Covid-19 in a Mumbai Slum: An interview with Shamim Banu of Rafik nagar


Last week, SPARC India spoke to Shamim Banu Salim Sheikh (age 55), a member of Mahila Milan living in Mumbai’s Rafik nagar slum in Govandi about conditions in her community. The below are her reflections on her community and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

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“My name is Shamimbanu. I am the taluka vice president of Samajwadi party. I reside in Rafik nagar – Govandi, Shivaji nagar near Bismillah Masjid dumping ground.  My family consists of my husband, two sons and two daughters. One daughter is married. My husband and my sons are working in the fishing transport line. We have one business only.

Life in Rafik Nagar

Rafik nagar is a huge slum with around 40,000 houses. Most of the houses are kuccha (informal), at least 30 to 35% houses are kuccha since they are near the dumping ground. Securities from this area don’t allow these people to build pucca (permanent) houses. But if we go little away from the dumping ground then we see little pucca houses and more deeper in the area, you have ground plus one houses, i.e ground floor is pucca and upstairs they have patra (tin) roof or patra side walls. Most of the people’s occupation here is wastes pickers, fish sellers, vegetable sellers, kadiyas (masons), construction workers and mystry (carpenters).

All kinds of people stay here. Most of the people are Muslims from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states. Migrant workers in this area were more, now most of them have left their houses and went back to their native lands. The houses are small and 8 to 10 men would stay in one house. The reason they left from here is not food but all their work is stopped [because of the coronavirus lockdown], and they were scared that whatever savings they had would finish staying here without work.

We have a  team of ladies who come together and prepare community food daily, all the expenses are done by the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly (MLA) and five other councillors and supply food to different areas such as Guatam nagar, Shivaji nagar, Sathe nagar and Indian oil and also Rafik nagar. Whoever wants food comes here and takes the packet. Many people don’t have a gas cylinder in their house. If we take a cylinder it costs 1000/-. Most of them use chullas (hearth / stove) for cooking food and some get kerosene at 80/- per litre.

We have 24 hours electricity – only people near the dumping ground don’t have individual meters otherwise all the houses have individual meters. Water is also not a problem: we get ample water from last 3 years as our MLA has given us water connection to every house. He has spent crores of rupees to give us this connection. Some lanes have proper drainage lines, but the new houses don’t have drains. Even in rainy season, we don’t have much problem here. The area doesn’t get choked up any time. He has constructed a small kabrastan (cemetery) in our area, otherwise we had to go far away to cremate the body. Only problem we have here is that, because the garbage comes here there is very dirty smell in the area when they burn it. It’s not only garbage that gets burnt but there is a company nearby which throws post-mortem and other stuffs in this dumping ground . Many people have various kinds of lung diseases here. We all use common toilets. The toilets are not sufficient for everybody, some go near the dumping ground before the security comes to take charge.

Covid-19 in Our Community

Corona illness is a surprise to us, but as I said we are living here for years with  all kinds of dangerous diseases, this is one kind of disease in our list. If you ever come here and see you will find people going around everywhere without any fear. Nobody from outside such as police, doctors or Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) officers dares to come inside the area. Because they themselves are scared that they will get new diseases if they enter this slum. So most of the time police stays outside near the road side and don’t allow people to go anywhere.

We try and tell other people that they should keep their hands clean, houses clean, don’t sneeze or cough in public places. But all these things are for rich people and not poor people like us. In this area most of the people have at least 7 to 8 members in their houses, how are you going to tell them they should not sit together or keep distance between each other? They will laugh at  you and show you their houses first to see how big is their house. It’s two and half months now, nobody from the government side or BMC has come to sanitize our area  or give us any information about this disease. We hear the message when we have to call somebody from the phone. They have a tape that tells you what we have to do to stay away from this diseases and sometimes from the TV. But people here are least bothered about all these things. They are waiting, when this lockdown will be over and they will go out for their jobs.

We must be having many positive cases in our area, but nobody has come to check any family. Once our MLA had arranged a camp and sent some doctors to check here by bringing some small machine to see if people have fever, but they said there are no positive cases at least nearby my area. We are not sure how true is that. Because if people don’t listen to what government is saying than how could you test just few people and say that there are no positive cases in this slum. Many migrant workers who were living here have left from here, our MLA arranged buses and train tickets for many people, now almost 30 to 35% of migrant workers have gone.

Many people have lost their jobs. They are not sure whether they will get the same job again, but the fish and vegetable sellers will continue with their jobs. The rest will have to find another job. We are all waiting for the buses and trains to start so that we can go out and start earning. Government didn’t think about people who are on daily wages. It’s good that our MLA gives us all the grains to cook food in our area so at least poor people take meals twice from here.

We had got a contract of preparing some 10,000 to 12,000 masks. We use to get 2 rupees per mask. Many people were doing this work but that is also stopped. In Ramadan month most of them had started vegetable and fruits businesses. Some were selling toys and other stuff so that they were able to earn some money out of it. But now everything is stopped. The waste pickers try and go to pick up waste but the watchman asks them to pay 50 rupees to go out from the area, and since all the shops are closed who will buy their stuff.

People do have ration cards but not all. We get only rice and wheat in the ration shop and nothing else. What are we going to doing with all the rice if there is no daal or masala or oil? How are we going to cook the food? No systems are in place; government does their own manmani (will), whenever they want they do lockdown but we are the sufferers. It seems everything has come to an stand still. “Zindagi mano thumsi gayi hai.” (“Seems like life has paused.”)

Nothing is good about what is happening, we are thanks to Allah (God) that we have a good MLA who is taking care of people in whole of Shivaji nagar. We prepare 4,000 kg of rice daily, dal, chole bjature (chickpea curry with fried bread), once a week chicken biryani and once a week mutton pilaf and feed as many people we can. Our team of ladies come together and pack the food and send it by tempo (small cargo truck) to different areas. This is only good thing.

There is a small general hospital built by MLA which takes care of small cases. They charge 10 rupees if medicine is available then they give us free medicines also. We have been given contact numbers for ambulance so that in emergency we can contact them.”

Responding to COVID-19 in a high-density low-income district in Mumbai

A representative from a grassroots federation in Mumbai describes how the community is self-organising for an effective COVID-19 response. This text is drawn from an interview with Selvi Manivanan Devandra conducted by Sharmila Gimonkarpril. Selvi is a community leader with Mahila Milan, a federation of women’s savings groups, active in housing and basic service issues. Indian Oil is the name of their cluster of tenements. Sharmila has been working with Sparc for the past 30 years.

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My name is Selvi. For four years I have lived in Indian Oil building No. 8/C, room No. 304. Most residents of Indian Oil are people who were displaced by city and state government projects, including many pavement dwellers. Previously, I was staying in slums near Kokari Agar.

I have three children. One daughter is married, and my other two children are college students. My husband works as a security guard. I have been working with Sparc and Mahila Milan (MM) for the last 9 years.

Coordinating and communicating through WhatsApp

With the outbreak of COVID-19, all MM leaders took on responsibility for planning relief work in the area and to coordinate with Shekar from the National Slum Dwellers Federation and local politicians (Aktar Khureshi and Abbu Azmi). Most buildings have an MM leader, and each leader is in touch with a central committee. Previously, we were not involved with the central committee since we didn’t like the way they worked, and we worked to our own guidelines. But now with the challenge of COVID-19, we all agreed to come together and work for the people. We created a communal WhatsApp group, and whatever the committee decides, we come to know about it.

First we set about helping the many people who hang around because they don’t have any work. When the police visit our area, all these people run into the various tenement buildings. We decided to open the building gates at given times i.e. 8.00 to 11.30 in the morning and 6.00 to 8.00 in the evening. Now, with permission to enter buildings at certain times these people avoid running into trouble with police who are monitoring the area.

Photo 1 Tenements at Indian Oil Nagar

Supporting the vulnerable to self-isolate

Next we set about helping families in greatest need. This includes families that have been unable to pay maintenance charges for the last two months or so, those who are handicapped, medically unfit and senior citizens. Also those who share accommodation and have small children, and to such people and families, we give preference. Through the WhatsApp groups, we sent the list of these families to Shekar sir and the local councillor so the families can be registered as needing help. To minimise the chance of virus transmission we asked people, using WhatsApp, to stay in their houses and explained we would bring goods to their doorstep. The building president also takes responsibility for sharing all the information.

Approximately 10,000 families reside in Indian Oil, making up a huge population of around 25,000 people. The councillor provides only 200 packets per day; this is distributed to those families on the list provided by the society leaders. My son has been given an ID card (required to access subsidized food rations) and goes to Shivaji Nagar to get cooked food packets in the afternoon and at night. It is mostly families that live here. Of course, there were many men who used to stay alone here but now they have gone home, back to their families.

Shutting the local market was a priority: people were gathering around the shops or vegetable vendors and so risking the virus spreading. We asked the city government and police department to help us to shift the market to an open space nearby. It would open at specific times and the MM leaders would help check that people are maintaining a safe distance between each other.

A local politician (corporator) arranged for masks and for cooked food to be provided. And for food packets for 300 families including rice, dal (two types), sugar, wheat, oil and bottles of sanitizer. The corporator has also given equipment to sanitize our area, since the city government lacks this.

Photo 2 Tenements at Indian Oil Nagar

Trusted by the inhabitants and the authorities

Previously police would not allow us to leave our houses to check on families or bring food to their doors. We explained that if we didn’t, families wouldn’t get food, and that if we could deliver food to their doorsteps, they wouldn’t need to come out and risk virus infection. The police began to understand that we leaders have an important role. Now we help them maintain the law and deal with crime in the area. They regularly visit our areas which prevents people hanging around.

The MM leaders build lists of how many families are in crisis, what kind of job the head of the family does, and of how many family members. We have been working in this area for 4 or 5 years so are familiar with most of the families in our building and our neighbouring buildings. We open our office at certain times so all leaders can come and submit their lists. Then we sit with Shekar sir and decide how and when we can provide them with food grains.

Shekar sir informs us leaders of the time to come to the office and collect the food. With this crisis, we have started collecting names of those families who don’t have a ration card and those families who have ration card but are not linked  an Aadhaar card [identity card] which means that they are unable to get food grains from the ration shops. The crisis has made us aware which families in our area who don’t have an earning member in their house, and so don’t have easy access to food.

Alert to the dangers of fake news

Many news items are running around on the TV channels, but some news is fake. Some say that by taking certain tablets then we won’t be affected by the virus. My neighbour, who works in the housekeeping department of a hospital bought me some tablets, telling me if I took them, I wouldn’t fall sick. I urged him not to give the tablets to anybody, explaining that they could be dangerous, particularly for people with diabetes, heart problems or asthma etc. I told him no tablet can cure this disease and to take simple precautions: only drink hot water, take a hot water steam every day and gargle twice or thrice with hot water and salt. Wash your hands regularly, don’t touch your face and stay away from others. This is only practical advice, not medication, but it is possible for us to do this at home.

Selvi Manivanan Devandra is a community leader with Mahila Milan, a federation of women’s savings groups active in housing and basic service issues.

With thanks to Slum Dwellers International (SDI) for their support in developing this blog. Please keep following SDI as we highlight the initiatives of SDI affiliates across Africa, Asia & Latin America in the fight against COVID-19 to support the most vulnerable throughout this pandemic.

Malayamma Savings Mama


Malayamma, a savings collector with the Mahila Milan poor women’s network, begins each day walking house-to-house collecting the daily savings of members residing in Bangalore’s Vinobha Nagar settlement. It is the very settlement in which she grew up and where her family has lived for generations. Malayamma’s grandparents moved into the settlement some 60 years ago when they emigrated from Pondicherry in search of work. Her father was born and raised in Vinobha Nagar and Malayamma was the second of eleven children born in a small house with a blue door by the Hindu temple that marks the entrance to the settlement. Clad in a turquoise and white sari, with her trusty calculator tucked into the side (see photo above), she carries an oversized handbag full of savings books and sets off for a long day of collections. I also notice a decent sized tattoo on her right forearm. She later tells me she was tricked into getting it at the age of 10. The tattoo artist told her it was temporary and that it would come off with a little turmeric powder. After some panicked scrubbing of the rangoli-style design with turmeric it became clear the tattoo wasn’t going anywhere. “I was seriously beaten by my father for that” she chuckles.

Click the photo above for her full story.

Private Sector Collaboration for Energy Justice in Mumbai

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As of 2017, the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) and Mahila Milan in India have organized 694 groups in 81 cities and towns. Home to the oldest national federation in the network, the India SDI Alliance is a critical driver of peer-to-peer exchanges to organize and capacitate federations in Asia and the network at large. This year it became a key organizer of communities looking to find solutions to energy poverty. Success stories of energy-poor communities gaining improved access to renewable, affordable, reliable, and safe electricity through innovative strategies frequently reference rural areas but what of the urban poor communities? How can state strategies for energy security keep pace with the continued expansion of urban populations while at the same time satisfying existing demand? Can the human, financial, political, and environmental assets of the urban poor be harnessed to increase energy security and contribute to city resilience more broadly?

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Both Maharashtra State and the Indian Central Government are working hard to incentivize use of renewables in the country’s energy mix. In November 2017, NSDF and Mahila Milan, with their support NGO, SPARC, held discussions with a private sector developer, the state electricity distribution company, and the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA). They agreed to partner on a precedent-setting, community-man- aged pilot project installing grid-connected rooftop solar PV onto government-built, low income city housing projects in Mumbai. This small-scale embedded generation infrastructure will subsidize the energy tariff of the housing’s public utilities, including water pumps, lifts, and corridor lighting, freeing up additional financial resources for use by the cooperative in the maintenance of the buildings. Women from Mahila Milan have been trained in routine maintenance and energy use monitoring of the solar system. Ultimately, the aim is to demonstrate a model that can be locally financed and managed and contribute to energy security and financial resilience for the city at large.


As a result of the community’s organizing power, government cooperation, and the help of the private sector, the India SDI Alliance is aiming to reduce the electricity tariff for some of the poorest apartment dwellers in Mumbai. The aim is to install these systems in four more buildings in Mumbai during the first part of 2018. If the pilot proves successful, there are at least 500 such buildings housing very poor relocated or rehabilitated households in Mumbai that could bene t from replication of this project.

The India slum dweller federation efforts are enhancing city resilience by improving access to affordable clean energy, building skills in poor communities, and supporting multi-stakeholder collaboration.

In the coming weeks, SDI will share the case studies from our 2017 Annual Report titled ‘The Road to Resilience’ here on our blog.  Emerging from the field of ecology,  ‘resilience’  describes the capacity of a system to maintain or recover from disruption or disturbance. Cities are also complex systems and a resilience framework addresses the inter- connectedness of formal and informal city futures. Moreover, it enables a nuanced reflection on the nature of shocks and chronic stressors – recognising that the latter are particularly acute in slum dweller communities and that this critically undermines the entire city’s economic, social, political, and environmental resilience.

As with personal resilience, city resilience demands awareness, acknowledgment of reality, and a capacity to move beyond reactivity to responses that are proactive, thoughtful, and beneficial to the whole. The most enlightened individuals and cities will be those that understand their responsibility to the most vulnerable and to the planet. Our 2017 Annual Report showcases some of SDI’s achievements over the past year on the road to resilience. Click here for the full report. 

Inauguration of Solar Energy Project in Mumbai Slum Housing Project

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Success stories in accessing affordable, reliable, and safe electricity for the poor are commonly registered from rural areas but what of the urban poor? There is far less real world success in addressing challenges the poor face in cities across the world, limited understanding of how cities will manage the secure supply of clean and affordable electricity for urban informal communities as urbanisation continues, and less precedent for how urban poor residents can play an important role. That being said, organized urban poor communities affiliated with the SDI network are beginning to demonstrate the critical role of the urban poor in practically contributing to clean energy transitions while simultaneously increasing resilience.

On the 28th of November 2017, Mahila Milan and the National Slum Dwellers Federation of India inaugurated a 12kWp rooftop solar PV system on a large-scale government housing complex in Govandi, Mumbai (SRA Building 11C in Natwar Parikh, Indian Oil Compound). SRA is the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, the state level authority administering a government program that provides housing for Mumbai’s poor. The solar PV system installed at building 11C makes use of enabling net-metering policy and a capital subsidy, incentivizing the tapping of Mumbai’s vast rooftop solar potential. Connected to the grid supply the system imports as well as exports electricity allowing the housing cooperative a saving of around Rs. 1.9 lakhs annually (roughly USD 1500).

Communal facilities supplemented by the newly installed solar PV system include: common area lighting, elevators, and crucially the pumping of water from underground tanks to overhead tanks. These energy costs are conventionally borne by levies paid by the building’s residents. A reduction in the cooperative’s overall electricity bill means more money for maintenance. As with other NSDF managed projects, 100% of routine maintenance of the solar system is done by trained Mahila Milan members.

The Indian Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission aims to position India as a global leader in the production of solar electricity. There’s real momentum in powering the country’s development through an increased use of clean generation sources, reducing carbon as emissions associated with fossil fuel generation.

SDI’s Indian Alliance aims to install these systems in 4 more buildings in Mumbai during the first part of 2018.

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Indian SDI Alliance Awarded 2016 Curry Stone Design Prize

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Today the Indian SDI Alliance, made up of the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), Mahila Milan (Women Together) and their support NGO, SPARC, will be awarded with the 2016 Curry Stone Design Prize Vision Award at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai.

The Curry Stone Design Prize is a highly recognised social impact design award, celebrating engaged practitioners and the influence and reach of design as a force for improving lives and strengthening communities. The Vision Award recognises individuals or organisation s that have significantly inspired the design profession and the communities they engage through their continuing commitment to social impact design.

Yesterday, in the lead-up to the award ceremony,  SDI President Jockin Arputham (who is also president of the Indian NSDF) and Sheela Patel, chair of the SDI Board and executive director of SPARC, spoke at the Curry Stone Design Prize Forum, a one-day symposium examining the role of design in facing the challenge of urban poverty. They were joined by former awardees and experts in the field of urban planning and design.

Visit the Curry Stone Design Prize website to learn more about the Indian SDI Alliance’s award-winning work. 

Improved Sanitation Improves Half a Million Lives in Pune, India

By Maria Lobo and Mahila Milan


Sanitation has been the shame of India. More than 50 percent of people who still defecate in the open live in India. Most of these are from rural areas but many of them are urban slum dwellers.  Public toilets, though available, are all too often  so rundown and filthy that defecating in the open remains preferable. This affects the overall health and dignity of slum dwellers, especially women. The following is a demonstration of a bottom-up advocacy approach to sanitation which is led by the community themselves. This experience challenges the mindset of people who seldom think of slum dwellers as capable of bringing change from below.

Community Toilets in Pune

In Pune, a partnership between the municipal government, NGOs and community-based organisations has built more than 400 community toilet blocks between 1999 and 2001. These have greatly improved sanitation for more than half a million people living in slums. They have also demonstrated the potential of municipal community partnerships to improve conditions for low-income groups.

How it all began

Based on the discussions of female slum dwellers, specifically around the challenge of open defecation, the Indian SDI Alliance (NSDF, Mahila Milan and SPARC) prioritised addressing the sanitation challenge.  Given the huge problems in dense, inner city slums and the lack of formal sewerage connections the community toilet block was tabled as a solution that promoted access  to sanitation In the absence of safe disposal of faecal matter through the sewer connectivity, safety tanks were the next best option suggested .Over time, the alliance built many such community toilet blocks, initially with grants to develop, design, and get acceptance from community groups and municipalities in over 20 large and medium cities across India. In all locations, they began to explore where they could locate a municipality that would take on this strategy at a significant scale.

The first possibility arrived in 1994. The World Bank began negotiations with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) to seek a loan for a large sewage treatment project in the city. This mega-buck, mega-infrastructure project involved a large-scale expansion of Mumbai’s undersized and overtaxed sewer system. Thanks to pressure from local NGOs, the World Bank set one condition for the loan – that the project also address the needs of the poor and, to the Indian Alliance’s delight, include the building of community toilets in a selected group of slums. The project set a target of providing 20,000 toilets, enough for at least a million people at the less-than-perfect ratio of one toilet for every 50 people. When the Alliance was invited to explore ways to get involved, it saw a chance to test some of its ideas about community-managed sanitation at a much larger scale, and to strengthen a constructive partnership between the urban poor and the city government. While the Alliance was keen on community participation in taking up this project, the World Bank had the different approach of setting up a competitive bidding process which pitted one community against another to be chosen for demo projects. In addition the overall procurement strategy did not work for the alliance. So with some regrets the alliance withdrew from this project at that time.

In 1999 the Municipal Commissioner of Pune, Ratnakar Gaikwad, who co-incidentally had been the additional (deputy) commissioner of Mumbai Municipal Corporation while the community toilet project was under discussion, invited the alliance to work in Pune. He devised a sanitation program for the city of Pune  based on the strategy developed by the alliance. It was set up in several stages.  Since 1992, only 22 ‘pay and use’ toilet blocks had been built in the city of Pune. A decision was thus taken to construct around 400 community toilet blocks in two phases starting in 1999. NGOS were invited to apply for a fixed price tender and get contracted to organise communities to design construct and manage community toilets. A formal commitment was sought by the municipality  that the NGO and the community would maintain the toilet block by collecting contributions from the community. The contracts were not only for building toilets but also for maintenance. In awarding contracts, priority was given as follows:

i) settlements of more then 500 inhabitants that had no toilet facilities,

ii) areas where facilities were so dilapidated that they needed replacement

iii) areas where there were toilets but a larger population was forced to use them as against the standard norm of 1 seat for 50 persons.

Bids from eight NGOs were accepted, of which SPARC was one of the selected NGOs.

Meetings in every locality in Pune were organised by Mahila Milan. In the beginning, there was a lot of hand-holding. There were engineers and architects stationed in Pune who were always available for advice and guidance. Every site would be visited every day by an engineer who would sort out problems on the spot. There were regular visits by a team from Mumbai to give overall direction to the programme. Masons and carpenters with experience from within the slums were supported to take on jobs, along with regular contractors. There has been considerable debate about how best to fund the maintenance of these toilets. The Indian Alliance promoted a system whereby each family would buy a pass costing 20 rupees a month. This was based on the income required to cover the costs of hiring a family (who would live in a caretaker’s room above the toilet) and costs of cleaning and maintenance materials. This is much cheaper than the one rupee per use charge used by other public toilets which for a family of five would cost 150 rupees a month even if each household member only used the toilet once a day.

From the beginning the urgency in the project was based on the realisation that the Commissioner was a project “champion” and this project had to be completed during his tenure in Pune. Everyone was learning as they raced around getting things done. The downside of this was that many mistakes were made, and repairing them cost the Alliance resources that the city would not provide. The reality, however, was that if we had hesitated, we would have lost the chance to do this project and to learn from it. It’s a difficult choice but often when working on issues concerning the poor, plunging into untested waters is the only way to produce precedents. And a precedent was established in Pune, as the first location for community toilet construction at a city-wide scale. The program took off in a big way and virtually all slums were provided with toilet blocks (

As soon as the sanitation work in Pune took off the  Indian Alliance  began to once again focus on Mumbai but the World Bank and the municipality continued to go back and forth on how to proceed with contracts. Finally the procurement policy was finalized and the Alliance agreed to take part and their experience of working with slums was made a critical factor in the tender point system. The Alliance got the contract to construct toilet blocks along with two other NGOS in Mumbai. As part of the Mumbai Sewerage Disposal Project, which started in 1999 and is still ongoing in different phases, the Alliance has constructed, to date, 366 community toilet blocks with 6952 seats.

Later, Ratnakar Gaikwad was appointed director of YASHADA, a national training institute for government officials based in Pune. Discussions between his office and the Alliance led to a seminar that included NGOs, government agencies, training institutions, and other institutions that wanted to work on urban sanitation and to create a collective boost to their various efforts to address open defecation.

The work undertaken by the partnership of the Alliance, YASHADA and Administrative Staff Collage India (a major institution that does research and trains a wide spectrum of private and public administrators)  opened the possibility of working in some new cities. But it went both ways: these city processes were fed back as examples in the training and capacity-building sessions that were being held in the two training institutes. In all of these cities, as in every other experience, the Alliance had to struggle for several years to be fully paid for its work.

Tirupur followed Pune and started a sanitation programme in 2004, where the Alliance along with a private sector company (who was contracted to undertake infrastructure projects) constructed 14 toilet blocks with 254 seats. Nineteen community toilet blocks were later constructed in Vishakhapatnam, a port city of Andhra Pradesh, between 2004-2005; these blocks included 232 seats. Vijayawada is a medium-sized town in Andhra Pradesh. The sanitation project here started in 2004 when, at a national sanitation meeting, the commissioner of Vijayawada heard about the Mumbai sanitation project and invited NSDF to work in the city. Seventeen toilet blocks with 128 seats were constructed for a population of 6,400. In 2006, Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation contracted Pune Mahila Milan to construct 7 toilet blocks with 90 seats to initiate its sanitation project. The project in Pimpri reflects the importance of building demonstration pilots which can be picked up and expanded upon. In cities where the federations have the capacity to operate at scale, they can handle the expansion phase. In 2007, a project called Nirmal MMR Abhiyan (Campaign for a Clean MMR) designed a strategy to finance community toilets in slums in Mumbai and 13 other municipalities.


This programme helped to reconfigure the relationships between city government and civil society. NGOs and communities were neither “clients” nor “supplicants”, but partners. The city government recognized the capacity of community organizations, supported by local NGOs, to develop their own solutions. The division of roles was also clear in that city authorities changed their role from being a toilet provider to setting standards, funding the capital cost of construction, and providing water and electricity. The NGOs and community organizations designed, built and maintained the toilet blocks.

It was only after they had started working in Pune in 1998 that the Alliance re-entered the fray in Mumbai, where the World Bank was still committed to a competitive bidding process and where the slum sanitation part of the huge sanitation project continued to face challenges from all sides. After the success of the Pune model and project, the Alliance was contracted to construct community toilets in slums as part of the Mumbai World Bank project and all procurement procedures were redrafted.

In 2000, the Pune municipal commissioner and the Indian Alliance were invited to make a presentation to the prime minister’s office. A Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan programme was announced and the Planning Commission dedicated funds to cities that want to take up sanitation projects (Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan in Hindi means “Mission to clean India”). The planning Commission is the highest Planning institution in India. Between 2000-2008, a partnership between the Indian SDI Alliance, YASHADA (training institute of the government of Maharashtra), ASCI (Administrative Staff Collage, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh), and the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program led to the inclusion of slum sanitation in the training of many city officials. In 2009, after national and state-level consultations, development of city-based indicators and state government agreements, the cabinet passed the national policy for urban sanitation. In retrospect the volume of interventions desired did not take place. In many ways essential recommendations ( e.g. city wide data to create benchmarks for deficits) were taken up but instead of facilitating communities and municipalities to undertake this, the process was assigned to consultants. In this manner over 400 such surveys and follow up projects were prepared but the delivery of sanitation did not occur.

Community based organisations and alliances face the challenge that the production of a sanitation solution and working to set precedents works effectively at a settlement and city scale. However once the process seeks to take a quantum leap to become nationally embedded it gets appropriated in ways that excludes the community champions that drive it.







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What might slum dwellers want from the SDGs?


Jockin Arputham has been fighting for the rights of slum dwellers for nearly 50 years. This blog is drawn from an interview by IIED’s David Satterthwaite ahead of World Habitat Day about what the Sustainable Development Goals could mean for slum dwellers.

Jockin Arputham founded the first national slum dweller federation in India in 1976 and went on to ally this with Mahila Milan, the Indian federation of women slum and pavement dweller savers. He has spent over 20 years encouraging and supporting slum and shack dwellers federations in many other countries – and he is President of Slum/Shack Dwellers International.

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Making the SDGs action oriented

The SDGs promise so much but they are not action oriented. Many countries do not have the  capacity to act.  We see dreams of a slum-free world or a slum-free country or slum-free cities.  But that is an ideal that needs strong political will, a strong and stable economy, and a conducive environment for the community. In Europe you might expect UN promises that everyone has a decent home to be met – but is this realistic for India?

Ambitions must be achievable

My ambition for the SDGs is limited to what we can do – what is meaningful, useful and sustainable – and implementable.  So our goal is not slum-free cities but slum-friendly cities.  Not a slum-free India but a slum-friendly India.



What does slum-friendly mean?  That the SDG promises like clean water and good sanitation for all, land tenure for people, incremental housing and basic employment are met for all slum dwellers. If these five mandates are accepted, how can we set standards and measure what is or is not happening in each city?  If there is also a mandate for people to participate, and take part, then set dates by which to achieve each of these. Even to achieve the more modest goals for slum-friendly cities means that governments have to do three times what they are doing now

Will action on the SDGs be any better than the Millennium Development Goals?  So much high talk of all the goals in last 15 years but where are we in the goals and in their measurement?  Are we setting unattainable goals with the SDGs?

We have seen government commitments made at Habitat I (the first UN Conference on Human Settlements) in Vancouver in 1976; then at Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996. At Habitat 1, there were commitments and targets for 1990 and these were not met.  There have been very few tangible achievements.  I was invited to go to speak at Habitat I in 1976 but the government was bulldozing the settlement where I lived, so I stayed in Mumbai where I had fought this threat for 10 years.

Habitat III is approaching (in 2016). Will this bring more unrealistic commitments? Or will it truly be a “new urban agenda” with a clear strategy for achieving the goals with new measures? New locally-generated metrics that everyone can follow.  Everyone’s participation including slum dwellers. All the UN documents and processes claim they have people’s participation but usually this is just a grand talk show.

Looking back – what was the world’s urban population at the time of Habitat 1? Just 1.6 billion people.  At Habitat II there were 2.6 billion.  And now 4 billion.

We have seen the growth of NGOs and big donors and their budgets but for slum dwellers, where has all this money gone?  NGOs and big donors are sharing a platform in the name of the poor and the poor are left out.  Local governments and slum dweller organisations are the ones working on achieving the goals but these are usually left out of these new platforms.

Communuty Meeting with Jockin 2

No forced evictions

And the threat of eviction for slum dwellers still remains.  After Habitat I, we had many sister city programmes – beautiful red wine talk – but this did not deliver land tenure. There should be a commitment at Habitat III – no forced evictions. No evictions without relocations that are acceptable to those who are relocated.  After 40 years we still have not cracked this. Now the pressures of forced eviction will grow as cities invest more in infrastructure.

The cost of decent relocation is peanuts compared to infrastructure budgets. It should be part of the cost of all projects that require relocation. But this needs political will and administrative skill to work with the people and design with the communities. The huge costs of forced evictions are not counted – for the residents, the lost homes, possessions, assets, livelihoods, access to schools….

Where people are moved, we need a package of meaningful rehousing through which the quality of life of the people moved also improves.

Jockin visiting Mathare Slum_1

What new urban agenda?

Now, with Habitat III, either you close the dialogue that has produced so little or you come forward with what we can realistically achieve in the next 15 years and set up a system of measurement that involves and is accountable to slum dwellers.  From this, we learn about what works and from our mistakes.

We need to learn how to find solutions for renters too; so often, relocation programmes only benefit those who ‘own’ their home and can prove they have lived there for many years.

Slum dwellers must become a central part of slum friendly cities especially the women savings groups who are the foundation of the slum dweller federations around the world. But how? We need community participation with a strong focus on women. Full involvement of women in developing slum friendly cities gives a clear change of life for millions of people.  As the women say, I work with my sisters, my federation, my family. Women’s savings groups can manage money and this is a big change. It helps them learn to budget, and they bring their knowledge of the local situation. Then as they join together they work at city scale and interact with city government and city politicians

For each of the SDGs, you need to connect them to the ground.  Create a mechanism to achieve each target.  You do not set up targets without setting out system of delivery – and this system has to involve community groups and local governments. And with progress monitored locally and openly – so these are accountable for all.

Jockin Arputham was regarded for decades in India as a public enemy as he fought against evictions (and imprisoned dozens of times). Latterly his incredible contribution to how to address slums (and work with their inhabitants) has been recognised in India where he was awarded the Padma Shri award and internationally.

David Satterthwaite is a Senior Fellow in IIED’s Human Settlements Group.

The Other Half

**This article originally appeared in The Hindu, Sunday Magazine on 4 January 2015.**

By Kalparna Sharma

2014 ended on a grim note. The horror in Peshawar with the gunning down of 132 children by the Taliban left everyone, not just Pakistanis, shaken. So as 2015 dawns, will things change, get better, more peaceful?

On current calculations, there is little to indicate that the trend of violence, seen not just in this subcontinent, or in West Asia but around the world, is anywhere near peaking.

At times such as these, when we are filled with despair at the state of the world, and indeed even our own country, where hate-filled talk against people of other faiths and persuasions is now out in the open, I turn to individuals who face life with a courage.

So let me begin this year with the story of a woman in Mumbai. Parveen Sheikh is in her early forties. She is a member of Mahila Milan and organises women in Mumbai’s slums so that they can tackle together some of the myriad problems all of them face.

Parveen was one of eight women I met recently in an office in Dharavi. We discussed politics, problems and possibilities. Maharashtra’s Chief Minister, Devendra Phadnis, is considering setting up a special committee to deal with Mumbai’s problems to be headed by the Prime Minister. What should be the priority for a city like Mumbai, I asked.

Housing was the consensus. Affordable housing for the poor should be top priority.

Parveen’s personal experience illustrates how politics and policies deal with the daunting problem of the homeless in one of India’s wealthiest cities. While the government introduces schemes to deal with the ‘slum problem’ (as if it involved buildings, not people); for people like Parveen, the solution is often worse than the problem.

Parveen lived for decades on a pavement in Sewri, in the north-eastern part of Mumbai. The threat of eviction was constant. Yet, thousands of families like hers remained where they were, making a living by earning daily wages, using public — usually dysfunctional — toilets, and awaiting with dread for the inevitable flooding followed by disease that descended on them every monsoon.

In 2008, Parveen and her neighbours were told that they were going to be resettled. The road had to be widened. The pavement was to be broken. So they would have to move. “I was dying with happiness,” says Parveen. She had never imagined that in her lifetime, she would live in a pucca house.

With tremendous excitement, the families moved to the distant suburb of Govandi. What they found was certainly pucca; a seven-storey building identical to the hundreds scattered across Mumbai as part of the slum resettlement scheme. But you stepped inside and there was nothing. The rooms that were supposed to be their new homes were just bare walls; no lights, no fans, no windows, no doors, no toilet seats, no taps. Anything that could be stolen had been removed. But they had a roof over their heads. And for that they were supposed to be grateful!

The other side of resettlement is rehabilitation. In their new neighbourhood, far from the old, Parveen and the others could find no work. Parveen’s husband was a head loader. Earlier, he could walk to the place where he got daily work. Now he would have to spend a good part of what he earned to travel before finding work. Women who worked as domestics in a mixed neighbourhood had no work in an area inhabited entirely by people like them. So this was a strange formulate for rehabilitation.

Worse still, the area where most such urban poor have been ‘dumped’, as Parveen says, is right next to Mumbai’s garbage dumping ground. According to a recent journalistic investigation, people living in this area suffer from acute health problems, particularly respiratory, and their life expectancy is a third lower than that of people in other parts of Mumbai.

But the point of telling this story is not just to paint the grim reality of being a poor person in a very rich city, but also to recount the unbreakable spirit of women like Parveen. Instead of throwing up her hands in despair, Parveen set about dealing with the problem. With the help of her women’s group and support from the federation of slum dwellers, they have fixed their building. There are doors and windows and taps. There is water. There is even a lift, something that they did not have for the first four years.

Parveen breathes fire when she speaks of the authorities and their attitude towards poor people. But she will not let that get her down. What stands out is her determination to fight the system by organising other women like her. That surely is a recipe to deal with despair.


Without Power: Mumbai’s Pavement Dwellers

With no electricity, kids study under a street light at night. 

**Cross-posted from the SPARC/MM/NSDF blog**

If you can read this, you’re not affected. For most urban dwellers electricity is available at the flick of a switch, to power our numerous appliances from our coffee machines to our computers and TVs, but not for all: many of the urban poor still have no access to electricity although the power cables are literally just two meters above their heads.

In the new Energy Justice program of SPARC we have just recently started a survey in order to better understand the needs and problems of the urban poor related to energy. Last week we have been at a settlement of pavement dwellers next to the Western Express Highway in Goregaon, Mumbai who have lived there for at least the last 10 years. Although none of the households have access to electricity, they have energy expenditures between 300 and 750 Rupees per month just to be able to illuminate their homes in the evening with candles and to charge their cell phones at the next kiosk. This costs them between 10-15 Rupees daily.

Pavement dwellers at Goregaon Western Express Highway. 

It is hard to believe, but most of Mumbai’s households have to manage with less than a dollar per day per capita, some of them even with half a dollar. It’s no wonder then that these households seek to avoid spending any money where it is not absolutely necessary and therefore cook their meals on traditional three-stone-stoves. Because most of the men work as casual laborers and are out of the house, it is the task of the women to collect the wood which lasts between 1 and 2 hours every day. Cooking with open fire or on three stones is not only time intensive but also health threatening as the smoke causes respiratory diseases. And this is not done with a cough – the Worlds Health Organization (WHO) estimates that annually more than 4 million people die because of cooking with solid fuels, of which 50% are children below the age of 5. (

We have started our new Energy Justice program in order to develop solutions jointly with the urban poor that will provide better access to modern energy and reduce costs. We will keep you updated here about the further development of this project.

Author : Vincent Moeller is working for SPARC as an advisor on Renewable Energy and Climate Change since June 2014.