Education for Children
The people living in the bastis wanted their children to go to school but even a school teacher was a source of fear for them and they were often shunned away from the school premises. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that from seven bastis each with 300-700 families each, only 17-20 children were attending school. The school authorities were not willing to take these children citing irregular attendance and high drop out rates as their reasons. After going to the higher authorities, when 500 children got admission, the main task was to keep them in school.
The children were first generation school goers with no support system at home to help them cope with the school work. Private tutions were of course not affordable. So a system of remedial education was started in which volunteers including housewives from the middle class colonies of Vikaspuri held classes for the basti children every afternoon. Soon drop outs were reduced to almost nil. Since the number of children going to school had increased manifold, the next demand was to improve and increase the infrastructure— build more classrooms and more schools, appoint more teachers, and provide toilets and drinking water. These efforts successfully brought down the teacher student ratio from 1:88 to 1:40.
A parents forum was started and the PTA that had been existing only for namesake was empowered. Despite the scepticism of the school authorities parents’ involvement was sought and encouraged. This enabled the parents to understand what was going on and hence hold the school accountable, push for improvements and discuss their concerns directly with the school authorities rather than be dependent on local politicians or social workers. Later this officially became the School Nighrani Committee (School Monitoring Committee) when in 1999, a five women committee was formed for each school with the SCERT issuing ID cards for the committee members. This coupled with SCERT’s decision that no child will be denied admission resulted in a record of 1,20,000 children being admitted to schools from slums all over Delhi.
Mahila Ekta Kosh
The Mahila Ekta Kosh was a method of saving in which each woman put in Rs. 10/week so that in times of need, they could withdraw money at a low, affordable rate of interest. The whole procedure was made rigorous with each woman being given a passbook with all the credits and debits duly updated at the time of each transaction. The minutes of the meeting were recorded by one of the more educated women in the group. In 10-12 years the Mahila Ekta Kosh collected Rupees 52 lakhs with 35 to 40 lakhs being in circulation as loans. As only a small percentage was used for meeting administrative costs, a person could earn 12 to 15 percent interest on their deposit. This system ensures that nobody in the basti took a loan from the highly exploitative moneylenders.
Having been a part of extremely feudal set ups, for most women this was the first time when they got an opportunity to come out of their houses and participate in such an endeavour. The meetings gave a space for the women to discuss other issues and become part of a collective process. Slowly the realization dawned that individually each may be weak, but coming together gave them strength, hitherto unimagined. Earlier women were not usually allowed by their families to participate in the committee meetings. Things changed with the success of the Mahila Ekta Kosh. When men needed a loan, the women offered it to them at a much cheaper rate of interest than was available elsewhere. This tremendously increased the respect for women in the eyes of the men, and slowly womens’ voices bagan to be heard in the larger meetings.
In December 2006, 60 young men and women of DSS undertook a 10 day cycle yatra during which they visited 107 slums in all the nine districts of Delhi. The objective was to get an idea as to what people were thinking about the demolition drives and to understand why no one was protesting. Discussions showed that most people had been misinformed by their local MLA who had assured them that their homes are safe, and if by chance they are demolished, they are guaranteed to get a plot as compensation. The sangathan members shared the information that in most cases only 30% of the families ended up getting plots and that too somewhere outside the city, far from their sources of livelihood. They encouraged people to visit some resettlement colonies, find out from those who have suffered, and see for themselves the horrendous living conditions. The rally was highly successful in connecting with people and setting up a platform for sharing information and having discussions. It played a major role in the expansion of DSS from a sangathan doing intensive work in one area to one having a city wide presence with the support and trust of tens of thousands of people.
Struggle for plots in Bhawana
The families whose homes were demolished in Vikaspuri were to be compensated by being allotted plots in Bhawana, a village situated well outside Delhi. However, in reality, what happened was that they were taken in trucks and dumped on the standing wheat crops there, and for 9 months there was no allotment of plots. Many people were forced to return to their villages. In some families, the women and children went to the village, while the men took a room for rent near their place of work. There was no water or toilets there. The education of children and young people came to an abrupt end because there were no proper schools.
Finally, DSS organised the people and they decided to go on indefinite strike in front of the DDA office. In March 2007, they sat on strike for 21 days—spending their own money to commute between Bhawana and DDA office, women holding fort while men went to work during the day, people from other bastis lending support by offering food and sitting on dharna along with them. The officials called the police, but they refused to act saying that it was a completely peaceful protest. On the 22nd day, DDA relented. In May 2007, one year after the demolition, 600 families were allotted plots.