Community Organizing – Masala Style

Community Organizing – Masala Style

This is what went down in one magnolia hall at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, India between the hours of 9:30am and 2:30pm on saturday, january eighth, year two thousand and eleven, waxing crescent moon in the house of pisces. . .

21 women, 4 men, and 5 youth from 5 different slum clusters throughout south delhi came to share their voice, their challenges, and their solutions with 17 government officials, scholars, and NGO workers. The topic: water, sanitation and the child.  The mood: collaborative, hopeful, and urgent. The process: a process. The results: well…read and decide for yourself.

After about 4 months of planning and scheming, 4 meetings with partner organizations, 3 large-scale meetings and trainings with over 40 community members from 50 slums in south, east and west Delhi, 14 focus group discussions in 7 different slums, countless unreturned  (and a few returned) phone calls to MCD (municipal government) officials, daily community mobilizing in 50 slum communities, and a whole lot of faith and patience (and last minute scrambling on my part), we at Katha, in partnership with India Habitat Centre and the National Institute of Urban Affairs launched the 1st of not just 1 or 2, but 8 consultation meetings on “Ensuring Quality Education for All”,  looking at education, poverty and the child and linking dialogue to direct action.

I was honestly in a state of complete shock that this whole thing actually even happened. I mean even the coordination of getting people from 5 different slum clusters to wake up on a cold morning, be ready, leave their families and arrive at a fancy conference centre they’ve never been to on a Saturday morning by 9:30 is a feat in itself. Yet, there they were, bright-eyed and ready (they even came early).

My other shock came when the event actually happened basically how we planned and the outcomes even exceeded our expectations. What? I’ve spent the last 4 and a half months cultivating a deep sense of ‘expect the unexpected’ and ‘don’t depend on anything being dependable’. I guess when you’ve been living the motto of expecting the unexpected somewhere along the line the expected itself actually just becomes the unexpected. So that’s what happened. The unexpected expected that is.

Only thing not intended . . .the keynote speaker from the gov’t was late. So what. big deal. The keynote speaker from the community was strong and clear- striking the beautiful balance between exposition and accusation that very few can manage.  And she was on time. Sandhya came with her 6 year old son.

Now seriously, what did happen? People talked, and people listened. People learned. People reflected. Problems were exposed. Solutions were proposed. Community members took responsibility. NGO’s took responsibility. Government officials took responsibility. And even as the weight of the work to be done amassed, the whole room itself felt lighter by 2pm.

Some of the topics for the roundtable discussions: child development and a clean environment; drinking water and schools; toilets, security and the girl child; waste water and garbage disposal; and the impact of urbanization on water supply/demand and the child

Some of the major problems (all lumped together. If you are really interested, we’ve actually been compiling comprehensive info on this based on specific communities and blocks and I can share that long and slightly disheartening document with you.  And just for the record, we have a comparative doc that is looking at all the things going well for folks, as well as what steps the communities themselves have taken to address these – though quite frankly lack of community unity coupled with apathy and distrust is one of the major problems itself) . . . back to those related to water and sanitation:  No toilets, no drains or blocked drains, no police, drug and alcohol addictions, poorly maintained water sources, no drinking water, irregular water delivery, harassment of girls and women, fights over resources, water-bourne diseases and other health concerns among children.

Some random pieces of information you may find interesting:

  • Aside from the fact that about half the population of Delhi lives in slums, this population is NOT being considered by urban planners.
  • 24 hour, everyday water supply has been shown to be more cost effective than hourly water supply, or daily water delivery by truck or tank. It’s only building the infrastructure is an initial big cost – but the investment proves much more sustainable than daily water delivery.
  • a group of gov’t officials claimed corruption and poor governance as the root cause for much of these problems
  • By March, 46 slums will be destroyed to build commercial buildings in Delhi. The government has built 15,000 homes for resettlement, yet only 40% of the families qualify for the resettlement homes. What oh what will happen to the remaining 60 % of families? And those that do move? They will now have the added problem of transport to work and lack of access to proper facilities.

Some Action

  • The women presented a petition for MCD to provide tanks and taps to communities that don’t have them. The official read them, invited 3 representatives to meet in his office this week, and together they identified what the community can do and what the government can do. Right then and there. Just like that. And, the story gets better, that meeting has already happened and gov’t started construction within one week.
  • The MCD approved to lay down a sewerage pipeline in Ekta Vihar, RK Puram, after 2 years of fighting for it.
  • The children of BIW Camp, a highly neglected and cordoned off basti (slum cluster) at the edge of Delhi city limits, decided to organize a cleanliness campaign (Safai Abhiyan). They held a rally, made a street theater piece, and started cleaning the drains and lanes themselves.
  • Women from the SHG’s (Self Help Groups) in each of the clusters came together to form a Ma-Mandal “Women for Proper Water and Sanitation” Society and have already filed formal complaints with various departments like the Delhi Jal Board and MCD about non-functioning pipeline, and late-coming or absence of government service providers. Women of Govindpuri slum cluster (one of the largest in Delhi) filed RTI’s (Right to Information Act) on the non-cooperation of government officials and service providers.
  • We are starting more comprehensive trainings for women and youth in active citizenship, leadership, and advocacy. From this they are organizing Mohalla Sabhas in two slums.  The ideas is basically to provide a platform in the community itself to hold meetings directly between community members, pradhans (local community leaders), counsellors (local gov’t officials), and MLA’s (Member of Legislative Assembly). The first one is planned for this coming week.

So those are some things.

And in inconclusory conclusion . . .

In an environment where there is huge amounts of distrust of gov’t and NGO’s by those living in slums, and where there is a huge amount of societal disregard and apathy directed at those who live in slums, this meeting was a bright light. Instead of complaining about one another, these groups sat together in a spirit of building partnerships for solutions . . keeping it real in terms of the realness of the problems, but not just lingering there, pushing for forward movement.

This is, of course, big largescale stuff here. We are not talking one awareness campaign on garbage and drains, for example, we are talking about 5 major projects taken on in partnership with NGO’s and gov’t, that engage the whole community and whose successes depend not just on building stuff, or cleaning things, but on changing hearts and minds, building confidence, and transforming lives. It’s honestly hard for me to hold on to the accumulating well of hope when I look at the depth and breadth of inequality and oppression here, and the holes and mountains of lack and of work to be done. Yet I am harnessing the momentum from this meeting in a vision that unrolls itself to positive progress.

Because believing this is step one.

By the way, on the day of the event (after getting very little sleep the night before), I came across this quote as I was getting ready to leave at 7am.

‘Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.’

Thank you. I actually need this one in my pocket everydelhiday.


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