Mihir Menda was all of a ninth-grader when he came up with the idea of affordable, clean housing for Bengaluru’s less privileged. On a brief visit to the watchman’s house close to his apartment complex, Mihir was appalled by the sad condition of the family’s living quarters. It was shoddy and small. Smoke from a gas stove filled the house. “I wondered how our watchman would always have a happy-go-lucky smile on his face every day, a smile that was such a huge part of my growing up,” remembers Mihir. This visit inspired him to read about housing and planning, with a greater goal of someday coming up with his own solution to the problems of space, infrastructure, and hygiene in urban housing. In December 2014, Mihir started putting pen to paper for UrbanUp. He wrote to Rahul Mehrotra, Professor of Urban Design and Planning and Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, who focuses primarily on community building, and worked briefly as his intern in Mumbai. Armed with a blueprint of the project and better exposure to national and global housing issues, Mihir started writing to potential sponsors. UrbanUp received a generous donation of 1.5 acres of land off Sarjapur main road from a local landowner. The first funds came from an impact investor and the money granted was enough to bear the costs of phase I of the building project. The project is to have three phases with a total number of 126 homes and a community centre. Phase I is slated to be completed in August 2017 and Phase II by December this year. The target group is families with monthly incomes of Rs 15,000 or less. Applications were invited and, of the many that poured in, some were shortlisted. From those, a final list was made and family members interviewed. The vision is to create a model community that will imbibe and carry forward the values of sustainability and independent, dignified living. “It is a scalable and replicable model,” says Mihir over a telephonic chat. One avenue for raising funds is a quasi-equity approach. Each housing unit of 400 sq ft carpet area costs Rs 7 lakh. Each beneficiary family is to pay Rs 2 lakh as down payment and the rest of the money is to be paid at a monthly interest-free rate of 10 percent of the family’s income. Mihir feels this will provide residents with a sense of accountability and contribution to the community. UrbanUp has partnered with NGOs to provide skill-based and livelihood training to its beneficiaries. The community centre in the complex will serve as the main venue for training. The goal is to help set up a self-sufficient and self-sustainable community that will continue to keep itself running in future. Labournet is the skilling partner for the project and RXDX is the wellness partner. RXDX has an onsite clinic there. It also airs telemedicine programmes and trains residents in disease prevention.
The other notable thing about this urban residential project is its eye for eco-friendly detail. Twenty-five percent of the construction material is recycled products. Construction waste and spoil cement bricks are used, and the complex is being fitted with solar panels and rainwater harvesting equipment. With clean water and sanitation, no poverty, good health and well-being, affordable and clean energy, and others, UrbanUp meets 11 of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. For his contribution to community development, Mihir has received the 7th Annual Pramerica Spirit of Community Award. This award is given to the country’s most remarkable student volunteers. In May, he is travelling to Washington DC with his fellow awardee to represent India. Of his prize money, this 18-year-old says, “All of it will go into the crowdfunding programme.” UrbanUp’s challenges have been fundraising, risk management, and getting government approval. But with a threefold approach to raising money and with ample hard work, most of these hurdles have now been overcome, and Bengaluru can look forward to a housing complex with an outlook of change.