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Pune-Sangli-Pune by ST bus! Apr 16, 2022

A long day indeed. An enjoyable day doing things I haven’t done for a very long time. Pune to Sangli and back in state transport buses (ST for those familiar with Maharashtra), a day of speaking mostly Marathi, of surviving on vada pav and cutting chai.
I have never been to this stretch before. Miles on miles of sugarcane fields, some still standing green and many lying harvested. Cane juice being sold everywhere.
My colleague Nipesh and me were on a mission to visit a pathbreaking project in the Sangli Kupwad Miraj municipal area where slums have been mapped using google maps, surveyed with the help of slum volunteers, GIS maps created rich with info and then a slum free city plan created. The ultimate idea is to relocate and merge slums onto municipal lands in new, well designed four storey apartments of 270 square feet each. We visited two sites where construction was underway. The best part is that Pune-based NGO Shelter Associates has achieved this through untiring community and stakeholder engagement and managed to work with the government too, an uphill task indeed. More on our conversations with Pratima Joshi and her inspiring volunteers later. For now, as we ride back to Pune with the cool winds laden with rain blowing on our faces, we take in the green fields, the clean air and the local dialects and sights with delight. A satisfying day indeed.




Urgent need for appropriate materials to rebuild burnt jhuggi- ideas welcome! April 2, 2012

Pawan Varma’s ‘When loss is gain’, which I just finished reading brought forth an interesting commentary on how many of us view life and especially deal with loss, trauma and sorrow. Some of us withdraw from life’s small pleasures, believing that it was our unquenchable desire that led to disappointment and loss. Others place their faith in a higher being, and yoyo between God and self pity. A few do learn to move on, finding pleasure and comfort in life. From what I have seen, moving on has a lot to do with showing the door to our infamous companion- the ego so that we can try new things, savour fresh experiences and live again.
For the residents of the slum in project Jalti Jhopdi (do visit our facebook page to like and contribute) however, picking up the threads of life at present is all about dealing with practicalities-rebuilding their homes, finding utensils and clothes, food. They don’t talk about the trauma and the sorrow, but it is there just under the skin covered up with all the urgency of the raw needs of human life.
In two days we have seen a mixed response from people to our appeal for help. A few driven individuals have offered their time and taken initiative, taking care to understand needs and mobilising resources. Others have contributed money and things selflessly and with speed. Many are yet to respond, failing to gather the empathy needed for an act of charity.
Our group is focusing on specific forms of help (kiddie slippers, terracotta pots to store water, temporary tenting to give kids a roof over their heads are on their way to being done and we are targeting utensils as well; another group has teamed with the local mosque to provide gas cylinders, food, clothes, etc). We are facing roadblocks in identifying appropriate material for their roofs and walls. We need low cost, safe, non flammable, light sheets of material that can be tied to the bamboo frames that have already been erected on site. If anyone knows of how to do this, please contact me.
Other roadblocks are toilets and sanitation, plus some sort of cooperative banking system that can help them keep their little amounts of cash safe and provide them credit for specific needs. Addressing these is a long term project, but the opportunity to provide them better shelter should be tapped. Ideas are welcome!


Cannot wish the urban poor away; can we try new housing solutions like rental housing to accomodate them? Feb 20, 2012

Today’s newspaper carried two stories that highlight how completely clueless we (citizens, governments, bureaucrats and planners alike) are about how to address the issue of housing the poor.

The first piece of news narrates a conflict in the numbers of homeless people in Delhi. The government figure is 55,955 while NGOs in the sector claim 150,000! A 2008 survey by IGSSS, an NGO prominent in working for the homeless, put the figure at 88,410. Apparently the government survey was done in the wake of the Commonwealth Games, when many of the homeless were evicted from the city as part of a ‘cleanliness’ drive! This is a typical example of the kind of data scenario policy makers work with in India. Very often, there is little desire to arrive at authentic, realistic figures; consequently, policies that evolve are unrealistic and do not cater to the present, leave alone plan for the future.

The second story, set in Gurgaon, highlights another typical conflict. Sector 45 residents pressurize the urban development authority (HUDA in this case) to remove slum encroachments in the area, citing poor sanitation and law and order issues. The slum, which occupies government land (apparently disputed and hence not developed), gets water supply and electricity, but has poor sanitation facilities and many residents use open lands for defecation. Whereas private property owners are fully entitled to complain against slums if they see them as threats to their quality of life, clearly governments choose to wait for complaints and fail to check unplanned illegal settlements. Further, there is a spectacular failure to provide low income housing to an urban settlement that is growing as rapidly as Gurgaon is. Conflicts such as these will continue to escalate, while the government mouths buzwords like ‘affordable housing’ and ‘RAY’, which have failed to see the light of the day and provide housing in sufficient numbers to meet even a fraction of the demand.

Poverty in urban India isn’t something we can simply wish away, yet we continue to look for stop gap solutions and refuse to adopt inclusive planing in the present and for the future. I am aware that this is a common refrain and I have no innovative or practical solutions to offer. I do, however, see enterprising landlords in urban villages in Gurgaon creating several affordable housing formats for rent, from dormitories, to single room sets and tenement style housing, there is a range of options for employed migrants who can pay rentals ranging from Rs 500 – 5000 per month. That’s taking a definite step forward. It would be heartening to see the government step in to facilitate the creation of rental housing for the poor in the city, while they continue to evolve greenfield affordable housing projects as well!

Does Oprah’s solution to poverty apply to the urban poor in India? Jan 23, 2012

I kept hearing about Barkha Dutt’s interview with Oprah all day. I just got around to seeing a part of it myself. Her’s is a hugely inspirational story, rags to riches, from a nobody to one of the most influential people in the world, etc etc.

Coming from poverty herself, Oprah pointed out today that very few people who live in poverty (that is without money, running water, 24X7 electricity, etc) know that they are poor, till they are in a position to compare their lives with that of someone else.

I had the opportunity to do some community consultation work in the slums Sundernagari in East Delhi a few months ago and I tried to review Oprah’s statement in the light of my experiences. We (as in mHS) had been engaged to involve the community in the process of developing an in-situ redevelopment scheme in which their families would be allocated housing units in the same location where their slum stands today.

The cheerful youth we met in Sundernagari had no apparent aspirations, seemed strangely secure in their poverty. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

We worked in two slum blocks, one predominantly a community of scheduled caste shoe makers and other a majority-Muslim community engaged in  buffalo-rearing, embroidery and metal work.  Both communities are extremely poor. Our survey shows about 31% of the households in the first community and 32% in the second have a household income of less than Rs 5000 per month (with an average household size of about 5). The highest reported family income in both blocks was about Rs 15,000 a month!

Of course the people we worked with in Sundernagari are acutely aware of their poverty. Its hard for them not be, not to compare themselves with the more fortunate while living in Delhi surrounded by middle income neighborhoods. Many women from these slums work as domestic help in the middle income colony nearby, entering every day more fortunate homes and observing closely a life of relatively much much more. I find it hard to believe that Oprah’s statement can be true of any community of the urban poor anywhere, in fact.

While aware of their poverty, I do not think these slum dwellers live life in a depressed or dejected fashion. They simply live, focusing on finding jobs (mostly in the form of informal labor, skilled or semi-skilled) and spending their money wisely so as to feed their families and educate their children. Their grievances are not with living in a slum, in poverty. They simply ask for basic services and security for their children, no more and no less.

Which brings me to Oprah’s other point about poverty. She sees education as the only way out of poverty, something that opens the door of opportunity. While interacting with young people in the slums, I was struck by their cheerfulness and complete lack of ambition. These were people who attended or had attended school, but did not believe that education would give them the opportunity to progress and find their way out of the poverty they were born into. So they simply lived in a status quo fashion, doing whatever work they could find, if they could find it (sadly, many young people didn’t appear to take on the trades of their parents, finding show making or buffalo rearing to be derogatory work).

Instead of offering them opportunity, the government has made these poor households dependent on subsidies and pro-poor programs. They now believe there is a certain power in their poverty. They believe the government will never throw them off their land and that they will be able to endlessly leverage their poverty to eek out survival for themselves and their future generations.

Of course, many we spoke to did dream of a better life, did see through the falseness of the security these programs offer; but in the collective mentality that is at work here, few offer a dissenting opinion. And life goes on….

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