SOCIAL CONSTRUCT Innovation, it seems, need not always be ‘disruptive’ as a ‘constructive’ project by school student Mihir M Menda shows

An entrepreneur with a social cause at 14 while still in class IX? Sounds like something out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. But the 126 homes at Rs 7 lakh each coming up off Sarjapur Road in Bengaluru suggest innovation can be ‘constructive’ as well. Mihir M Menda, who has just turned 18, is behind the project.
The founder and CEO of a social enterprise with the mission of devel- oping sustainable, social housing in India, Mihir is developing 126 homes in three phases. In the first phase, 30 are under construction with 48 each in the next two phases spread over 1.50 acres. The complex will have an outdoor play area as well. The homes come with a community centre to impart basic education and vocational training to beneficiaries. UrbanUp has partnered with NGOs to conduct digital education and skill development programmes, for preventive healthcare awareness, and to ensure sustainability of the project.

It all began in 2014 when Mihir was in class IX. A visit to a security guard’s home at his housing complex moved him. “Around Diwali, I visited the home of this guard who has been a part of my growing-up years. He used to play cricket with me and helped me with my cricket training. His home was around 200 sq ft where his family of six lived. Their cooking filled the home with smoke. They had power for about an hour a day, no clean drinking water and very poor sanitation. I was surprised that he had a smile on his face every day in spite of these living conditions. I wanted to make a difference to him and many others like him,” explains Mihir, who was selected as a national winner in the individual category for the project at the 7th Annual Pramerica Spirit of Communi- ty Awards recently. The project, incidentally, meets 11 of the United Nations’ 17 goals of sustainable development such as clean energy, sanitation and education.
With these objectives, he set up UrbanUP in January 2015. The name stands for urban issues and uplift — creating better living conditions. “I wrote to landowners asking for grants of land for the project. Among the four I reached out to, the fourth donated 1.50 acres of land,” says Mihir who was all of 15 then. “This was the first challenge. It took some convincing for someone to take a 15-year-old seriously enough to offer land.”

Things began to take shape with the land available for the project. “I wrote to Rahul Mehrotra, the dean of urban planning and design school at Harvard University. He is respected for his work as a social architect, for his designs that are both sustainable and as an architect who has de- signed social projects. In November 2015, I went for a design workshop that he conducted in Mumbai,” says Mihir.
Mehrotra helped to define the principles of sustainable design. “Usually, we build homes at a cost of Rs 2,500 per sq ft. Here we are building them at Rs 1,550 per sq ft. We are construct- ing with soil cement bricks made from the excavated ground. The philosophy is ‘sustainable and organic’. The technique is ‘cut and build’. All that is cut out during the excavation is used again in the construction work. Also, waste material that is usable such as tiles from large projects are being collected and used here. The community centre, for example, is built entirely with locally available material and bamboo,” says Mihir, now a class XII student reading maths, physics, chemistry and economics. The sustainable design elements are sup- posed to bring down the carbon foot- print as well.

Mihir M Menda was selected as a national winner in the individual category for this project at the 7th Annual Pramerica Spirit of Community Awards. He was presented with a gold medallion, certificate of excellence, cash prize of Rs 50,000 and a return trip to Washington in May 2017. In Washington, he will represent India in the global felicitation ceremonies for The Spirit of Community Award winners from all the participating countries.
I wrote to landowners asking for grants of land for the project. Among the four I reached out to, the fourth donated 1.50 acres of land. This was the first challenge. It took some convincing for someone to take a 15-year-old seriously enough to offer land

In April 2016, UrbanUp began inter- viewing beneficiaries for house allotment. The beneficiaries were chosen based on their education, number of senior citizens in the family, and the positive impact empowering them would potentially have on society. A household income of below Rs 15,000 per month was an underlying criterion.
From May 2016, the trust had begun receiving large funds in donations with a tax benefit under section 80G of the Income Tax Act. In July 2016, the beneficiaries got a viewing of the site. The occasion was marked by planting of trees in the neighbourhood. A school in the locality was refurbished with a toilet and fresh coat of paint at a cost of Rs 1.50 lakh. The ground-breaking ceremony followed in September 2016. The finance for the project has come from crowd-funding, pooling of capital by beneficiaries and impact investors. The beneficiaries have to make a down payment of Rs 2 lakh against the total amount of Rs 7 lakh, and the rest in instalments of Rs 1,500 per month over the next 5-10 years. This comes to around 10% of their monthly in- come. The entire payment is inter- est-free. “The Rs 1,500 they pay goes into the construction of the next phase of the project. After the final phase is complete, it will go into financing the next project,” says Mihir.
Various impact investors also contributed in kind (services and materials to be used in the project). He engaged a local contractor who build a relationship with the village panchayat by improving the school. The panchayat also helped to obtain the permits for the project. “I plan to take this concept across India. My first target is three projects in three cities Bengaluru (phase one construction in progress), Chennai and Hyderabad over the next five years. I am in talks with landowners in the other two cities,” says the aspiring engineer.