Asha: Bringing hope to Delhi’s slum dwellers (Part 2)

Here’s the second part of my interview with Dr Kiran Martin, founder of Delhi’s Asha project.

 

One of Asha’s big success stories last year was persuading India’s banks to give loans to slum dwellers. How did it come about?

Being a paediatrician, my first effort was in the area of healthcare. But I realised very early on that unless and until the socio-economic status of families improves, they’re not going to be able to pay for healthcare.

As far as India’s banks were concerned, there was no relationship between them and the slum dwellers. They had nothing to do with each other. Slum dwellers only had access to money from loan sharks – and those guys know how to extract money by muscle power. Their interest rates were 10 percent a month: 120% per annum! Slum dwellers took loans from them only for emergencies; not to improve their lives. It would be cases such as there being an illness in the family, for which you immediately need money for hospital expenses. Or your daughter’s getting married; in India, parents have to spend a lot on a girl’s wedding.

I had the good pleasure of inviting India’s finance minister to Asha in 2007. He was amazed to find that not a single slum dweller had a bank account. He asked me how come there was such a big gap, and I said that was because banks are so far removed from the lives of slum dwellers. Not physically, because geographically they were only a few yards away from a lot of the slums. But they had nothing to do with each other. Slum dwellers wouldn’t ever enter banks.

We said to the finance minister, ‘Look – these slum dwellers have been trained by Asha. They’re honourable people. So many years of relationship exist, and what we should do is give them direct access to banks. Get rid of all the middlemen in between, and let them enjoy the banking services that you and I enjoy.’  We then tailored a scheme for provision of credit and other banking services to the urban poor. The rates of interest were a little lower because they were so poor. We did a pilot and  had a 99% repayment rate – much higher than the normal average, which is 93%. So many loans go bad. People don’t give money because they think that the banks will stop bothering them after some time. And big companies are the biggest defaulters! If there’s a recession in the market, they just say, ‘my company’s doing really badly. We have no money.’

The banks were earning money just by people opening accounts, and the slum dwellers paid back so well and so honourably. It was a commercial proposition for banks. The scheme became so popular that it then got expanded to the whole city. There were big announcements made nationally that banks would be willing to lend to the urban poor through mechanisms that would ensure that these people would return the money back.

What sort of things have these loans financed?

Some very, very interesting businesses. Expansion of existing business too. For example, if you were working for a courier company, you’d decide you wanted your own goods carrier and run your own courier business instead of working for someone else. That suddenly enhanced the that person’s income by seven or eight times, because he was no longer working for a company.

There were people who expanded barbershops; people who have grocery stores, and people who had home improvement loans; people whom I’d initially helped to get land to build their own houses.

And of course, Asha’s big success story last year was seeing over 100 slum kids going to university…

Kiran having a chat with some children from on eof the slums

It’s just amazing, because up until two years ago we never even thought something like this would even be possible.

We worked very hard with these kids. We taught them how to tackle A Level exams; how to complete their papers on time; we gave them lots of extra books and resources… we motivated them a lot. We told them, ‘You might be the very first child going to university from your whole slum. Just think about it – if you got there, you would really have a passport out of poverty and become something in life. It would be a dream fulfilled in your lifetime; it would be so amazing.’ All of this motivation meant that these kids then faced the A Level exams with a lot more confidence. When we looked at the results, we saw that they were good enough for them to find places at Delhi University – and it’s not easy to find a place in Delhi University; it’s very competitive!

We faced lots of obstacles. Parents weren’t willing; they thought it would be very expensive, and I had to do a lot of fund raising to ensure that we could pay for their college tuition, their clothes and everything else they’d need in order to be able to live life in college. It was a very big challenge.

Not only was it a celebration for this group, but the celebration of those tall ivory towers having fallen. And for so many doors of opportunity having been opened for these children and many many hundreds and thousands of children to follow. Now there’s nothing stopping the youngsters. There’s a very big knowledge pool in the slums now, that exists to guide and mentor the kids who are following.

An Asha staff member teaches basic hygiene to children

Asha’s very big on women being empowered. Why is that important?

In India, it’s basically a male-dominated society. It’s a feudal, patriarchal society. And that is very old Indian tradition, coming down through hundreds and hundreds of years.

You find that same expression in a slum, where the woman has no voice of any sort. They’re always in trouble – right from even before they’re born. Abortions are very common so the sex ratio is skewed; in Delhi you have 875 girls to 1,000 boys because the moment they find out that it’s a girl, they get the foetus aborted. If they escape that, then there’s the possibility of female infanticide. And then later on in life you find that girls are always given worse treatment than boys.

A slum dweller trained by Asha gives first aid to another slum dweller.

Whatever it was, it seemed to be the woman doing all this work and suffering the most. And so we felt it was very important to help the women to understand that they could be a force to be reckoned with if we began to train them. We formed these women’s groups in all the slums. It was very hard at first, because they were all so inhibited – so shy, lacking in confidence. But with the passage of time, we trained them; we helped them to see a little bit of success that got them excited, and they understood the power of their unity, and what they could achieve.

By and by, they began to lobby politicians. They realised that the politicians were responding, and they started getting clean water; they started getting drains; they started getting electricity (legally); they started getting roads paved, toilets constructed… and they were just thrilled! They realised they had so much power. The  local politicians had to listen to them, because with all this knowledge and power they had, the politicians would not be welcome in the slums if they didn’t respond.

Where does does Asha get its financial support from?

As far as money goes, most of ours comes from outside India. That’s a choice we’ve made because we want to be watchdogs. We don’t want to become a stooge or an arm of the Government; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to tell them what they’re doing wrong. Neither would we be able to hold them accountable, nor would we be able to create democratic structures in a slum, or gently challenge the authorities if slum dwellers were being exploited.

In terms of the breakdown, the UK is our biggest funder. Then we have the Netherlands; we also have Ireland, the USA… in all these countries and others, we have generous supporters who believe in what we do, who share our vision, who stand in solidarity with us, support us and help us in our work.

You mentioned your faith earlier on. What part does it play in all this?

Well, it’s the reason why I do what I do. I feel that as a Christian, my faith drives me to want to help people who live in so much poverty. And in fact, because I come from a Hindu background, it would make no sense for me to be a disciple of Christ and then completely have a dichotomous life where what I did with my life had nothing to do with my faith.

I do feel very strongly that the Bible has a lot to say on social justice. It has a lot to say about systemic poverty and how we as Christians should be at the forefront of social change. That is what I feel I’ve been called to do, and I try to do it to the best of my ability.

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