An organization that withdraws from communities as it makes them self-sustaining

My visit to Apnalaya was a cultural learning as much as a sociological one. The organisation works with slum communities and one of its centers is in the Govandi slums; which one needs to get to by passing by the infamous Deonar dumping grounds. As I travelled from CST to Govandi, I could distinctly tell how the landscape of the city was changing. Slowly and steadily, wide roads and high rises disappeared and I found myself in the midst of narrow lanes, strewn with garbage, all in the monsoon rain.

Apnalaya has been working tirelessly for over 40 years in slums across the city. They work with disadvantaged communities to help them overcome the many social, political and economic barriers they face and become self-sustaining in the long run. While I learnt about their model, I was really pleased to know that it had seen success. As they have withdrawn from 4 communities since development objectives had been realised there!

My brief exposure to the Govandi community gave me only the slightest insights into the areas Apnalaya works in but contextualised everything I was about to learn! Apnalaya sets up small teams in communities so as to work extremely closely with them. Their team members submerge themselves into the very culture they try to help so they can gain the most authentic insight to the needs of each community. Lata, who has been working with Apnalaya for 17 years, beginning as a Balwadi teacher, shared with me how she spent time at each of Apnalaya’s slum centers when she first began working at Govandi. That’s how she became a familiar face across the community. This was an intentional and important move, else the community wouldn’t trust her nor approach her with their problems.

Apnalaya’s efforts are aimed at educating communities so that they are able to support themselves. They follow the “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man fish and you feed him for a lifetimeapproach. In fact, they take that metaphor a bit further – with their help, using different hooks and techniques, a man can catch whatever he desires.

Their programs are spread across the areas of: education, health, disability, citizenship and women’s empowerment. Under their education umbrella, they run a day care center. This allows both parents to work while their children receive proper care and meals. Except for a bashful few, most children here took to me really well when I dropped by. One little girl even sang a song for me! The daycare center is run in a small, basic room. But there’s tons of colorful toys to keep the children engrossed; as well as an attached, clean kitchen where their meals for the day are prepared. Apnalaya goes on to support these children with sponsorships and study classes as they grow – in an attempt to keep them in school.

With Govandi being the third highest ward for child malnutrition, Apnalaya expends considerable energy in the area of heath too – from safe childbirths, to reducing child malnutrition, to general health clinics and checkups. Remember, these communities live in extremely unsanitary conditions – around the dumping ground, in kutcha housing, which lack nearly all the basic amenities ( like water, sanitation and drainage, and electricity). Anju shared with me how efforts of their Gynaecological clinic had resulted in 80% of deliveries now happening at hospitals/medical centres, allowing close monitoring of the babies, thus better health of the kids.

It can be quite difficult for people in slums to get basic documents, like ration cards and birth certificates. This is the case because slum communities are not always officially recognized. Apnalaya’s Citizenship teams have researched and understood laws around Government identification and documentation. They help individuals obtain relevant documents so that they are eligible for government entitlements and subsidies too. Like did you know that there were 3 types of ration cards – yellow, saffron and white – and that each was eligible for a different amount of rations from the Government? I also learnt that many a times because of inadequate/outdated documentation or mismanagement, people receive much less than what is due to them. Apnalaya helps them register complaints in the rightful manner to overcome this flaw.

Being a modern woman myself, it was their work with women that moved me the most. Apnalaya believes that community development cannot be complete unless women are empowered to be equal partners. Major efforts are thus directed at domestic abuse, which is a rampant problem in slum communities; and can lead to dramatic improvements in women’s lives, if overcome. They counsel distressed women, who are often silently living in unspeakable conditions.

I was especially impressed by their efforts to address economic independence among women. Apnalaya sets up self-help groups, which encourage and teach women to save up for a rainy day. Women in a group decide how much each of them would be setting aside every month. The group themselves decide who to loan the collective funds to, too. A democratic decision is taken to lend the money to the woman who needs it the most. How mature and altruistic!

Another lesson in altruism came through my chat with Lata. Based out of their resource centre, Lata educates people about the importance of sending their children to school, Government school options in the locality, enrollment procedures, of availing medical treatment for them, the right age to get them married etc. She also encourages couples to keep a gap of 5 years between the birth of their children so that they are able to give them enough; and provide for their needs comfortably too. She says, “It’s my duty to impart my knowledge to those whose lives will be better with it.”That’s why she is confident that she will continue helping people even past her retirement, which is just two years away.

Lata’s belief is a reflection of Apnalaya as a whole. This attitude has helped them withdraw from 4 communities – Datta Mandir, Jaiphalwadi, Wadaripada in Malad, and Chikuwadi – as their development objective here had been realised! I’m sure the future will see a withdrawal from more communities.

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