrete, steel) would provide.


If you think that bricks and mortar are the only ways to segregate and organize the usage of spaces, look for order in these images where the activities like cooking, washing, drying, sleeping, storage happen in the vicinity of the household.

Fabric of the sarees that women dress become their roof, plastic sheets become their doors and windows, bamboo sticks from the scaffoldings either become structural post to their home or drying stand for their clothes. With the understanding of the impact of the monsoon season, these structures are built to last for a shorter duration so that it is easier for them to move again before the next season.

In the above two pictures, the cluster of pixelated activities delineate the complexity of the household within this community. The land that accommodates children playing, women washing utensils and cooking the family meals while watching over their kids is kept clean and organized compared to the area closer to the river.

Apart from resting, all the other activities spill out in the shared area which is demarcated by a piece of cloth as eating spaces or a small pit for drying clothes to contain the flowing water. These rather flexible and faded lines makes their networks stronger.


The enclosure formed by the pontoons provide space for the shelters and the steel beams are either used as shading devices or for drying clothes. Each pontoon accommodates 2 or 3 households with additional supports constructed around it.

Different elements of the pontoons are adapted to create carved living spaces inside it. Like rather than just tying the covering material of the shelters to a bamboo post, the hooks of the structure are repurposed as anchors thereby giving them durability. Likewise, the natural slope that the pontoon has formed with the land is adapted by creating a division between dry area for resting spaces and wet area for drying clothes.



The photograph below is an example of how these shelters are created. The framework is set up with bamboo posts creating ridge lines for the roof. The women utilize cow dung and water to create a mixture that is used to line the floor which is clean and ready to live on. The cow dung also acts as a mosquito repellant due its medicinal properties and can also be utilized to light the fire used for cooking or heat. To complete their shelter available covering material is fixed on the post.



It is important to understand that although these images are moments in a time frame situated in such delicate settings, the rusticity by the untrained is now their coeval livelihood.

These children were searching for coins that people have dropped in the river as a part of the rituals.


[1] Kumbh Mela is a festival that has the largest gathering of pilgrims held in rotation in 4 cities of India who participate to take a dip in the sacred river Ganga.
[2] Mehrotra, Rahul. 2014. “Constructing the World’s Biggest (Disassemblable) City.” Works that work, No.4.worksthatwork.com/4/constructing-the-worlds-biggest-disassemblable-city.

Ponds and Piped Water




Is a pond in a slum a luxury? The presence of water is widely considered an essential condition for life and this condition obviously makes no exception for life in slums. Nowadays we are used to simply taking water from a tap but there are places where water is handled in a very different way. This post is about everyday water management and how it has changed with the coming of modern technology. Slums are the ideal place when you want to see how this kind of changes unfold.
Let’s start with a short clip from Danny Boyle’s movie Slumdog Millionaire. It’s the scene with the religious riots that dramatically change the lives of Jamal, Salim and Latika. The location of the scene is a place in Dharavi Mumbai. Pay attention to what people are normally doing here, before the scene goes to the riots.



Laundry, it’s the place where people do their laundry. It is a beautiful example of traditional water supply in a community. Places like this can be found all over India. The simplest version is a natural pond or a river. As you know, India’s climate is rather binary with incessant rain during monsoon (June-September) and none of it in the rest of the year. This means that groundwater is the most important water reservoir and ponds are the natural access to this groundwater. A place like this is called a kund

People doing laundry in a pond. Bihar July 2014.
For centuries, people have dug deep wells to reach groundwater and as it required so much effort, the wells are typically made by communities. A marvelous invention is the step well, a pond lined with steps. These too are called kunds. They are often amazing pieces of architecture.

Deep step well in Abnerhi UP. 2012.

Step well near Varanasi. Januari 2018.
Men shaving each other at the kund. Near Varanasi, January 2018.


Where possible, kunds are part of a network of water bodies. Thus, water can flow and be replaced with fresh water when needed. People come to the kund to bath or do laundry and thus kunds have an important place in social life. In addition, there is quite some work involved in maintaining a kund and this also strengthens communities.

Boys collecting plastic bottles at Mahamaham kund in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu 2018.

Bathing and swimming at Mahamaham kund in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu 2018.
As said, kunds can be found in many cities but since the introduction of piped water they are gradually disappearing. Less and less people use the kunds and thus there are less people to maintain them. Less people help to keep them clean and one after the other kunds become waste dumps. Once filled, the place falls into the hands of real estate development. Thousands of kunds have disappeared already. [1]

Dharavi Dhobi Ghat in January 2010.
July 2014
November 2015
January 2017
Back to Dharavi. The kund you saw in the movie is a so called Dhobi Ghat, a launderer’s place. And it has gone through the same stages of modernization. In 2008 it was still working well. Water poured in from a nearby river and provided a generous washing place. A few years later the water was diverted and Dharavi’s dhobi ghat fell near to dry. Like in many of the other places, the pond became a waste dump. In 2018 we can still see the dhobis do laundry at that very same spot but the natural water has gone. The only water available is piped water. Washing and rinsing is no longer done in a convenient pond, it is confined to plastic barrels.

Modernity dictates the use of scarce drinking water for laundering.
The paradoxical thing here is that modernity has replaced ‘unsafe’ open water with piped drinking water whereas the city is constantly suffering from water shortage. Traditional use of open water for washing would save so much costly drinking water. When looking for sustainable water supplies, this is definitely a no brainer.


Life requires more than only the drinkable version of water. Open water like in the traditional kund is just as essential. A pond in the slums therefore is certainly not to be considered a luxury. Its value in terms of generous water supply, social cohesion, empowerment and open space for leisure cannot be delivered through pipes and taps. 





[1] Matthew Neville, ‘Banganga Enduring Tank, Regenerative Tissue’, in Reclaiming (the Urbanism of) Mumbai, ed. by Kelly Shannon and Janina Gosseye, Explorations in/of Urbanism, 3 (Amsterdam: Sun Academia, 2009), pp. 111–19.

Going to School in the Slum


School girls in Dharavi


Some people assume that slums have no amenities like schools, medical care, or restaurants.  However, as Robert Neuwirth explained is his TED-talk, these things are found in many slums just like in any city. Contrary to the mainstream image of slums, kids do go to school in Dharavi. In the Indian education system schools teach in Hindi, English or a local language like Marathi. This language of communication is advertised by the school as for example ‘English Medium’. Besides these varities, one also finds municipal schools and private schools. All together, a kid’s life in Dharavi is perhaps not so very different from the lives of other kids. They dress up in the morning to go to school, they are told to behave in the classroom (which sometimes they don’t) and simply have too much energy to be able to keep quiet.

school boys in a rare moment of not bouncing around
A private classroom the size of an average slum dwelling
 
Dharavi municpal school near Mahatma Gandhi Road ...

... where the kids prove to be very ordinary kids :-)