Sumit Dayal for TIME
By Nilanjana Bhowmick / Bangalore
September 13, 2014

Bangalore’s LRDE slum lies next to one of the southern Indian city’s sprawling technology parks. Home to some 2,000 people, most of whom live in makeshift dwellings fashioned out of tarpaulin and plastic sheets, it is routinely flooded during the annual monsoon season, with heavy rains turning inundated homes into breeding grounds for diseases like malaria and typhoid.

But thanks to 28-year-old architect Alok Shetty change is coming to LRDE. Working with the Bangalore-based nonprofit Parinaam Foundation, Shetty came at the problem with an approach he brings to all of his projects — marrying smart design with a commitment to sustainability. Conventional bricks-and-mortar houses would keep the water out. But they would also be too expensive for the slum-dwellers. Instead, Shetty designed new, flood-proof houses made out of discarded scaffolding, bamboo and wood. At $300 apiece — or just over a month’s wages for many of LRDE’s residents — they are both affordable and easy to set up. It takes only four hours to erect one of Shetty’s new units (and the same time to dismantle them, a useful feature for the slum’s population of itinerant laborers). For those who can’t afford Shetty’s new houses, he is seeking government subsidies to bring the price down further. “He is an angel in disguise for our work with the underprivileged,” says Mallika Ghosh, Parinaam’s executive director.

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A Bangalore native, Shetty epitomizes a growing breed of young leaders and entrepreneurs in India who are committed to finding solutions for a country undergoing rapid social and economic changes, some of which can leave India’s poorest straggling behind. Economic reforms in the early 1990s unlocked record levels of growth, and helped pull millions of Indians out of extreme poverty. But nearly a third of the population still survives on less than $1.25 a day, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). India ranks 135 out of 187 countries on the U.N.’s human development index, a widely-followed gauge of social and economic progress. That places it behind other emerging giants such as China and Brazil, and only slightly ahead of Ghana and Bangladesh. Against this backdrop, Shetty has placed social concerns at the heart of his practice since his first year as a student of architecture.

When studying his craft at a local college, Shetty, then 19 years old, won a competition that led him to redesign a hospital in the northern city of Jaipur. Before drawing up blueprints, he spent months talking to the staff and patients, identifying their problems and incorporating solutions in his design. He discovered, for example, that post-operative patients were being wheeled through public corridors that they had to share with the recently deceased, leaving patients prone to infections. His solution: a service corridor to transport dead bodies and a separate, sterile corridor to move patients out of the operating theater. Drinking water was another problem, with Jaipur suffering from regular shortages in supply. Shetty’s answer? Equipping the building with a rainwater-harvesting system to allow the hospital to build up its own reserves during the rains. “He is a power house of futuristic ideas,” says Jatin Hukkeri, an old friend who worked with Shetty on the Jaipur hospital project.

The seeds for his latest venture — a plan to boost access to healthcare and education in remote communities — were sown while studying for his Master’s in architecture at Columbia University in New York. There, Shetty, along with two friends, designed a shipping container that opens up to become a 250-seat mobile auditorium. Back in India, Shetty has adapted the design to create mobile clinics and classrooms that he says can be attached to trains. The idea is to use the country’s vast rail network — one of the world’s third largest, with nearly 70,000 miles of track — to bring basic services to distant regions. Many rural areas, for example, are severely lacking when it comes to the availability of health services, with 70% of the country’s health infrastructure concentrated in its top 20 cities. Shetty is building prototypes now and hopes to launch the project, which he is funding through other architectural commissions, next year.

“In my travels I saw vast stretches of rural India where infrastructure for health care and education was severely underdeveloped,” he says. “Building facilities in these areas is not impossible but it is time-consuming. Adaptive architecture like this can be an extremely effective solution to help address our developmental problems.” He is building prototypes now and next year hopes to launch the project, which he is funding through other architectural commissions. “Often the simplest solutions are the best solutions,” he says. If Shetty’s prototype clears the testing phase next year, India’s trains could soon be delivering ready-made clinics and schools all over the nation.

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