The Trust for Village Self Governance uses an integrated rural habitat and economic development approach to improve living conditions in rural Indian villages. This includes working with local people to replace all thatched huts using cost-effective and innovative building materials, as well as providing basic infrastructure. Emphasis is placed on working through the village government (panchayat) and experience gained is shared through a local Panchayat Assembly.


Project Description

Aims and Objectives

  • To improve housing conditions in the Kuthambakkam village through the use of innovative, appropriate technologies to replace all thatched huts in the village with safe and durable housing.
  • To establish Kuthambakkam village as a role model for integrated rural habitat and economic development through the work of the panchayat as responsible local government.
  • To establish a Panchayat Academy for the purpose of disseminating good practice among village panchayats.

The poor housing conditions in the Kuthambakkam village of Tamil Nadu have been identified as one of the greatest problems faced by the village residents. Fifty-five per cent of the village population is dalits (untouchables) and these and other poor households live in small thatched huts made of wooden sticks, mud and palm leaves, with inadequate lighting and ventilation. The smoke produced by cooking creates a health hazard and high winds or fires frequently destroy the huts. Social inequality within the villages is increased by the stigma associated with living in huts. In recent decade’s local and village governments have become ineffective and dependent upon the national government but legislation introduced in 1994 has sought to create self-governing villages with significant powers and responsibilities devolved to the panchayat level.

The Innovative Rural Housing and Habitat Development in Kuthambakkam Village project was initiated by the Trust for Village Self Governance (TVSG), a charitable trust established in 2001. The work of the trust involves the training of village groups in a range of livelihood and construction skills, the development and dissemination of innovative, cost-effective building materials as well as encouraging social integration. The TVSG is actively working with the panchayat system in the state of Tamil Nadu to promote the Kuthambakkam Panchayat as a role model for village development. A Panchayat Academy has been established where 30 panchayat leaders, on average, come to learn from the project each month. To date, the TVSG has identified approximately 600 panchayat leaders to provide training for.

The Kuthambakkam Village programme aims for total habitat development through the construction of homes using innovative, cost-effective building materials and methods. The work of the programme includes the laying of link roads, paving of village roads, drainage, the use of biogas and solar energy and the establishment of drinking water facilities and plantations.

In addition to housing and infrastructure, a primary focus of the programme is on building capacity among young people and women’s self-help group leaders, training of masons and of village groups in the production of compressed earth blocks, and promoting village industries.

Government housing schemes provide support for the construction of only two or three houses per year, per village. In addition, some government housing programmes provide housing specifically for families belonging to scheduled tribes, excluding poor families from other communities and castes and leading to tensions and violence. This programme has involved the entire village, making housing accessible to the very poorest families, irrespective of caste. The building of common facilities such as a community hall, childcare centre, library and workshops for village industries is also included in the programme.

To date 150 houses have been completed in Kuthambakkam village and a further 100 in the Sumathuvapuram project which is a national government housing project that is built to encourage the peaceful coexistence of castes. The houses constructed under Sumathuvapuram project are 20 per cent larger in size and built to a better design and much higher standards. No concrete was used in the construction process and traditional, labour intensive construction methods were employed. With good governance and financial management the government funds have been far more effectively spent in the Sumathuvapuram project compared to other similar projects in Tamil Nadu.

Unlike the thatched huts that would need replacing every three years, the new homes built by the programme are built to last and have improved lighting and ventilation.
The elimination of thatched huts in the village has significantly reduced the vulnerability of villagers to the previously high risk posed by fires and high winds.

Health risks associated with poor hygiene have also been reduced through the construction of toilets and reduction of open defecation. Village people have contributed land, labour and materials to build tanks and drains and to desilt water sources. A local granite factory has contributed waste stones that have been used for drains and flood protection.

Many residents have received training as masons and/or in the production of compressed earth blocks. The skills of young people and women’s self-help group leaders in particular have increased through training and capacity building. Unemployment rates have been dramatically reduced and as a result, alcohol abuse has also reduced. The Trust also works to integrate families belonging to different groups and castes and to promote community participation in planning and decision-making.

The Kuthambakkam village panchayat has organised a Gram Sabha (village parliament) to provide a space for discussion and community participation. Through the Gram Sabha and under the leadership of the panchayat, residents have the opportunity to actively participate in the planning and execution of the project. Residents also produce the compressed earth blocks and provide labour for housing construction. Working together on building the Samathuvapuram really brought the village together and gave them confidence to improve their living conditions.

The average cost per house is Rs 45,000 ($1,030) and funding for housing construction has been provided by Ministry of Rural Development Rs 5 million ($114,000), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation Rs 2 million ($46,000), people’s own contributions Rs 1.5 million ($34,000) in the form of cash, material and labour and grants and donations received from individuals Rs 1.5 million ($34,000). Costs for additional planned projects (paving of roads, drainage, biogas and solar technologies, drinking water facilities and plantations) was to Rs. 8.45 million. TVSG is developing proposals for funding from habitat development organisations such as Habitat for Humanity, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Ministry of Rural Development. Financial support is currently being sought to promote habitat development in other villages and to establish stronger village networks and village clusters to function as economic zones.


Why is it innovative?

  • The elimination of thatched huts from the villages.
  • Capacity building amongst villagers including the most vulnerable members of society.
  • Interest shown by other villages in learning from the experience of the Kuthambakkam panchayat and the potential for wide spread adoption of the programme.
  • Social inequalities being overcome through education and empowerment.
  • Mobilising the previously inert male population of the village by providing employment.


What is the environmental impact?

Most houses are built using stabilised compressed earth blocks, with reduced in use of cement. Foundations are built using available granite rubble, thus avoiding mining and the use of explosives. The project incorporates the use of biogas and solar energy and eliminates the burning of coal and emissions of CO2. The village panchayat is constitutionally responsible for providing non-conventional energy sources, safe drinking water and maintaining green cover with the assistance received from government schemes. Sharing of experience through the Panchayat Assembly enables other villages in the region to learn from the good environmental practice established in Kuthambakkam.


Is it financially sustainable?

Although the project relies on a funding stream from a range of sources, including the national government, international donors as well as peoples’ own contributions, a greater emphasis is placed on making the village self-sufficient. Small businesses have been set up that are not capital intensive, for example dairy farming, baking, poultry and mud block production, which employs a large number of people. Small scale production units have also been attracted to the village. The project currently provides employment for 80 persons. When the roads and new village were being built 350 local persons had temporary employment and gained additional skills.


What is the social impact?

Greater community integration is the main focus of the Sumathuvapuram project. For the first time, dalit families are
living with the known upper castes at every alternate house.
The elimination of thatched huts has helped to increase confidence amongst the poorest families and reduce inequalities. In 2003 there were 6 inter-caste marriages which would previously have been unheard of.

The project actively works to strengthen the institutional capacity of panchayat leaders and the Gram Sabha. Through the village parliament, residents have an opportunity for greater participation in planning and decision-making. Women have been empowered through leadership training and the formation of self-help groups.


  • An initial resistance by the local village community towards the new building techniques.
  • Bureaucratic delays in sanctioning the projects.
  • Corrupt practices amongst local level government engineers.
  • Difficulty in identifying financial partners for supporting the projects.

Lessons Learned

  • It is important to make use of the Gram Sabhas to discuss and take collective decisions and encourage local people to take ownership of the process of development.
  • The transparency of panchayat level federation is important.
  • Practising the Gandhian values of individual autonomy brings many benefits to local communities.



The Innovative Rural Housing and Habitat Development in Kuthambakkam Village project has dramatically improved the health and well-being of the village residents. They now have more confidence, better skills accompanied by livelihood opportunities and greater social integration.



The Kuthambakkam village has become a model village in the region. Other villages are looking to take up the approach and panchayat leaders have come to learn from the project.

Many villages are adopting compressed earth blocks for housing construction and Government departments are monitoring the experience. It is hoped that this will become a tool for lobbying and influencing government housing policy. At the local level, the Gram Sabha has provided the opportunity for people to be involved in the planning process.

Through the Panchayat Academy, many panchayat leaders in the state of Tamil Nadu and other parts of India have come forward to learn from the experience and replicate it in their villages.