A different kind of aspiration

Over the weekend, micro Home Solutions hosted a workshop for students from the University of Minnesota, who are visiting Delhi for three weeks in order to understand broadly the challenges, opportunities, and crucial questions facing India’s cities. mHS was tasked with helping this group of students—almost all of which had never been to India—come to a rich understanding of life in an informal settlement (or, as the UN would call it, a “slum”).

The American students were tasked with generating a tool to evaluate “quality of life” that would be relevant to residents of Govind Puri.

Our team knew outright that our job wasn’t simple. How could we—in just two days—introduce a group of fifteen university students to a community completely unlike their own? And how could we do so while navigating the politics of power, money, skin color, and inequality that would undoubtedly accompany any interaction between privileged American students and the urban poor in Delhi? From the beginning, we knew we’d need help from members of any community we intended to visit.

mHS decided to link up with Katha, a well respected NGO and children’s publishing house that runs an experiential learning school in the Bhumiheen Camp of Govind Puri, an informal settlement in the heart of south Delhi. We asked if the Katha Khazana School could ask its senior schoolchildren to be community guides, to act as a bridge between the University of Minnesota students and the close-knit, vibrant community of Bengali and Bangladeshi families who made Delhi their home in 1979. When Katha generously agreed, we knew our task of facilitating a workshop for the American students would be easier. What we didn’t yet realize was that Katha’s students would impress and inspire all of us.

The fifteen students who accompanied us through Bhumiheen Camp spoke articulately, expressed themselves confidently, and entertained our questions enthusiastically. But even more than their excellent communication skills, I was impressed with the way they think about themselves and their community, and how they aspire to be change agents. Much of what drives modern India is aspiration. It comes in many interwoven varieties: aspiration to learn more; aspiration to earn more; aspiration to change one’s social status; aspiration to consume better products. Aspiration is, famously, what killed the Tato Nano—the product wasn’t for an “aspiring middle class” but rather marketed as “the cheapest car in the world.” Social enterprises like micro Home Solutions have to think about aspiration all the time; we know that providing housing to the poor requires convincing the “bottom-of-the-pyramid” that our product will sail them right into the Indian middle class.

The young people from the Katha Khazana school were our guides in the Bhumiheen Camp of Govind Puri.

Aspiration can be displacing when it attaches quality to what is distant—international products, Western degrees, fairer skin—and indeed some of the young people we met spoke of making it big and moving away. But refreshingly, we also found in Katha’s students a grounding aspiration that revolves around pride in one’s neighbourhood and a deep belief in bettering one’s community. It amazed me that, while the outside world discriminates against these students for their address, all those from Bhumiheen Camp first described it by its positive attributes. “Community is strong here. I know all my neighbours and know they will keep me safe.” “Here, everything is available to us in the market. We don’t have to go far from home.” “There is unity among the people of this place.” Their pride doesn’t render these students complacent though. Instead, it inspires them to be better citizens; they see opportunities for change and improvement. The students recently undertook a community mapping project, where they reconceptualised their neighbourhood based on local hopes and priorities. They are even trying to mobilize the shop owners outside the school entrance to give the street front a facelift!

As urban practitioners at micro Home Solutions, we constantly strive to make technical and institutional knowledge relevant to those living in the difficult conditions of informal settlements—where population density, lack of government assistance, and threats to livelihood are daily constraints. The Katha students reminded us this weekend that the knowledge rooted in these communities—the knowledge of neighbourliness, unity, and pride in tradition—should also inspire “interventions” in our own lives.

The Katha senior schoolchildren introduced themselves and talked about their community.

The first time Greg traveled to India it was to join a mountaineering expedition in the Kumaon Himalaya. Be- yond an introduction to stunning (and challenging) landscapes, the experience sparked an avid interest in the diversity and pluralism of South Asia. Return visits to the subcontinent have afforded him opportunities to study at Jawaharlal Nehru University and conduct ethnographic research in the Bhutanese refugee camps of southeastern Nepal. Throughout college, Greg's involvement with Nourish-UNC‰ÛÓan organization that builds partnerships between students and community-based organizations around the world‰ÛÓtaught him to think deeply and critically about international development. An ardent believer in participatory community work, Greg is excited to take up Microhome Solutions' mission of creating socially inclusive cities. He's also hoping to compete in triathlons while living in India.

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