Of the 40-odd people who attended this workshop on the 11th of December in Mumbai, most came in not knowing what to expect. Urban poverty is a term that confuses and confounds many, even among those of us who work in the development sector. Lina Sonne from Intellecap, which brings out the Searchlight South Asia newsletter for the Rockefeller Foundation and had organized the event, pointed out that there is still an overwhelming focus on rural poverty and a need to move away from thinking of urban poverty as a problem that stems from a failure to address rural issues. Urbanization is clearly a force by itself, the urban poor face issues that are distinct and overwhelming, and there needs to be a focus on resolving these if cities are to truly be the engines of economic growth that India is pinning its hopes on.
As the first presenter, I struggled a little bit to gauge the mood, the interest areas and the expectations of the audience, which came from diverse backgrounds. Some were here to listen and learn, and there were others with a fire in their belly who were already doing really interesting things on the ground with poor communities as well as corporations that were striving to drive change through more sensitive leadership.
So I decided to focus on mHS’ vision for housing solutions that envisages a portfolio of housing options ranging from dormitories and shelters for the homeless and pavement dwellers, all the way up to ownership housing. The idea is that the urban poor are a heterogeneous bunch, every bit ambitious and enterprising as any other citizen if not more, and they should be able to self-select what sort of housing they want to live in. (Within this portfolio, mHS is currently focused on catalyzing self-construction in informal settlements through providing technical assistance in the form of engineering and architectural services to homeowners). To make this portfolio of housing possible, not only do we need policy changes and involvement from the government, but essentially there is a need to look at urban problems from an interdisciplinary perspective with the goal to make cities more inclusive and provide better opportunities for everyone.
The other presentations were also very interesting and a lot of the content was new to me. Abhishek Bhardwaj from Alternative Realities spoke eloquently about the homeless in Mumbai and his proposal for “housing in continuum” aligns closely with mHS’ vision. Baby Mohite and Vishnu from Swach in Pune presented the pioneering work that an association of 2200 wastepickers has done in association with Pune Municipal Corporation in being able to bring solid waste management to about 4 lakh households in the city. This happens through door-to-door garbage collection. The wastepickers then segregate the waste, utilizing the ‘wet’ waste to produce manure and biogas and recyclable materials of all sorts are picked out of the ‘dry’ waste. The results are dramatic and the high level of innovation impressive, like the ST Dispo Bag that allows women to dispose sanitary napkins in a distinct bag so wastepickers don’t have to directly handle soiled napkins! They sell about 50,000 bags per month and all because the wastepicker women had conversations with the middle class women in the households they serve and connected on a woman-to-woman level.
I was quite touched by the presentation by young Shweta from Kranti, which is an NGO run by two spunky women to rehabilitate young girls who have grown up in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light district. Shweta, one of the ‘girls’, spoke in an endearing pseudo-accent and told us about how her confidence has grown, how she doesn’t care about what society thinks, how she is influencing her sisters to stand up for themselves back home in the red light district and how she wants to change the world. Shweta and other “krantikaris” (revolutionists) are actively involved in teaching and holding workshops with marginalized girls and children across India. Two other presentations discussed initiatives in education (Doorstep School) and health.
The presentations spun off some interesting discussions. One was the conflict between being innovative in addressing urban poverty through grant-funded initiatives and the need to go to scale and impact a larger number. The future of social enterprises was a concern and some felt acutely the need for social entrepreneurs to get real and find sustainable business models. Some exciting sparring happened on that one!
Another takeaway for many of us was the need for more interaction among those working in the development sector among the urban poor. There is considerable convergence in how different grassroots organizations are beginning to think about the huge problem of how to provide better quality of life for urban residents and much can be learned through sharing and collaborations.