“I lost my name nine and a half years ago, when I started this school,” he told me. I was struck by the humility of this soft spoken, dignified gentleman who, along with others, had transformed the lives of hundreds of children in Gurgaon. Children of migrants, who live in shacks but dream of a future of opportunity and brightness. Bright children. Talented children. Children who just want to go to school like everyone else.
This is an amazing school in many ways and I’ll tell you why I say this, in a minute. Run under the aegis of the Guru Nanak Sewa Sansthan, this tiny school in Gurgaon brings quality English education to the lives of underprivileged children through a small team of dedicated teachers and volunteers. The gentleman I spoke with mentioned that the school is ‘unrecognised’ and works with the aim of mainstreaming the children by helping them get admitted to regular schools under the Right to Education provision that mandates private schools take in children from the economically weaker section of society.
It was our privilege to celebrate Christmas Day here. We came to savour the spirit of gifting, but we walked away with much much more. Conversations with the kids told us much beyond these pictures show how wonderful they felt about getting gifts. What’s more, they got to choose what they wanted from a bazaar-like display that volunteers had set up and this pleasure of choosing went far beyond the materiality of the gift itself.
The children were bright and enthusiastic. Some sang well, others were academically gifted. Still others could paint well, dance well, and so on and so forth. However, it was their confidence, sense of empathy for each other and their teamwork that really impressed me.
A speech-impaired child stood in front of the crowd and sang. A teenage girl belted out a rendition of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ as we watched on incredulously! Senior school children helped serve meals (yes, they get a hot meal here everyday), collect plates, serve food. Incredibly, the school has no building. Children and teachers set up the school every morning, spreading rugs out on a concrete floor and tying tarpaulin to bamboo poles that stand there permanently. Each afternoon, once school is over, they take all of this off, and fold the tarp and rugs neatly for storage. We saw them do this yesterday.
We have much to be thankful for. Yesterday taught me that there is also much to be hopeful for. Both children were with me yesterday. They even joined a group of singers during the celebration. We didn’t talk about the experience, and I deliberately refrained from bringing it up. Aadyaa had asked me if she could give away her toys and clothes herself and our visit was in response to that demand. I have a feeling something of the experience will stick with them. Like it has for me. A little sliver of hope for the millions of migrant children across India denied education by the formal system, but eager enough to take whatever they get to the next level.
Many thanks to my friend Bhavna and the many enterprising families who initiated the ‘I Love to Share’ event at Ardee City, Gurgaon
There are many interesting ways to work with communities. A wide variety of social researchers across the world are learning that there is tremendous knowledge vested within communities and the outside-in, often high-handed, approach used by academicians and policy makers alike can be disastrous, not only because analysis and solutions may be far removed from reality and therefore unsuccessful when applied, but also and more importantly because this sort of approach loses out on the rich understanding that communities have of their environment, the networks that exist among them, their strenghts and weaknesses. Critical knowledge that can make or break their future and that, in turn, can teach those of us from the ‘outside’ that work with them, so much!
Today’s The Hindu carries a piece by Janaki Lenin about Erika Cuellar, a Bolivian biologist who empowered tribals to use their inherent knowledge in mainstream research and be recognized and compensated for it. This is a critical change and an evolving approach in research.
In my experiences with slum communities, I have often had the opportunity of learning from community members. Often, not the leaders, but ordinary members of the community can make astute observations that put us on a path to better design and more appropriate solutions. In the Sundernagari slum redevelopment project that mHS did in association with Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), the frequent mention of community life as enacted in the streets outside their homes led us to a pathbreaking design that focused on the street (at two levels, on the ground and two floors above the ground) as a space for interaction, work and play, a tool for safety and social cohesion and much more.
In our workshop at the Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri earlier this month, I got the chance to see another type of knowledge at work. The issue that stood out in all our conversations here was the low sanitation conditions in the slum. Most homes had no toilets and the community toilets are filthy and poorly maintained; many of the 35 toilets on the male side and the female side were not even functional. I had to see them to corroborate that absolute horror stories we heard. Not a pretty sight!
After the complaining had been done, I engaged the community members in a discussion in an attempt to find the reasons behind the problem and seek possible solutions. Apparently, the toilets used to be maintained by a private operator (charge Rs 1 per use) and were relatively clean, until the current Councillor (a good person, independent candidate, did other really good things for the area) declared them to be free. The maintenance became non-existent; women especially are in a bad shape, complaining of stomach aches and infections, a really pathetic situation. The Councillor is depending on the MLA for funds to remedy the situation, but the MLA is disinterested because he knows he won’t be re-elected when the elections come around. The community, which has represented numerous times on this matter, is caught in the crossfire and they are currently disheartened by the status quo.
I probed into the issue of self-regulation and the awareness of improved sanitation habits, like cleaning up after each use, etc. One gentleman happened to make the remark that ‘renters’ are the ones who leave the toilets dirty, which of course sent me into a whole tirade on how personal hygiene is not related to economic wealth, caste, status or tenure! I was so upset and insisted on knowing why the community isn’t organizing itself to address this issue if it is indeed such a huge issue! I should have expected the reply.
I was told that anyone who takes the lead runs a huge risk of being the object of ridicule and contempt if they fail, and subsequently they also lose whatever social equity they currently have, an important aspect of slum life and one that is traded for money, debt, favors and the like…. and the toilets are an issue that even the local politician has failed to crack! And then, the solution came too. If an NGO or any external organization were to take the lead and outline a strategy, the community members we spoke to felt confident that people would support them wholeheartedly, work for the cause, do whatever it takes to get this done. They desperately need a facilitator, that’s what they were telling me.
And their observation ties up with experiences of development practitioners in a myriad circumstances.They know the solution, they are simply not equipped to take the lead in roping the right people. They have little confidence in their own knowledge or bargaining power, and have been disheartened by recent and persistent failure in negotiation for their needs. Of course, it seems like they just passed the ball into my court and won a battle of words and it’s easy to walk away in scorn, wondering why “these people don’t want to help themselves”! The thought did cross my mind, but I hung my head in shame immediately. Of course they wanted to help themselves. After all, it is they and not me who have to use those filthy toilets every day.
If you have the stomach for it, take a look….
I’ve wanted to write about the BRT corridor in Delhi for the longest time, but have refrained as I have little technical knowledge on matters of transportation. In that sense, this isn’t really written from a professional perspective, but rather as a citizen. Mihir Sharma’s piece in the Business Standard says it all.
For background’s sake, one stretch of Delhi’s BRT corridor is permitting cars in the bus lanes because of a petition filed in court by an NGO called NyayaBhoomi. The BRT benefits those who use public transport and I view the shutting down of the BRT as a clear indication that upper class car users are being appeased and the needs of the larger public disregarded.
I put this entire episode down to poor governance. How? The lack of governance in India is a huge problem not just because it means poorer quality of life for us citizens, but because it means we no longer have faith in the systems and processes of democracy; we link it to the failure of governance. The article points to the grave error of letting courts decide on issues of governance….”policy of this sort should be decided by governments elected by and accountable to all Indians. There’s an additional reason: if a mistake is made by the executive, it can be swiftly corrected………unintended consequences of court judgments aren’t so easy to fix” and I agree.
Working in the housing space, I know many slum demolitions have been ordered by courts reacting to petitions filed by RWAs. These petitions typically cite hygiene, safety, unclean environs as reasons for why slums should be removed. They are concerned with their specific neighborhood getting ‘cleaned up’. Photographs of overflowing sewers and garbage dumps, even kabaadi (waste recycling) shops located in slums are shown as evidence…..never mind the shop recycles the enormous amount of wastes being generated in middle class homes. The same sort of middle class homes that want the slums out!
The court verdicts, in the case of slum evictions, are not concerned with issues of urban planning, like supply of affordable housing stock that can accommodate displaced slum dwellers or other interstitial urban spaces nearby where the squatters will move to if their slum is demolished, or the impact of the eviction on the livelihoods of slum dwellers, the list goes on. The court looks at the issue almost in isolation; it is not their job to look at the much larger context. However, it is the job of local governments to do so and when issues like housing, transport and basic services get hijacked by vested interests and taken out of the purview of governance and into the courts, it harms the democratic fiber of our cities, dis-empowering us citizens in the long run. I agree, we have no other recourse as of now. And that’s why planning needs to be done using a participative approach and local government need to rise to the challenges of governance on an urgent basis. If we are to control damages in this war.
Yes, it is a war of the classes out there. A war in which the privileged see only their point of view and the poor theirs. One in which we take sides too easily and all those empathetic with the other side are increasingly being regarded as enemies (liberals, NGO types, reds, wierdos). Which is why basic services, transportation, education and health facilities, all the good stuff that keeps us going and that only be delivered by efficient governance is so important. We need to address this crisis of faith (on governance and government) first, so that the war can at least be fought on level ground. Or alternately, and I’m being a desperate romantic here, consensus can be built to accommodate for plurality, diversity and a right to dignified living for all?