In April last year, a group of ten of us spent a week in Zakhira, a slum area on the outskirts of Delhi.
Kiran Martin is a paediatrician by profession and founder of Asha, an Indian charity dedicated to improving the quality of life of Delhi’s slum dwellers. Asha has worked tirelessly on behalf of slum residents – primarily in the areas of healthcare, women’s rights, and children’s education. Zakhira is just one of the many slum areas the charity operates in.
2009 was quite an eventful year for Asha. For a start, it celebrated its 21st birthday. 200 young people from the slums it operates in started their first year in University – the first time in India’s history that slum residents have entered higher education in such large numbers. In September, Australia’s deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited Ekta Vihar, another of the slums Asha operates in.
Around the time of my visit (and in the midst of the credit crunch), India’s major banks started giving loans to slum dwellers after Asha campaigned on their behalf. Several slum dwellers have since been given loans to expand businesses they started with Asha’s help.
During our brief spell in Zakhira, we helped decorate the building Asha had turned into a community centre for the area. The only thing I didn’t get to do was interview Kiran properly (we never managed to get some free time together, busy woman that she is). I did get to do an in-depth interview with her later in the year, when she made a brief visit to London. We talked about the history of Asha, what motivates and inspires her, and shared a few success stories from the slums of Delhi.
Asha’s been going just over 20 years. How did it start?
I qualified from the University of Delhi as a paediatrician, and in 1986 I completed my residency and had enough experience to launch out. I’d already been working in hospitals for a while.
You have slums in every big city in India. You see them all over the place. I come from a middle-income family, and I’d see them all over Delhi. But you take them in your stride; nobody from a middle-class family ever sets foot in one. I certainly hadn’t! But the hospital I worked in was a public hospital, and so there were poor patients coming in all the time. I suspected that they came from the slums.
I was driven by a very very strong spiritual desire to reach out to these communities and use my services and skills, my gifts and talents for people who really needed me. Most of my batch mates – 180 of them – were either in private practice or had left for the UK, the US or the Middle East to make lots of money. I wanted to see what it was like in the slums. In fact, I used to go and volunteer there while I was a student. My desire kept getting firmed up with the passage of time.
What were your early slum experiences like?
Well, it was a shock! First of all, it was so dirty, so filthy. It was unimaginable – as I said, I’d never been in one! There were mountains of garbage. You couldn’t even see beyond them. There was slush everywhere; the roads were so dirty – in fact, there were no roads, just muddy paths!
People had these shallow hand pumps that they’d dug – 40 or 50 feet into the ground – because there was no clean water. This particular slum had 7,000 people living in it. The water was brown and contaminated with sewage – in fact, there was a cholera epidemic. Children were getting cholera; people were getting all kinds of gastro-intestinal diseases and diarrhoea, and they were dying of dehydration. I used to have to jump the fence at the back, just because I couldn’t get access through the main entrance!
Back then, I didn’t know you had slum lords. These slum lords are self-styled leaders, because there’s no democratic institution in a slum; no organised community or a cohesive body that gets together to discuss development issues or solve poverty problems; there’s nothing. They are the only leaders there. They’re very, very powerful; they are basically linked with the powerful political parties. In fact, they are grassroots level politicians and it’s their job to protect their party’s interests; to ensure that during election time all the slum dwellers are herded to the polling booths to vote in favour of whatever party the slum lord represents.
The slum lords also exploit slum dwellers for every little thing. So the average slum person was thrilled that I was there. I had this tiny little space where I would see patients; it was all out in the open. I didn’t even have a building! I would see 200-300 patients. But the slum lords felt very threatened by my presence. I had no axe to grind; I didn’t want anything from the slum dwellers. I wasn’t a politician; I wasn’t there for votes; I was just there genuinely to help. And so people started forgetting about the slum lords and started coming to me instead. My being there was a direct threat to the slum lord’s popularity – to his existence, even. And so I faced a lot of opposition from them.
So now – have you won the slum lords over, or have they learnt to live with you?
I realised quite early on that unless you have them on your side, slum development is not going to be possible. If you just want to do something cosmetic, it’s different. If you want to have a little clinic and just be this good doctor who sits there very day and examines 100 or 200 patients and then go home at the end of the day, that’s a different story. But if you really want to tackle the systemic causes of poverty; if you wasn’t to tackle poverty by going to the roots of it; if you want to work with politicians and with Government; if you want to address areas such as women’s rights, or water and sanitation, or slum housing, or any other radical areas, you cannot do it without the slum lords’ cooperation. They’ll just throw you out! So it was really necessary for me to have good relationships with them. I realised that early on.
My philosophy has always been that I must never reject a person. This is what the Bible has taught me; this is what my faith has taught me. I can reject their deeds, but I cannot reject them. They’ve all been created in God’s image, and I believe that they’re a product of their past circumstances and their past life. And therefore, whatever they are today is because of that. And therefore I have always had the approach that even if I confront them or challenge them for something wrong that they’re doing, it must be in the context of a relationship that exists. Because if there’s no relationship, then their defences will go up. And then they’re never going to listen to you.
And so I thought, first things first. First thing is acceptance; they must realise that I’m not here to reject them or pass judgement on their actions. So I’d eat, drink, have tea with them, talk to them, sit down with them, befriend them… whenever meetings were held for the benefit of the community I would invite them over.
Gradually I began to win over many of these slum lords and we became good friends. They began to realise that I wasn’t really directly a threat to them, and I was willing to work alongside them. 21 years down the line I have many, many friends among the slum lords… and a lot of them have actually lost their power completely!
The reason for that is that the women have been empowered by my work. Just with the passage of time, I don’t think the slum lords realised what was happening. But the erosion of their powers has happened because of the empowerment of the women. The balance has tilted in the other direction. Nowadays, the slum lord is really no longer that much of a necessity because the people themselves are so empowered. He’s basically out of business!
How many slum areas in Delhi does Asha operate in?
We work in 50 slums. There are roughly 3.5 million slum dwellers in the city, and we work with about 350,000 – 10% of Delhi’s slum population. The slums we work in are scattered all over the city.