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Visit to Aakar - CRY project in Mumbai

"I wept because I had no shoes. And then I saw a man with no feet."

The slum children gathered around me. One of the girls seemed about 13-14 years old. I asked her in Marathi "Do you go to school?" She said no. Thoughts crossed my mind "Maybe she is not interested. Or maybe her parents are forcing her to work instead." I was stunned by what I heard next. The girl had two kids. She was an orphan. Other grown-ups in the slums were looking after her and her kids. School was a distant luxury.

Visit to Aakar - CRY project in MumbaiThis is Jogeshwari in Mumbai. Right by the National Express Highway, over a hundred people live right on the pavement. Some live in makeshift slums, others live in the open. They are a speck of Mumbai’s increasing homeless population. According to government records, they do not exist. They have no birth certificates. They are not in the census.

Consequently they cannot get even basic government facilities like ration cards. Being off the records has also left them vulnerable to exploitation. Men show up at night asking for "girls". The municipality, and other local forces keep forcing them to move. They have no legal recourse.

Several people have died in accidents but the authorities ignore these cases. "Oh he must have been drunk." The woman who described all this had lost her husband and brother-in-law similarly. She talked nonchalantly through all this, perhaps insensitized over the years.

Enter AAKAR.

AAKAR is a local organization created by Milind Arondekar, his wife, and a few other locals. This group came together to help people in need during the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992-93. The riots eventually died out, but the group was amazed at what they could achieve. They stuck together and over the last 20 years have undertaken many projects, sponsored by the Tata group. They caught the attention of CRY in 2011. CRY has sponsored them since then. AAKAR does the grassroots work, but CRY sets goals, provides guidance and material, and provides cover at higher altitudes e.g. enacting laws as needed.

Lipika (Sr Manager CRY) and Anand (CRY Project liaison for Aakar) accompanied me on a visit to the Aakar office and the project area.

One of AAKAR's goals was to get the slum children in Jogeshwari to school. There were many hurdles. First was the situation described above. Talking about school would be hopeless given the ground realities. So Milind and his crew had to innovate. They used a carrot-and-stick approach and made a deal – that Aakar would arrange for Rs 400 per child per month if and only if the slum-dwellers send their kids to school.

Aakar's strategy to get them Rs 400 per child per month was to get them ration cards, which guarantees about that much in groceries. But how do you get ration cards for somebody who does not have an identity in any government records? Milind remembered that the Andhra Pradesh government had introduced a scheme in Hyderabad to legalize homeless people. He approached the Maharashtra state food minister, and challenged him to match what the AP government did. The food minister came through on this.

Visit to Aakar - CRY project in MumbaiSo finally all the pieces came together. The slum children started going to the local school. But new problems came up later. The local water supply was only available at 1pm, bang in the middle of school time. The slum dwellers expected the kids to go fetch the water at that time. So the children started dropping out of school. Aakar threatened to revoke their ration cards, and struck a deal with the school principal to send the kids home for half an hour around 1pm.

Another problem that came up was that all the slum dwellers would return to their villages during October to celebrate their local festival. That means all the children would miss their semester exams. Again, Aakar had to negotiate with the school principal to let the children take exams after they returned.

Schooling is just one part of what Aakar does. The Aakar team is the only friend the slum dwellers have given the authorities' apathy. Aakar stands up for them and provides help if there is a medical emergency. As we talked to the slum dwellers, they had nothing but praise and gratitude for the Aakar team.

Aakar teamAbove is a picture of the Aakar team. Milind is the person in white shirt, third from right.

As Lipika, Anand, and I toured the slums I asked the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were some humorous answers, and some touching answers. The tall girl in white dress in this picture wanted to be a doctor.

Look at the smiles on these kids despite their situation. Where there is a will there is a way.

On the rickshaw ride back, Anand described to me the other projects he oversees. His job is to provide them guidance and materials, and to audit that they are using CRY funds responsibly. He visits each project once a quarter. He spends a day with the project workers, reviewing their progress and accounts. He spends another day with the people being helped, to check if they are actually receiving the benefits that CRY is told they are getting, are the kids actually attending school, catching up with ground realities. Often there are strong vested forces coming in his way. If he is not tactful, he could endanger his own life. Some of these projects are in remote areas of Maharashtra and he stays alone in the lodge.

Anand has an MBA and could have chosen a more lucrative career. But he chose this path. He really enjoys what he is doing and the impact it has.

In my brief visit I got a small peek into the challenges CRY and its partner organizations face. Even then, I learned a lot. Being in a private sector job abroad, I had a naïve picture of what it actually takes to make a change on the ground. It is easy to focus on metrics that we use in our workplace. But the situation is completely different.

I walked off with immense admiration for both, the CRY employees and their partner organizations on the ground. Hearing some of the stories, sometimes it seems like the problem is too complex to solve. But CRY and its partners have been at it doggedly, using their creativity. And they are making a change, bit by bit.


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