“I had always thought that they (residents of slums) are unhygienic, messy and unaware of ways to keep their surrounding clean but little did I know the other side. They are compelled to live in such conditions” wrote the 20-year-old who had interned with us.
During May 2019, when Mumbai was boiling like a furnace we at Civis were busy running around in the 102 constituency of H West Ward, Bandra, Mumbai. As part of the work we were doing on urban governance with the local Municipal Corporator, we had to interview and collect feedback from around 2000 slum residents regarding the issues faced by them, ranging from improper waste collection to poorly maintained public toilets. The project was aimed at enabling data-driven decision-making models for government authorities, thereby strengthening urban local governance. Now, we could have walked into any typical survey agencies and had the survey conducted. But we didn’t want the whole exercise to be a mere data collection drive.
We wanted the process to go beyond the mundane data collection process and instead capture the emotions of people too. We knew that the problems about which we were to ask them have been around for ages and to depict the depths would need not just data, but substantial anecdotal evidence backing it up. On the other hand, if the problems are age-old, and most of the residents are frustrated, who can be deployed into the gullies of these slums that the residents would not mind, opening up to, without the situation being hostile? Had we reached an impasse?
St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai along with its awe-inspiring Indo-Gothic architecture and history lays rich importance on social responsibility of the students. So we reached out to the Social Service League of the institution, not just for the diligence they laid on social responsibility but also for the fact that entrusting students with the task of interacting with slum residents would provide an introduction to them on how people in the cheapest residential locality of one of the most densely populated cities on Earth lived.
What we saw for the next 10 days were enthusiastic millennials, meandering through the small lanes in Bandra recording the responses of agitated, frustrated, poker-faced, angry and smiling slum residents. Towards the end of the assignment when we spoke to our interns they shared some interesting thought-provoking experiences. We are sharing two of the learnings which we felt were the most important:
“This section of society has been living here for years of which I only had theoretical knowledge about, but through this internship, I had an opportunity to meet these people practically and know more about them, seeing them so closely was a unique experience.” wrote a 18-year-old Botany-Zoology student.
Towards the end of our assignment, we visited one slum wherein due to the foul smell we couldn’t continue beyond 45 minutes. When we were walking out of the slums the students were wondering what would have happened to them if they were exposed to the smell for a few more hours? What would be the diseases they would have faced? I asked them have you wondered how there are people living in these areas 24 hours a day! We discussed with one of our resource persons to realize that there is a possible human waste or chemical waste dumping ground nearby which is leading to such a situation.
Now, I can write books about waste pollution and its harmful effects. But this one hour that they have experienced in their lives will remain with them every time they watch, read or see a news report or article or a rally related to citizens fighting against pollution. Teaching books as thick as burgers or merely putting Environmental Studies as a mandatory subject for students to study during coursework at college is a myopic way to solve problems. This will not bring about change beyond the surface level.
Investing in experiences is of extreme importance. Teaching them about the harmful effects of plastic won’t do much good but if they have volunteered for a beach cleaning drive then the next time they see someone littering in a beach they raise their voices. That is how you create an army for the future. You just cannot in the name of “behaviour change” merely increase the quantum of literature in the textbooks and sit back to watch behavioural change. It doesn’t work that way!
“I am sure that all the skills I have learnt will be useful in my life, help me in my future to become a better person and work for society.” wrote a 20-year-old IT student.
Parents, teachers, or even for that matter our seniors never really dared us to go beyond our disciplines. Our educational system also puts us in specified verticals right from the day we take admission in a college and as a result of this we end up functioning only in those silos creating solutions that lack a holistic approach to the problems. If we are tackling issues of rural poverty knowledge about economics or public policy making alone cannot solve the nexus of the diverse factors affecting it at the base. Or if we are trying to solve the problem of pollution in the urban spaces, expertise in pollution or industrial effluents or waste treatment or transportation alone won’t solve the issue.
All these age-old problems are affected by multifarious factors juxtaposed in complex orders. They cannot be solved by a genie that has knowledge in technology or sociology alone. Trouble-shooters will need domain expertise, inter-disciplinary knowledge, and possess transferable skills in both academic and non-academic fields. It is the convergence of all these that helps us at arriving at models that can attack a problem from a 360o perspective.
One of the interns working with us was doing their degree in Computer Science. On any other day, a typical question to them would be, what is a computer grad doing in the slums? We didn’t bother to ask them this; neither did anyone ask Steve Jobs anything when he was attending calligraphy classes.
Interestingly, they already had an experience of teaching the slum kids and appeared concerned with the plight of slum dwellers. They were interested in finding a long term solution to these problems. We had long discussions about the models of development even after the completion of the assignment. They even volunteered to work at the back end of our website for this assignment. When we were going through their report we saw a mention of this experience hopefully helping them to become a better person and work for the betterment of the society.
One of the interns mentioned about how they dealt with the language issues they faced. This is what interdisciplinary education does to us. It takes an individual from Calligraphy to Macintosh. Leonardo Da Vinci had the guts and self-consciousness to explore drawing, mathematics, music, literature, anatomy, botany and history all by himself. Shouldn’t we bring in structural reforms in our educational system so that our future generations can explore their interests in multidisciplinary terms, thereby creating better solutions for the complex societal problems we have today?
For our societies to change, the underprivileged to develop and behavioural changes to be initiated, we need to invest in the youth. It is mostly during this confused phase of theirs with wobbling beliefs and swinging ideologies that they start making choices. And it is of paramount importance and our duty that these choices they make should be based on experiences and not just on the news fed to them or what their parents advise on. This can result in three major outcomes:
1) Opening up of their minds and perception about social work and the underprivileged. The outcome of this could vary from them starting to take part in rallies to be actively involved in resident welfare association meetings in their locality thereby initiating a sense of citizenship within them.
2) It could give students rich experiences at the grassroots which will bring in behavioural changes. The outcome of this could vary from them starting to interact more with the underprivileged to volunteering in the weekends when they start working.
3) Students will be able to effortlessly moving in between different disciplines in their career in search of solutions for complex age-old problems. Add to this the possession of transferable skills like communication; students, when they start their professional journey, will be better equipped and confident to try out their hands in various bowls.
We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.
Civis, works towards ensuring participatory policy formation and greater accountability at all levels of Government. With the support of D-Prize, and to enable other Corporators, citizens and non-profits to gather similar feedback, Civis has created pre-formatted Excel sheets in English and Hindi that can be used as tool kits. Read more about Civis’ work here.