How it began at Saath

Saath was started by Rajendra Joshi to alleviate the problems of the urban poor – be it education, healthcare, unemployment, infrastructure or microfinance. Born in East Africa, Rajendra Joshi came to India in 1977, when he was almost 20 years old. His upbringing and education there played a large role in motivating him towards the social sector. He says, “The education system over there lays a lot of emphasis on equality.” To goes on to explain how this is driven by the fact that many African countries were getting independence at that time. By 1962-63 most countries had gotten independence but there were few that had to fight for it – South Africa, Mazambique, Angola. Though Tanzania was not a rich country, it supported liberation movements of its neighbours. He says, “And we grew up with this movement. Many of the leaders of that time used to come and speak in our school and that is something that told me that equality and freedom is very important.”

After returning to India, he tried his hand at being a medical representative, at selling air conditioners, and at being a clerk in an import-export firm. But he says, “All those things didn’t satisfy me at all. I was always looking for a change.” A believer in karma, he says, “When I was really absolutely fed up, I saw an ad in the newspaper which said that they were looking for an educationist to work in the slums of Ahmedabad. I applied and I got that job.”

So, it was in 1984 that he began working as a teacher in Ahmedabad’s slums through this missionary group. It was here that he created an entire curriculum geared toward attracting children to school and keeping them in school. It was during his four years of working in the slums that he realized how much slum dwellers (or people living in such settlements) contributed to the city. Says Rajendra, “The people drive auto-rickshaws, most of construction labour lives over there, your vegetable vendors live over there, domestic help lives over there, and the city does not really give them much in return. This is because they were not able to articulate themselves and also because they are not getting opportunities that most of us get. I thought that this needed to be changed.”

Highly influenced by Julius Nyerere’s humanism and Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid, from his youth days, Rajendra began to think about ways to transform poor communities. He was encouraged by his mentor, Father Ramiro Erviti, who was the head of the missionary group. After his mentor’s death, Rajendra set up Saath in 1989 with the support of two friends.

Saath's Rajendra Joshi
Saath’s Rajendra Joshi

One of Saath’s earliest programs was the integrated slum development program. This began shortly after the great plague in Surat in 1994. The general belief among people was that the plague was caused by unhygienic conditions in the slums. Sensing that the time was right, Rajendra put forward a proposal to the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) that rather than evicting citizens and razing the slums, slum residents would pay themselves for upgrades and regularization of services—water, roads, streetlights, and proper toilets.

Early on, he had realized that an NGO would never be able to provide education, health, water, sanitation and other facilities all by itself. But it can act as a catalyst to make that happen. He says, “It became very clear that we would have to work with the Government and the private sector.” So, for the integrated slum development program, he negotiated such that the costs would be divided three ways—the residents would pay Rs 2,000 (US$40), with a matching amount paid both by AMC and the textile giant Arvind Mills, a large portion of whose workers came from the slums.

This trio partnership was the beginning of Rajendra’s working model. The government bureaucracy brought legitimacy, the corporate involvement brought efficiency and planning expertise, and Saath helped coordinate the process. Most importantly, citizens themselves played an active role—this was the key to success, and has become a defining element of all of Saath’s work.

In collaboration with USAID, Rajendra launched the first electrification pilot for 1,000 households. Again, each family paid Rs 2,000 (US$40) for connection charges and USAID paid Rs 6,000 (US$120) in an effort to convince the Ahmedabad power utility that the poor were willing to pay if prices were affordable, and that affordability was possible through economies of scale. When the power company balked, Rajendra took on another project, this time with 5,000 Muslim households who had been victims of the communal riots of 2002. The success of the second pilot convinced Ahmedabad utility to bring prices down to Rs 4,000 and another 4,000 households were electrified, this time without USAID support. After this success, the program was taken forward by Ahmedabad utility itself. Today, almost all slum households in Ahmedabad are electrified and connection charges have been slashed by half to Rs 2,000, payable in three installments. Company revenues have shot up by 30 to 40 percent with 200,000 households paying for the services.

The success of the power project strengthened Rajendra’s credibility and he began to test his model in areas of health, nutrition, education, women’s employment, and tolerance. Using empathetic peer-to-peer models, Rajendra and Saath have been able to enter some of Ahmedabad’s most sensitive slum areas and bring them under the Saath umbrella in peaceful coexistence.

“A majority of slum residents send their children to private schools! There are as many municipal schools today as there were 25 years ago when I started working. But the slum population has more than doubled! Where do those children go to school? They go to private schools, where the parents are paying fees – anything from Rs.150-200 – because their aspiration levels are so high!”

He compares slum dwellers today to his grandfather who migrated from a small village in Saurashtra to East Africa. They have similar aspiration levels! So instead of suppressing this drive, we should allow it to come up. Just as the US did and continues to do so – making it attractive and productive for immigrants. That’s how their country grew ( and continues to do so). “Why can’t we work with our local migrants in a similar way?,” he asks.

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