Slum Does Not Equal Homeless

 by Loren Breen


DukeEngage-Ahmedabad 2017

After 15 years in the United States education system, I thought I had at least a general understanding of life in other countries. I still remember sitting in my AP Human Geography class during freshman year of high school; I was learning so much about the way people live. Of course, we discussed India in depth in regards to migration, urbanization, population growth rate, health care, etc. I foolishly assumed that my foundational knowledge of urban slums in India was decent since my exposure went beyond the depictions in Slum Dog Millionaire.

Even after being in Ahmedabad for just over a week, I can wholeheartedly say I was totally wrong. I perceived slums as a dangerous place to live and pitied these people because I assumed they would rather live anywhere else; I viewed slum dwellers as destitute and homeless. I thought I was coming to Ahmedabad to do charity work. Through my Western, American, and privileged lens, I thought slum dwellers needed welfare because they couldn’t support themselves. I am so grateful the staff at Saath Charitable Trust took the time to educate me and introduce me to their community partners, the inspiring people that reside in slum pockets of Ahmedabad.

Slum does not equal homeless. Anywhere from 40-60% of Ahmedabad’s population lives in a slum community at a given time. The people in the slums pay rent for their homes, have jobs, and want to improve their communities. Mr. Rajendra Joshi, the founder of Saath, spoke to all the DukeEngage India-Ahmedabad program on Friday, June 23rd, and this was a key point he addressed. Mr. Joshi said that Saath began as a youth group playing volleyball in one slum here in Ahmedabad. After volleyball, he would talk to the young people and asked them what they wanted to see changed about their communities. That’s when the Integrated Slum Development project was born. These young people said that the biggest issues their community faced was lack of infrastructure. Because slum fall into the gray area of the informal housing sector, there is no precedent on how municipal governments can provide infrastructure, or even if it was possible. When asked how Saath could help change that, these young people went out into their community, going door to door, to ask people if they would be willing to pay for a proper plumbing system. Almost unanimously the residents of the slum agreed that plumbing was necessary and they were not only willing, but capable to contribute financially.

Saath helped sponsor a pilot program for low cost plumbing in this slum pocket. It would cost 6,000 Rupees ($93) for each household to receive running water and plumbing. Saath facilitated an agreement between the slum community, the municipal government, and a corporate donor so that the cost would be divided equally amongst the three. Each household would pay 2,000 Rupees ($31) and the other 4,000 Rupees would come from the municipal government and local corporate donor. Because of this community effort, Saath assisted in getting approximately 700 households and 49 slum pockets the infrastructure they needed.

If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he will only eat for a lifetime if he lives near a body of water with a lot of fish and can afford the market rate of fishing poles and bait. If you ask a young person what they would like to change in their community, and offer guidance, they will make it happen.

Saath didn’t stop there, they continued this approach of community needs based assessments to facilitate affordable electrical connections in over 5,000 households. After the initial 1,200 home pilot, there was 100% compliance with paying the monthly bill and the electrical company permanently lowered the initial connection cost to 5,000 Rupees from the original 10,000 Rupees. Community contribution has been a part of Saath’s model from the beginning. The financial contribution empowers the slum dwellers to improve their community because they finally gain a sense of ownership and accountability.

Today Saath has grown into a full-fledged NGO that employs 300 people and continues to empower the entire community of Ahmedabad. When I asked Mr. Joshi what he thinks is the best approach to an eventual goal of eliminating slum pockets in Ahmedabad his opinion was insightful and unique; he said he does not agree with the philosophy that we should attempt to shift all of the people out of the slums at once and raze this communities. He believes that the most sustainable approach is to slowly develop the slums and help these communities gain access to the resources from which they have been systematically excluded. Instead of trickle down, Saath subscribes to the bottom up mentality with an emphasis on market-based strategies for addressing the needs of urban and rural populations.

Saath has been working on this inclusive development approach since 1989; 27 years later with over 40 active and completed projects, Saath aids in almost all aspects of community development. Everything this organization does stems from its original mission, from those chats after volleyball games: community needs assessments. Saath is the Hindi term for together, society, and friendship.

Slum does not equal homeless. Slum does not equal people looking for a loop-hole and a way out of civic contribution. Slum does not equal a problem that needs solving. Slum equals a step in the right direction towards ending homelessness. Slum equals a motivated community that is happy and thankful for what they have. Slum equals parents migrating for work so they can save for their child’s education. Slum equals affordable housing for rural farmers and their families with dreams of living in the urban community. Slum equals the happiest and most grateful children I have had the honor of meeting.


Charitable Trust

by Gina Kovalik

As of today, we are a whopping 2 weeks in and already 1/3 through our shortened program. Through the ups and downs of attaining our visas, I feel as if I have just now accepted the reality that we are in Ahmedabad, India.

With this realization of our location, I have also begun to reflect upon our work so far with our partner organization. Although I had poured through their website when I was deciding on the program and after I was accepted, I had no idea the truly thoughtful nature in which SAATH works to develop slum communities. I have come to the conclusion that much of the organization’s function is in its name: SAATH Charitable Trust.

The “SAATH charitable” part of the name is fairly self-explanatory. As an NGO, they seek to give to the community without any monetary incentive. The “trust” part of their title is more intriguing. Although the term “trust” is used in more of a legal sense to describe the type of NGO we are working at, I am convinced that it also perfectly describes their attitude toward their work. The organization is centered around a mutual trust between the organization and the community, and that has clearly lead to the great success since their founding in 1989.

From the very beginning, the organization was founded out of the needs of the community. During one of our speaker events with SAATH founder Rajendra Joshi, he claimed that for the first few months, all he did for his organization was play volleyball. Through playing this game and building relationships with local slum residents, the first visionaries of SAATH began to diagnose the concerns and thoughts of the youth, around which they designed their organization. Hand in hand with this original youth group, SAATH facilitated a way for those living in the slums to connect with both government and corporate donors to improve sanitation, which was a major concern at that time.

This system of mutual trust has continued until today. SAATH listens to the community, regularly going from door to door to hear thoughts and concerns of those living in the slums. By doing so, SAATH shows a respect for the humanity of such marginalized members of society. And in return, community members become willing to accept SAATH’s help in job skills, financial training, or community networking.

One of the biggest questions I had coming into my specific DukeEngage project was on how I would be empowering women in a society that maintains what we consider traditional, patriarchal values. Working against what was common culture did not seem like a sustainable way to help a community. Instead, I can see now how SAATH’s network of trust enables community members to understand the importance of independence for all women. Instead of undermining values, SAATH field officers converse with families, sharing stories of women who were able to better provide for their families thanks to job and life skills training.

As such, I found during my one lesson so far that much of the hard work of my teaching here has been done for me. The women and girls that come into the livelihood centers are self-motivated and ready to improve their own situations as they have the support of their families. They are the ones improving their own economic and social situation. My role is simply to help facilitate that process.

SAATH’s method has given me a new outlook on service. To make a real difference, NGOs cannot come into a community offering services that at a glance seem helpful. To create a sustainable difference takes months of community cooperation. But through honest conversations and perhaps a cup of masala chai, a trust is built that can potentially lead to a better quality of life for those served.

Laughter Has No Language

by Loren Breen

About halfway through our program, we were invited to the Child Friendly Spaces teacher training. Not wanting to appear ungrateful for the invitation, I accepted, but I was thinking in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to get much out of the session. One, I am not a teacher so I would be so behind and this training would be beyond my skill set. Two, this training was being lead in Guajarati so anything that I might have benefited from was bound to go over my head. To my surprise, I left teaching feeling full of joy and with a renewed optimism to pour myself into my work.

Language is a large barrier in India because each state has its own unique language or dialect. Even though we spend an hour and a half every morning learning Hindi, communication is new territory every day. I never know if I am going to encounter someone that speaks English or Hindi because there is just as high of a chance that they only speak Gujuarti, a rural dialect, or another language from a different state. In a place like Ahmedabad where over 60% of the population are migratory workers, there is a good chance that you won’t even be able to tell your cab driver you only speak English in a language he will understand.

When I walked into this teacher training, any barrier imposed by language melted away. I received a warm welcome consisting of waves from the teacher I had the pleasuring of meeting prior and introductions from those I was just meeting. Before I knew it, we were all sitting in a circle on the ground drinking chai and eating dal vada. This “training” felt more like a group of old friend gathering together with a common goal.

After the customary chai break, we jumped into learning different interactive songs, dances, and stories that can be used to teach everything from counting to morals. All fifteen teachers and four coordinators were actively participating during this opportunity to share ideas. We went around the circle and almost every woman took a turn to lead their favorite creative movement and interactive activities to do in their classroom. Jay, Rebecca, and I were even asked to teach “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” to all the teachers because we had taught the song to some students the week prior.

On top of the inclusive atmosphere and eagerness to learn, my favorite part of this training was that it was full of laughter! These teachers were all such a joyful group; no one was embarrassed to dance like a fool and sing at the top of their lungs. They also were not afraid to laugh at themselves. One of the fables was about a lion, and when it was time to make a lion sound the teacher turned to Gopal bhai. As a coordinator for CFS and the organizer of this training, I anticipated Gopal bhai to observe and take notes; to my surprise Gopal bhai let out the most theatrical lion’s roar including teeth baring and all. As if rehearsed, the women broke out into a chorus of laughter that floated through the room and right out the open windows. This joy was a refreshing juxtaposition to the crowded labor colony in which we were standing. Everytime we learned a song, someone would teach a silly dance that would send giggles rippling through the group. While I didn’t always get the joke because of the “language barrier”, laughter has no language, and I found myself unreservedly laughing right along with them.

In the Clamor and the Clangor

A peacock perches on a balcony. Photo Credit: Gina Kovalik

I’m from a pretty small town. It’s usually a quiet little place – so quiet that I can hear our neighbor’s cows lowing from inside my bedroom. After I came to Duke freshman year, the noises that I heard from my dorm room were a little different. Shouts of students on the quad were punctuated with the grumble of trains running across tracks close by campus in what grew to be a comfortingly consistent pattern and the not-so-comforting beeping of garbage trucks right below my window at 8 AM on Monday mornings. Living on a college campus is very different from the sleepy city in which I grew up, but I have come to love Duke and am now familiar with the background music of both my homes.

When I told my parents that I wanted to do DukeEngage in Ahmedabad, India, one of the first things they did was to look up the size of the city to try and visualize what exactly an urban area in one of the most highly populated countries in the world might look like. While coming to a city of over 7 million from a town with less than 4,000 people has been challenging in many ways, some of which I was prepared for, some of which I was not, one thing that I didn’t think to prepare myself for is the variation in the soundtrack of life here.

As one would expect, Ahmedabad is a bit noisier than my hometown. Instead of hearing cows or trains from my bedroom, I listen to the constant whirring of my ceiling fan, the honking of cars on the street outside, and the aggressive chirping of pigeons fighting for space on the ledge outside my window. I can hear doors opening and closing as my host family moves about the apartment and the excited shouts of my 7-year-old host brother as he runs around and plays games, and the clatter of silverware spills out from the kitchen while our next meal is being prepared.

On the way to work every day, I hear a symphony of car horns, faint snippets of Bollywood music from other vehicles, and the mooing of cows right beside our taxi on the street instead of from my bedroom at home.

At SAATH, I, along with two other interns, have been working with the Child-Friendly Spaces project to develop and test interactive learning activities that CFS can use at its sites across the city. When we get to go test out activities at sites, we hear the gleeful yells of students as they perform their favorite song, “Rolly Poly,” for us and the rustle of some creative and nifty cradles as the youngest children are rocked to sleep.

When we work from the office, I am surrounded with the rhythmic tapping of my fellow DukeEngage students on their keyboards, hard at work on their projects. I expected this noise, and it provides a sense of comfort as it reminds me of group study sessions back at school. As we have become more integrated with the office, we have also gotten to work in harmony with the rest of SAATH’s staff. Hearing their sweet “Kaise ho?”s (“How are you?”s) as they give us opportunities to practice our Hindi as we pass in the kitchen always brightens my day.

These recurrent echoes and workplace conversations are to be expected when working in an office, but just as life in a city is different from life in a small town, offices in India are a bit different from offices in the United States.

I didn’t expect the clinking of tiffins (lunchboxes) and the clatter of metal container lids as all the employees share their lunches, family-style.

I didn’t expect the crunching of samosas on days when SAATH orders treats for everyone because the monsoon season has hit hard that day.

I definitely did not anticipate a beautifully dissonant cacophony of voices as everyone shook my hand to wish me many happy returns on my birthday last week, including the founder of SAATH and its current Executive Director who both took time out of their days to come celebrate and munch on the cookie bars my DukeEngage group surprised me with.

Some of the sounds that I will miss most of all are the gentle jingling of ceramic cups as our friend Santosh brings around cups of chai for everyone each morning and afternoon, the winsome cries of peacocks cutting sharply through the air, and the pure joy emanating from my peers each time our ears detect one of these frequencies. Peacocks are India’s national bird, and we have sort of adopted them as our mascot. Each time we hear one’s song, we all immediately stop and look for its owner, and it is this intense collective weeks-long birdwatch that I will remember most fondly of all.

While some noises are more welcome than others (the relentless rivets of rain can stop at any time now, thanks), they have all woven together to create a true masterpiece of a score to one of the greatest adventures of my life. We are nearing the conclusion of the piece, and I’m hoping that the finale of the work is just as exciting as its beginning before all too soon, the noises shift once again to the wheels of suitcases and planes as we journey back home. I’m so blessed and grateful to have heard this melody, and I am excited that for SAATH, the end of the summer is simply a refrain, not a coda, and the echoes of the work they are doing will resonate on for years to come.

Ahmedabad, an Aspirational Society

by Jay Gupta


Ahmedabad is a vibrant city with rich historical significance. On one end, it was the site of Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram – a central symbol of peace, unity, and power during India’s tumultuous campaign for independence. Now, Ahmedabad is growing and building in unique ways in response to challenges of its own. In the early 2000s, riots between Hindus and Muslims left the city with increased violence and lowered morale. Coupled with rapid migration of people from rural villages seeking livelihood opportunities, it saw an expansion of slum-populated areas. This created inequality between pockets of the population and necessitated a shift towards development and progress. Ahmedabad became a hub for social organizations and took the view of an “aspirational society” – a mindset that pervaded many aspects of my time in India and work with Saath Charitable Trust.

I spent the summer working on Saath’s Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS) project. In the short term, CFS centers provide safety, education, and nutritional support for children of migrant construction laborers, who live and work in colonies established near construction sites. Saath’s larger goal is to encourage and counsel families to eventually enroll their children in government schools. Thus, CFS centers also need to prepare these students with basic skills so that they are ready to meet the rigors of a formal education. I entered my DukeEngage experience eager to contribute to this goal in any capacity that I could.

Initial meetings with our Saath project mentors helped identify a key area where this contribution could take shape. The teachers lacked a designated curriculum, and instruction varied significantly across the seven site locations. My teammates and I decided to create a teachers’ handbook with interactive lessons plans for activities that spanned areas such as language, basic math, creative development, and mental development. Our goal was to provide the teachers with a resource that they could use to both standardize classrooms and keep students excited, motivated, and engaged. With a concrete plan and enthusiasm for our project, we began developing Saath’s first CFS curriculum.

Initially, field visits consisted mostly of observation. We toured several sites and labor colonies, interviewed teachers, and learned as much as we could about their classroom procedures. This gave us a strong operational knowledge of the CFS program, which we used to begin developing our teachers’ handbook. However, as we would quickly learn, sometimes facts are not enough to put an idea into practice. About a quarter of the way through the handbook, we decided that we were ready to try some of the activities with CFS students. But, to me, this presented more challenges than anticipated. How was I to communicate with students across a vast age range – and that too, while facing a language barrier? I had known that there are students from just a few months to around 14 years old all in a single CFS classroom, and most of them speak only Gujarati. But our activities hadn’t been planned with this in mind just yet. Unable to keep all the kids engaged and entertained, I returned to the office a bit dismayed and questioning how to proceed. Very soon, Ahmedabad started to showcase its “aspirational society” nature.

My teammates and I began working more closely with our Saath mentors to improve our activities and benefit the students’ learning. Our mentors gave us valuable encouragement and guidance. They had an overflowing enthusiasm for our project and the impact it would have on establishing a dedicated CFS curriculum for the first time. The teachers were also instrumental in helping us better understand the community and surmounting the barriers we initially faced. I would often speak to them in Hindi, and they would translate into Gujarati so that the students could understand. They also provided valuable tips on engaging more students, despite the varying age groups. Soon, the students also overcame their shyness and brought forth a contagious spirit of happiness and eagerness to play with us and learn in the process.

By the end of summer, when I walked into the classroom, it was always with a big smile. And right as I entered, I would be greeted with a reciprocal chorus of laughter and excitement from the students. The warm relationship that formed between us has made my work with Saath quite memorable and meaningful. The many lessons I will take away from this experience have given me an important outlook on service – to successfully contribute, one must first understand the community, its perspectives, and build connections with the diverse people he is working with.