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Activism finally pays off

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Years of being engaged with the urban poor of Patna, India, provided me with the opportunity to have a very close view of their life. I must confess even now after 16 years I still have so much to learn and to understand. I am almost baffled at their resilience and their ability to take everything in their stride. Their pathetic and inhuman living conditions confirmed for me that I need to continue this engagement.

What I witness, what I experience always gives rise to mixed feelings within me and I begin to count the many blessings I receive each day. Down the years a very strong bond has been built with the communities we are engaged with. Perhaps the time we as team at Aashray Abhiyan— the name of our organization that campaigns for shelter rights — have spent with the community has earned us rewards. There is a bonding of family and a deep trust that somewhere life has become better for our people. Educating them about their rights; ensuring that they will avail themselves of the benefits that are their due; sharing in their joys and sorrows have deepened our relationship with them.

We tried every strategy to make sure that they would be enrolled for the housing program – sit-in protests, rallies, public hearings, press conferences, 48- and 72- hour fasts … it seemed that nothing made a difference to the bureaucracy or the government. Our advocacy on behalf of our people seemed to get nowhere; I almost gave up the fight when we faced extensive demolitions of housing without rehabilitation and gross violations of human rights.

We spent hours reflecting on what to do next. Then something happened — a miracle! I got a call from the principal secretary of the Urban and Housing department asking if I would be willing to be on the SUH (Shelter for Urban Homeless) committee to be set up for the Supreme Court of India. I said yes, as I thought this would give me the opportunity to raise the issues of our people. Being on this administrative committee, I suddenly realized that my name was floating everywhere as the circular was sent to all the departments.

Thanks to this, I got acquainted with the commissioner of the Patna Municipal Corporation: And things began to happen. His very first visit to one of the settlements won the hearts of the people, and we realized this man was serious and wanted to do something for those on the periphery. A very historic event took place on the evening of May 5, 2019. After we had worked many years to get the administration and government to listen to the pleas of people on the periphery, the opportune time had arrived. Representatives from the Siphaai Ghat dwelling units — 40 of them — along with our Aashray Abhiyan team had a meeting in the chamber of the commissioner of the Patna Municipal Corporation. The purpose was to empower the people to take care of their dwelling units. The commissioner suggested we do not use the word "slum" but "dwellings." He promised that city ambassadors will be appointed to take care of the basic amenities.

The commissioner listened patiently to the community representatives and shared with them his plan. He also urged them to keep their dwellings clean. One important point he made was that no one will be evicted until alternative housing provisions have been made. This was a great relief to our people. He said "from the dwelling units to the homes is a journey in progress."
So, the work of identifying people to volunteer to be city ambassadors went into full swing.

For two consecutive weeks, visits to the dwelling units by the officials and our Aashray Abhiyan team began. Our job was to create a needs assessment for basic amenities for the community. The process was tough but also very rewarding. We made an early morning visit to the dwelling units — at 7:00 am so that the people would be available! With their consent we would be in a position to get them toilets and water connections. As we visited the dwelling units, a thought always lingered in the back of our minds: we hope it will happen, or else we will lose the faith of the people.

The commissioner of Patna Municipal Corporation visits one of the settlements. (Provided photo) Being given the authority to work with the city managers and take them around to the dwelling units has helped us in monitoring the work. The work is slow but finally we have broken into the system and are putting pressure on the contractors to speed it up.

As I sit back and reflect on this initiative, I ask myself: why don't people assigned to a job work conscientiously? "If the previous commissioners had done their work, this load would not be so huge," said Mr. Suman, the commissioner of Patna Municipal Corporation. Having an officer who wants to make things happen is not sufficient; the men down the line should carry the same ethos. Another thing I think about is the growing indifference and lack of sensitivity among us to the needs of others; a call to duty is imperative to keep the society moving.

It has been a unique initiative, and the rapport built with the commissioner and his team is a positive sign and a ray of hope for us. As things move on in the positive direction, it will be a real relief to our people who for years have been denied basic amenities; this will enhance their life and give them the dignity we all long for. This is life giving, this is the beginning of a new world, a step towards attaining Sustainable Development Goal No. 11: "Making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable."

[Dorothy Fernandes, a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a social activist who has been working in Patna since 1997 with communities on the periphery, with the goal of making their cities inclusive, so that no one is left behind. She also serves as the chairperson of the Women's Commission for the Archdiocese of Patna and is the advisory member of the social wing of the archdiocese – Forum for Social Initiatives.]

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