The New Indian Express, October 22, 2016:
Ochre yellow could just be a colour of empowerment for millions of homeless. And if it happens, thank Varun Gandhi for his novel initiative. A Gandhi scion and an MP from Sultanpur in UP, he is unfazed by the allegations of ‘honey trap’ and is busy executing a unique housing plan for the poor in his constituency.
Swayamvar Nishad and his family of five of Malhipur village in Sultanpur bear testimony to this unique outreach. He was one of the 28 recipients of the key to bright yellow houses built through Varun’s initiatives in Sultanpur. Varun handed over these houses in different villages of his constituency last week. About 100 such houses are being constructed in the first phase. These houses have not been financed by any government schemes. Nor has he used his MP LAD funds. It’s all done from his own resources and with help from some like-minded people. Next, he has raised the bar for himself—5,000 houses. For this, he has found means too—crowd-funding.
Varun, who has already earned a lot of goodwill by making over 3,600 farmers debt-free in 20 UP district through direct cash benefit, thought of this housing scheme after getting rattled by rampant stories of fire in his constituency. Every summer, fire incidents cause major loss of life and wealth in eastern UP.
He was told that there are villages in Sultanpur where one-third houses get destroyed by fire every year. His immediate priority was to save these people from destruction which singes their entire savings. The first step was an awarness drive. His team went from village to village making people aware about ways to prevent fire. However, when that was not enough, the thought of making these houses fire-proof crossed his mind. Why not turn these houses into brick-and-mortat ones.
It, however, was easier said than done. The cost of `5 lakh was the biggest impediment. His initiative hit a roadblock, but he never stopped exploring cheaper options. During the course of his exploration, he met scores of experts of low-cost housing, but breakthrough came when he was suggested that he should go for very basic method of construction—by dealing directly with masons and labourers instead of roping in contractors for the job.
Although it meant a lot of toil for his own team, the cost came down to `1.5 lakh per house. Although it was still high considering the large volume, he gave a go ahead to his team. Most of the contribution came from his own pocket, rest was managed by locals and friends. These one-room houses are simple and constructed in pairs with a toilet attached. The bright yellow colour is to give them a distinct look, so that the success of this schemes inspires others to chip in.
His next target is to give a pucca house to 5,000 families of his constituency. For this, he wants to expand his net wider so that people from across the globe come forwards to help. His team is working overtime to develop a website and an app to make the whole process easier and hassle-free.
Varun calls it a new social movement and refutes that his initiatives has anything to do with politics or elections. “The focus is on seeking smaller donations so that it becomes a mass movement,” he said while giving the keys to the beneficiaries.
Starting with his own `1.5 crore in 2014, he managed to collect `18 crore to help nearly 3,600 farmers break the vicious circle of debt. He now wants to help 10,000 more. With the scale of his outreach escalating and getting a good response, Varun is ready to make it a public-funded drive with digital technology to reach out to donors. “He is hopeful that the model may get picked up in other states with farm crisis,” says his close aide.