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VISIT TO AAKAR – CRY PROJECT IN MUMBAI

Sumedh, a CRY America Volunteer from Seattle
Action Center was keen to visit a CRY supported project, when in India
for his annual holiday. He wanted to understand the impact of his
support. Sumedh visited project AAKAR, Mumbai. Here is a first hand
account of his experience

“I wept because I had no shoes. And then I saw a man with no
feet.”

The slum children gathered around me. One of the girls
seemed about 13-14 years old. I asked her in Marathi “Do you go to school?” She
said no. Thoughts crossed my mind “Maybe she is not interested. Or maybe her
parents are forcing her to work instead.” I was stunned by what I heard next.
The girl had two kids. She was an orphan. Other grown-ups in the slums were
looking after her and her kids. School was a distant luxury.

This is Jogeshwari in
Mumbai. Right by the National Express Highway, over a hundred people live right
on the pavement. Some live in makeshift slums, others live in the open. They are
a speck of Mumbai’s increasing homeless population. According to government
records, they do not exist. They have no birth certificates. They are not in
the census.

Consequently they cannot get even basic government
facilities like ration cards. Being off the records has also left them
vulnerable to exploitation. Men show up at night asking for “girls”. The
municipality, and other local forces keep forcing them to move. They have no
legal recourse.

Several people have died in accidents but the authorities
ignore these cases. “Oh he must have been drunk.” The woman who described all
this had lost her husband and brother-in-law similarly. She talked nonchalantly
through all this, perhaps insensitized over the years.

Enter AAKAR. 

AAKAR is a local organization created by Milind Arondekar,
his wife, and a few other locals. This group came together to help people in
need during the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992-93. The riots eventually died out, but
the group was amazed at what they could achieve. They stuck together and over
the last 20 years have undertaken many projects, sponsored by the Tata group.
They caught the attention of CRY in 2011. CRY has sponsored them since then.
AAKAR does the grassroots work, but CRY sets goals, provides guidance and
material, and provides cover at higher altitudes e.g. enacting laws as needed.

Lipika (Sr Manager CRY) and Anand (CRY Project liaison for
Aakar) accompanied me on a visit to the Aakar office and the project area.

One of AAKAR’s goals was to get the slum children in
Jogeshwari to school. There were many hurdles. First was the situation
described above. Talking about school would be hopeless given the ground
realities. So Milind and his crew had to innovate. They used a carrot-and-stick
approach and made a deal – that Aakar would arrange for Rs 400 per child per
month if and only if the slum-dwellers send their kids to school.

Aakar’s strategy to get them Rs 400 per child per month was
to get them ration cards, which guarantees about that much in groceries. But
how do you get ration cards for somebody who does not have an identity in any
government records? Milind remembered that the Andhra Pradesh government had
introduced a scheme in Hyderabad to legalize homeless people. He approached the
Maharashtra state food minister, and challenged him to match what the AP
government did. The food minister came through on this.

So finally all the
pieces came together. The slum children started going to the local school. But new
problems came up later. The local water supply was only available at 1pm, bang
in the middle of school time. The slum dwellers expected the kids to go fetch
the water at that time. So the children started dropping out of school. Aakar
threatened to revoke their ration cards, and struck a deal with the school
principal to send the kids home for half an hour around 1pm.

Another problem that came up was that all the slum dwellers
would return to their villages during October to celebrate their local
festival. That means all the children would miss their semester exams. Again,
Aakar had to negotiate with the school principal to let the children take exams
after they returned.

Schooling is just one part of what Aakar does. The Aakar
team is the only friend the slum dwellers have given the authorities’ apathy.
Aakar stands up for them and provides help if there is a medical emergency. As
we talked to the slum dwellers, they had nothing but praise and gratitude for
the Aakar team.

Above is a picture
of the Aakar team. Milind is the person in white shirt, third from right.

As Lipika, Anand, and I toured the slums I asked the kids
what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were some humorous answers, and
some touching answers. The tall girl in white dress in this picture wanted to
be a doctor.

Look at the smiles on these kids despite their situation.
Where there is a will there is a way.

On the rickshaw ride back, Anand described to me the other
projects he oversees. His job is to provide them guidance and materials, and to
audit that they are using CRY funds responsibly. He visits each project once a
quarter. He spends a day with the project workers, reviewing their progress and
accounts. He spends another day with the people being helped, to check if they
are actually receiving the benefits that CRY is told they are getting, are the
kids actually attending school, catching up with ground realities. Often there
are strong vested forces coming in his way. If he is not tactful, he could
endanger his own life. Some of these projects are in remote areas of
Maharashtra and he stays alone in the lodge.

Anand has an MBA and could have chosen a more lucrative
career. But he chose this path. He really enjoys what he is doing and the impact
it has.

In my brief visit I got a small peek into the challenges CRY
and its partner organizations face. Even then, I learned a lot. Being in a
private sector job abroad, I had a naïve picture of what it actually takes to
make a change on the ground. It is easy to focus on metrics that we use in our
workplace. But the situation is completely different.

I walked off with immense admiration for both, the CRY
employees and their partner organizations on the ground. Hearing some of the
stories, sometimes it seems like the problem is too complex to solve. But CRY
and its partners have been at it doggedly, using their creativity. And they are
making a change, bit by bit.

 

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