Frontline Delhi: Slum project brings hope to India's Untouchables hope that brings help escape squalor of the slums

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The Independent Online
DELHI'S WEALTH sucks the poor out of the countryside in huge numbers. They arrive from all corners of the country, desperate to improve their lot. And this city does a deal with them: wash our dishes, flog our laundry, walk our dogs, build our office blocks, sweep our streets. To that extent, you exist. But there is nowhere for you to live.

Public housing in Delhi is utterly inadequate. And for the poor villagers who roll into town in their thousands, there is not the ghost of a chance of finding a "pukka" house.

So when public land or marginal land along rivers or open drains or railway tracks is not watched over with great vigilance, villagers build new villages on it - gruesome parodies of where they came from, homes made of plastic, sacking and flimsy wood, communities lacking drains or running water or electricity, crammed together as tightly as possible.

These "unauthorised colon-ies", which may contain 4 million of Delhi's roughly 11 million people, can be demolished at any time. Their survival depends on the patronage of a slum landlord-cum- politician who does what is needful in terms of baksheesh and intimidation to keep away the wrecking ball. In return, when elections come around (next week here), he is guaranteed the colony's block vote.

It is a singular way to develop your capital city. It produces virulent epidemics and many other evils. But for Delhi's middle class there is one great compensation: a permanent bank of cheap domestics.

Delhi's slum problem is growing worse all the time, and in the past 10 years the number of unauthorised colonies has doubled from 750 to 1,500. But the work of a Delhi-based organisation called Asha ("Hope") proves that the slums are not beyond redemption.

Most of Kiran Martin's fellow medical students wanted either to find a job abroad or to start their own private hospital. Dr Martin was different. "I've always been completely uninterested in money," she says, "and I had a very strong desire to work among the poorest of the poor." So 10 years ago, already an experienced paediatrician, she walked into a terrible Delhi slum called Dr Ambedkar Basti and, after difficult discussions with the slum's intensely suspicious boss, set up her first clinic.

That year, cholera raged through Delhi's slums and, as healthcare provision was negligible (like every other public service), Dr Martin found herself in huge demand. But from the outset, healthcare was only the first step, her foot in the door.

Dr Ambedkar Basti is home to 5,500 Dalits or Untouchables, as poor as they are uneducated. "The conditions were unimaginable," says Dr Martin. "Animals were cohabiting with the people, children and pigs were wallowing together in the mud, children were dying everywhere, there were piles of garbage." The task Dr Martin gave herself was to build a partnership with the people of Dr Ambedkar Basti so that they could learn how to improve their own situation.

"I was not interested merely in service delivery, but in working with people as partners," she says. "That is much more difficult, but our philosophy is that the poor have so much potential."

Dr Martin gradually evolved her own distinctive approach to the slums. It consists of recruiting and training community health volunteers within the slum; setting up women's groups through which the women can receive training in the rudiments of health, sanitation, community organisation and so on; and at the same time working tirelessly with the political bosses and the city's slum commissioners, to cajole, bully and charm them into doing their duty.

"In Dr Ambedkar Basti, the women persuaded me to meet the slum commissioner on their behalf," she remembers. "He came and saw what I was doing there and got the shock of his life. Something happened to him that day. It was the start of a great relationship with this man - he later said this encounter changed his life. Within two months the colony had a proper drain, a tarred road, hand pumps for water and pavements tiled with bricks."

Spurred on by this success, Dr Martin and her colleagues, most of them passionate though not proselytising Christians, have taken their unique programme to more than 20 other slum colonies around Delhi, home to more than 120,000 people. It's a drop in the ocean. But Asha's most successful projects, such as the colony of Shanti Vihar, show what can happen when the potential of the people is released.

At Shanti Vihar, none of the old stigmata of the slums is in evidence. With money funnelled into the colony, largely from the British charity Tearfund, and with intense political pressure applied by Asha, the place has been transformed. Houses are brick-built, lanes are surfaced with concrete with proper drains underneath; 100 per cent of the children go to school; and the place is stunningly clean.

The transformation is largely the result of Dr Martin's belief in human potential. "We are all human beings, that should be the basis of how we look at each other," she says. "And unless people are trained and organised, no sustained development is possible."

More information about Asha can be obtained from Friends of Asha UK, c/o Peter Martin, 137 Kingfauns Road, Ilford, Essex IG3 9QN:

Tel 0181 597 0225