Saturday, December 26, 2015

MAHILA MILAN NAGAR - A story of Women Empowerment!

In continuation to the last article, I am writing about Mahila Milan Nagar- one of the first projects of SPARC. Mahila Milan Nagar is a cooperative housing society located at Mankhurd, Mumbai. The colony was constructed by pavement dwellers in association with SPARC.

SPARC started associating with them in 1984. Sheela Patel, SPARC founder used to teach  the under privileged kids and this association later continued when she founded SPARC.  One of the first things SPARC did was to make the pavement dwellers visible in the city by getting ration cards. Over time the women of one pavement community learnt how to obtain these cards and demonstrated to other women. Supreme court’s 1985  judgment that Bombay Municipal Corporation could evict pavement dwellers and demolish their houses left these pavement dwellers with not knowing what to do next. People from the pavement started associating with Sheela Patel for a solution. Slowly many people started approaching her and a total from 9 pavements comprising of  over 1500 families started grouping. Initially ration cards were made for all. Then  bank accounts were opened for all in the joint name of wife and husband for each family. 

Another main task was to inculcate the habit of saving in the pavement dwellers. Till now whatever they earned, they used to finish in a day. People were encouraged to  save whatever money was left every day which used to be in  tune of 50 paise, 1 Rs, 2 Rs etc. Once all the families started contributing, the amount started increasing. The dwellers were also given training on how to talk to government officials, how to get things done, what are the alternatives etc. SPARC encouraged women in the slums to associate themselves to form a collective called Mahila Milan. Women were given the confidence that they could also do things which they thought only men does. This motivated them to stand for their rights to get a legal house. In Mahila Milan, for 15 houses, 1 leader was selected and thus a group of 35 was formed in the beginning.


Around this time,  a notice was issued to pavement dwellers that they will be evicted the next day. Before the court judgment, almost all  days, policemen used to come and destroy their houses, leaving their utensils broken, clothes torn and pretty nothing much left.  But this time they decided to resist the police as a group.  For 2 days the Municipality could not do anything, but people themselves dismantled their houses and collected their belongings and thus could save whatever was theirs. This was a big realization for them  that if they stand  together something could happen.

Next they started looking for an alternative land and approached BMC. BMC denied their demands telling there is no vacant land.  So Mahila Milan started identifying vacant lands in Mumbai and its ownership. Finally they decided on Mankhurd which had only one train connectivity that time. The land was owned by MHADA and it took 15 years for the slum dwellers to get the land. The house design was based on dwellers demand and was exhibited for people’s voting. All stages of design and construction was monitored, implemented and designed by the dwellers themselves.


Mahila Milan also started giving loans for the dwellers.  Earlier if they take a loan of Rs 100 from a private lender, an interest of RS 10 was to be paid every month. Mahila Milan started giving loans at an interest of Rs 1 per month and women of the house were made accountable. Mahila Milan has its branches in over 21 Indian cities. They empower women by training, helping them in budgeting, organizing etc. They have started mapping slums, doing socioeconomic surveys, getting ration cards and Adhaar cards etc for slum rehabilitation projects. They have also started their groups in 12 others countries like South America, South Korea, Bangkok, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka etc.  
Mahila Milan is a good example to show what women empowerment could bring to a society. Strengthening, Encouraging and Removing their fears could work miracles at the face of adversity. Its sad to see no such initiative in the SMART city project. Rather than making people smart, focus is on technology! I wonder why there are no slum development or upgradation projects in making the city SMART ??  Are these people still INVISIBLE?......

Anu Kuncheria
anukuncheria@gmail.com