Field Notes: Women Of Strength & Purpose In A Mumbai Suburb Offer A Lesson To India

PUJA SOLANKI

It was a Tuesday, the first day of my internship as part of my master's in development at Azim Premji University. I couldn’t have had a better experience, listening to a group of inspirational women trying to change the lives of those who inhabited this depressed corner of India’s richest city—and sharing their delicious team lunch. 

The women—and some men—met every Tuesday in a one-room office in a dank Slum Rehabilitation Authority building in the poor eastern Mumbai suburb of Govandi to share updates about all they had accomplished that week as team leaders on subjects crucial to their collective lives. This was always followed by a delicious team lunch—vegetable curries, hot chapatis, masala khichdi, and the spiciest peanut chutneys—cooked by two or three women who lived in the same building. They’ve met like this formally for the past year here in an area that comes to statewide and national attention for dubious reasons.

Govandi is what you would call a far suburb, figuratively speaking. As the crow flies, it is only about 20 km from the heart of tony south Mumbai, where the seat of government lies. But when you get here by road or commuter train, it may be in another country. It was once a stinking garbage dump, which became home to the poor, the dispossessed and the displaced over the years. 

There are few civic amenities and open drains, and disease and malnutrition are rife. It is situated in Mumbai’s M-East Ward, which has the city’s lowest human development indices. Only in November, three children, aged one to five, from one family died in 48 hours, one from severe protein malnutrition. No one knew why the other two died.

In such an area, for people to take charge of their lives and effect change was remarkable. 

Tuesdays quickly became my favourite day of the week as I learned about the work of these purposeful, humble, and confident group leaders, mostly women in their early 20s to early 50s. There were two men as well, primarily providing administrative support and helping with medical information. These sharing Tuesdays, I realised, were, in a sense, model meetings with a lesson for not just other communities but for India: discussion, debate, and problem-solving with a sense of purpose and without rancour.

These sessions, organised by the NGO with which I was interning—the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC)—discussed the work done by team leaders on education (ensuring admissions, providing textbooks and other materials if needed, etc.), health (community-wide surveys, following up with TB patients, and more), nutrition (for instance, providing ration for TB families), and other miscellaneous issues, such domestic violence, and sanitation.

They also held what they termed a “police panchayat once a week, where anyone from the community could discuss, and attempt to resolve, internal disputes, mainly concerning families. 

The Tuesday space allowed the group to keep each other in the loop and discuss challenges and solutions. For instance, when Deborah talked about the trouble she was having getting two students admitted into a government school, Meena quickly jumped in to share how she had a contact who could help. Similarly, Lakshmi informed everyone of a new neighbourhood-education NGO, which aimed to provide books and low-fee tuition to underprivileged children.

So, they gathered every Tuesday, sitting in a circle with a mentor from SPARC, a calm yet tenacious man called Vinod Kumar, and took turns leading the weekly meeting. I entered the room ten minutes early to observe how they worked: they all opened carefully maintained notebooks and reviewed field notes from the previous week. 

Kumar tossed a microphone attached to a recorder to Pratiksha, a 22-year-old who had joined as a field worker a few months back. She started the meeting by naming everyone present and then asked the women from the five building groups to share their updates. 

Sharing Tuesdays also acted as a platform to clarify and challenge existing beliefs about health, education, and other issues. For instance, in one of the sessions, Kumar explained the reasons why women were more likely to contract diabetes than men. 

He talked about how along with their household roles becoming less strenuous, it was also because of their tendency—as in many Indian households—to eat last and how that gave them the least amount of nutrients. 

Tuesday meetings also served as a source of inspiration and pride. In one session, for example, Lakshmi told everyone how, the previous day, she had encountered a homeless woman who seemed to be in excruciating pain. 

Laxmi abandoned her other responsibilities for the day, took the woman to a hospital, and oversaw her diagnosis and treatment plan. This 30-second account was immediately followed by applause and appreciation, a fine example of how their role went beyond their buildings and reached the larger community. Indeed, some of them even participated in global meetings of slum-dwellers via SPARC.

What surprised me the most was the humility with which they described their life-altering work: finding jobs, identifying families in particularly dire straits, providing them with a month of rations, and ensuring TB patients got treatment. 

When I asked them why they were so matter-of-fact, one replied: “But this is our work, we are from the community, who else will do this for us?”

One of the earliest members of this group was “Meena ma’am”, who joined the movement in 1995, the year I was born. She explained how the movement began 38 years ago, focussing on the forced eviction of pavement dwellers, including those who lived along railway lines and trucking them to distant parts.

What was initially, in large part, about slum rehabilitation widened to issues of toilets and sanitation, microfinance for women, health, education, nutrition, and other social issues. 

Meena narrated how their persistence changed the attitudes of government officials. After struggling for their rights all year long, on the annual occasion of Raksha Bandhan, women from the movement visited government offices. They tied rakhis to the (mostly male) officials and asserted their rights as citizens and sisters. 

According to Meena, the officers had no choice but to become kinder towards the women over time: “We created a brother-sister relationship, so they agreed to help us out”. Everything took time. Since most of them did not have any more than a school education, self-confidence emerged from knowledge and awareness gained through life and over time. For Meena, this meant feigning courage before officials while dealing with anxiety and self-doubt. 

All that has changed.

“I can speak with government officials in a bindaas (carefree) manner,” said Meena. “I don’t think of them as high and mighty people”. 

In the first decade of her work with SPARC, Meena led over 22 toilet-construction complexes and over 250 housing projects worth Rs 15 crore in multiple cities, including Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam, and Vijayawada.

With a helping hand from SPARC, these women have built themselves up from scratch. They change the world around them by consistently evolving and bettering themselves. They question, criticize, and challenge current political and cultural systems but do this while keeping people and relationships at the centre of it all. 

Of one thing, I am certain: these courageous women will be on my mind for many years to come, especially on days when I’m running low on strength and hope.

You can read Puja Solanki’s full story, written with her colleagues, here.

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