Satyajit-Bhatkal-feature-photo

Paani Foundation Is Seeding Goodwill And Harvesting Rain

paani foundation
 

Paani Foundation is seeding goodwill and harvesting rain

In 2016, Paani Foundation launched the Water Cup – a contest between villages to see which could create the most water storage capacity. Paani Foundation would provide the training but the villages would have to create enthusiasm and work together in large numbers to be able to accomplish anything.

In the first year, 3 talukas took part. 850 people were trained. 10,000 worked every day. 1,368 crore litres of water storage was created. In 2017, 13 talukas took part. 6,000 people were trained. 65,000 worked every day. 8,261 crore litres of water storage was created. This year, 75 talukas have tken part. 20,000 people have been trained. And the numbers are still coming in…

Paani Foundation offers training films, an app, Marathi-language books about watershed management, and videos. Their YouTube channel Toofan Aalaya also documents stories from the field.

Things are changing quickly. The parched earth is being greened. Where fields lay arid, now there are three crops harvested in the year.

Women who are most vulnerable to effects of climate change like drought are at the centre of the Paani Foundation revolution! They’re leading from the front and being empowered. But what’s even better, is that working together for a common goal is destroying caste and political divides in each village. Water is bringing unity.

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero celebrates the Insaafer spirit of Satyajit Bhatkal!

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For a single episode of Satyamev Jayate, like the one that featured drought prone Nagdarwadi as an example of a village that had solved its water shortage problem, Satyajit Bhatkal and his team would shoot over 400 hours of footage. “A random story can mislead you,” he says. “So whether it was about child sexual abuse, organic food, female foeticide – we’d travel all over the country with the emphasis on meeting people who were directly affected by the issue. The research then provided the material to create hypotheses.”

In some cases, the hypothesis led to a groundbreaking solution. A watershed moment.

The water conservation episode featured a love story set in Nagdarwadi – a girl said she couldn’t marry a boy because there was no water in his village. She had a point. Effects of climate change (like water scarcity) have been proven to adversely impact women more than men. But this story has a happy ending. With a combined effort at decentralised watershed management, Nagdarwadi solved its water problems, the couple got married, and their happily ever after included 40,000 people who visited the village to learn. Today, 100 villages have replicated the Nagdarwadi model.

Satyajit’s optimism when talking about solving the problem of water scarcity comes from an informed point of view. “Nature gives us enough,” he says. “But we have to find a way to capture water and to use it judiciously.”

As the CEO of Paani Foundation, he helms a movement that is literally changing the ground beneath peoples’ feet.

The non-profit, set up in 2016 by actor Aamir Khan and his wife, Kiran Rao, is teaching villages how to conserve water. The foundation conducts workshops that train members of each village to identify the areas where they can begin building soak pits and bunds. They tell them how to build these so that when the rains come, the ground water is replenished and there is no wastage. The villagers then take this information back to the village and work begins. Digging of the soil, arranging of stones, aligning the pits…

It usually takes just one monsoon for the dramatic results to be evident. Where once water tankers had to be called in, now there is more water than they need. Where fields lay fallow, cultivation is now possible three times a year.

Satyajit says the answers were always there. “There is no problem in India that, once defined, has not already been solved,” he says. “We’ve travelled around the country and seen the traditional wisdom of India, documented traditional rainwater harvesting systems. Many great sons and daughters of the soil have refined that – several are from Maharashtra, like Vilasrao Salunkhe of Paani Panchayat. The Centre for Science and Environment has a wonderful book called Dying Wisdom about rainwater harvesting. But we seem to be unable to take social solutions to scale.”

So Paani Foundation decided to take things to scale. But first they had to look at their challenges.

They found that in addition to a lack of know-how, villages were bitterly divided along the lines of caste, politics etc. “Society is the vessel that holds the water,” Satyajit says. “Ehen it is fractured, it can’t hold. We had to find a way to bring people together.”

So they came up with the idea of the Water Cup. “If it is fun, it will grow, excite people, give izzat and honour to those doing this work,” Satyajit explains. A competition to see who could rally the most numbers to do the most work toward water conservation, in 2016, 850 people from 116 villages were trained. 10,000 people worked daily and water storage of a capacity of 1,368 crore litres was built. In 2017, the number of villages went up to 1,321. 65,000 people worked and storage of 8261 crore litres was built. This year, 5,945 villages have applied for training.

The Paani Foundation App, free to download from the Play Store, helps each village track their progress in the Water Cup. It includes numerous features like data entry forms that record work done, educational films, information about the marking system and rules, and even enabled GPS tracking of watershed structures. The App has been integrated into the Water Cup system in a way that a village’s final score is largely based on the data that the village itself has entered into the App.

The crores of litres of water storage being built is one massive victory. But social change is another happy side effect.

To begin with, women, most vulnerable to drought, are at the centre of Paani Foundation’s communication. “Women have played a stellar role,” says Satyajit. “They have led from the front. We discovered again and again, unless the women are involved in the effort, it doesn’t take off.” So the foundation stipulates that of the five people called from each village for training, two have to be women. “It’s something,” he says. “So many hundreds of women have left their homes for the first time.

It has done wonders for their confidence. This will have an impact on every aspect of their lives.”

Caste lines are also being decimated. Desperate to enthuse a reluctant group of Dalits in a village, the village sarpanch went to their basti and washed the feet of the Dalit women. The episode ended in warmth and tears and the village worked together after that.

Satyajit says that acknowledging these everyday acts of heroism is important. “Someone who scores a century may be considered a hero,” he says, “but how do you acknowledge the heroism of someone who works in 45 degree heat to make his village drought free?”

The foundation has created a platform to tell these stories via the show Toofan Aalaya.

Satyajit says their training also imparts leadership skills and hones key qualities – self-respect, self-confidence, and joy. “When you learn about yourself,” he says, “your capacities, when you believe in yourself, you’ll look at the world with different eyes.”

But their work is far from over. “The platform has made people larger than themselves,” says Satyajit. “They rise above many things repeatedly, but problems don’t get solved overnight. We are guarded in assessing our own successes. We don’t believe in magic cures. And we are only a small subset of work that is going on across the world. We have messed with nature, and we need to restore the natural balance. From New York to Nairobi, Alaska to Bhiwandi, we all have to step up. There is still so much to be done.”

Be a part of the revolution: https://jalmitra.paanifoundation.in

 
Dharavi-Art-Room-feature-photo

Two Artists Are Changing Kids’ Lives In Dharavi

dharavi art room
 

Two Artists Are Changing Kids' Lives In Dharavi

One million people live in Dharavi which spans 535 acres – that is 869,565 people per square mile, including children.

You will not find playgrounds in Dharavi. They say here, children start school but never finish. Many of them work. There is often no time, no money, no space, for positive educational and extracurricular activities for kids.

With The Dharavi Art Room, Aqui Thami (Chief Hug Officer) and Himanshu S. (High Five Guru) want to create an inclusive society where the least powerful members explore their personal and neighbourhood issues through artistic mediums. They teach kids to use art to not just learn and create but also engage with the world and transform their own lives.

Aqui and Himanshu started the Bombay Underground, a self-publishing collective that creates and distributes zines from here and all over the world. (Zines are small, often photocopied books that feature poetry, comics, writing and art.)

Aqui’s public art project, bright pink posters printed with A Woman Was Harassed Here, in places where women were, made heads turn and people talk about the problems women face in public. Himanshu says they did similar work during slum demolitions. “How do you express the injustices faced by people pushed out of neighbourhoods? How do you raise consciousness?”

Dharavi Art Room is teaching kids and women to process their environments, their city and their lives and communicate these very personal experiences to a world that doesn’t know much about them. Whether as drawings made within a classroom or posters meant to engage with the public, to raise awareness, they’re changing lives one drawing at a time.

In the great list of things heroes are supposed to do, sometimes they teach people to save themselves.

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Can artists fight injustice?

Aqui Thami and Himanshu S. run The Dharavi Art Room, which introduces art as expression in neighbourhoods going through ‘forceful change’ – demolitions, resettlements, the wear and tear of being so marginalised in a very harsh city. Aqui and Himanshu work with children and women. There’s a library and music, they paint murals and make sure bright kids don’t drop out of school because of their circumstances.

Himanshu has had a tough childhood, similar to the kids with whom he now work,, “Single parent family,” he says, “messed up financial background. The medium of art did wonders for me, and so the rest followed.”

Trained as a painter, he started working in Dharavi in 1998, having lost a few years to what he terms ‘an inconsistency’. “I was trying to make sense of my own life,” he says. “The idea was much simpler then, and in the course of a few years it grew into this form. Once Aqui joined, the Art Room got a much more solid existence. In spirit, we are almost 20 years old.”

Dharavi Art Room_002

Himanshu and Aqui’s art is often self-published. They rely on what they call ‘interventions’ in public and private spaces. Some of this is what Aqui calls ‘guerilla posters’. “I believe in creating art that is grounded in the act of ‘doing’ and addresses political or social issues,” she says. “It is a critical time for activism, and I would like to engage in making art that is a form of political or social currency, actively addressing cultural power structures specially in times of such intolerance.”

“This is a weird city,” Himanshu says, “we do not have a site for protest. You have to take permission to protest in public.” So how do you raise awareness about injustices that the common man may not even see or know about? And how do you make them care?

You can do it with art.

“After working closely with the children and women in Dharavi and other neighbourhoods facing systemic oppression since 2013,” says Acqui, “using art as a medium of story-telling, I've come to believe that art can truly empower.”

Dharavi Art Room_003

Aqui’s public art project, bright pink posters printed with A Woman Was Harassed Here (in places where women were), made heads turn and people talk about the problems women face in public. Himanshu says they did similar work during slum demolitions. “How do you express the injustices faced by people pushed out of neighbourhoods?” he asks. “How do you raise consciousness?”

Himanshu believes text in public spaces is a very direct and efficient way of communicating. “It could be direct text work or random things,” he says, “but it will catch people off guard. If it’s goofy, random, absurd but layered, then it does the trick. It’s much more effective than ‘informed’ politically correct material.”

At one of the last organic protests at Azad Maidan in 2005, Dharavi Art Room was participating in making the issues visible. “We had people with the kids,” says Himanshu, “from Churchgate to VT, physically diverting their routes to make them stop by and engage with our work. You assume that protests are something elders do but kids at these sites get the worst sense of something happening. So we worked with these kids.”

Dharavi Art Room_004

There is never any end goal of creating a ‘masterpiece’ or anything like that. Himanshu and Aqui are teaching the kids to tell their own stories, “Let things happen much more organically,” Himanshu says. “If it has heart, it will become visible.”

Aqui and Himanshu also form Bombay Underground, which Aqui describes as “a collective that experiments with various public art practices, including but not limited to zine making and performance art.”

Himanshu says, “Art has to be personal, performative, an invisible theatre situation.” He has witnessed the therapeutic and empowering facets of art and says we can all raise awareness about injustices that are significant to us. “Make something personal, go and photocopy it, then sell it or give it away. Give it to younger people or stand and hand it out at traffic signals. Don’t wait for someone to come take your story. Do it for yourself.”

Dharavi Art Room_005

Aqui and Himanshu want to grow and help more kids and more adults learn to handle their worlds, process their feelings and raise consciousness. But they also want the correct mindsets. “We do not want any self-indulgent volunteering,” says Himanshu. “If you want to actually work at grassroots change, wholesome participation and sharing resources then please come board.”

The Dharavi Art Room is a safe space, and it is bringing the opportunity for kids from the most deprived areas to find their voice and express it for everyone to hear.

In the great list of things heroes are supposed to do, sometimes they teach people to save themselves.

You can help Aqui and Himanshu here:

https://milaap.org/fundraisers/undergroundbookhouse

https://milaap.org/fundraisers/DharaviArtRoomLibrary

 
Aabid-Surti-feature-photo

This 83-Year-Old Man Is Saving Mumbai’s Water

aabid surti
 

THIS 83-YEAR-OLD IS SAVING MUMBAI’S WATER

In 2016, 33 crore people or 25% of the Indian population was hit by drought. This year, 37% of the villages in Maharashtra risk being tagged as drought affected. Crop production fell from 169 lakh tonnes to 133 lakh tonnes. As much as 40% of Mumbai’s water goes into the sewage due to leaking pipes and wasteful behaviour.

Aabid Surti, founder of the Drop Dead Foundation, is a water warrior for the city. On Mondays, his volunteers meet housing society secretaries. If the secretaries agree, a Save Every Drop or Drop Dead poster is put up. On Saturdays, they send pamphlets to each home to explain what Drop Dead Foundation does. On Sunday, he goes with a plumber from house to house, fixing leaky taps.

In 2007 and 2008, the foundation visited 1,666 houses, fixed 414 taps, and saved more than 400,000 litres of water. The foundation is credited with saving more than 20 million litres of clean water over the years and counting… Aabid Surti is a one-man army against water wastage in the face of scarcity for this city.

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Over lunch at a friend’s house, Aabid Surti heard the distinctive dripping of a leaking tap. He requested his hosts to get it fixed. They joked about his concern for a few drops but assured him of action. When he went over again a few weeks later, he could still hear the dripping. He decided to get a plumber and repair the tap that same day. This was the beginning of the Drop Dead Foundation, Aabid’s unique one-man NGO.

“I had no intention of starting an NGO,” says Aabid. “It happened organically.” As someone who had witnessed his mother standing in queue for hours to procure water and violent fights near the community water tap, Aabid already felt quite strongly about the issue of water wastage. “Then, I read in an article that if a tap leaks one drop per minute, 1000 litres of water go down the drain every month. That hit me. I realised I could easily save this water by hiring a plumber.”

For the past 11 years, Aabid has been visiting housing societies in Mira Road every Sunday with a plumber and a female volunteer, offering to fix leaking taps in people’s apartments. He has saved millions of litres of water over the years, and his model has been adopted by other environment enthusiasts in the country.

Aabid also conducts talks and sessions, but they aren’t always successful. When he realised he wasn’t reaching 99% of his target audience, he decided to link social messages to religion. He came across a quote by Prophet Muhammad: “Even if you are sitting on a river bank, you have no right to waste water.” He designed and printed posters with these words and put them up in the local mosques. Three months later, a Maulana reported that the amount of water used at his mosque had dropped by 66%.

A sprightly 83-year-old with the gait and attire of a teenager, Aabid is bursting with ideas and solutions. He has organised flash mob events to raise awareness about water wastage. He has written to the BMC suggesting a solution to the problem of overflowing tanks. He has made posters depicting Ganesha appealing to his devotees to save water for visarjan. “I have enough ideas to last me two lifetimes,” he says.

At a time when most people are jaded even before they hit mid-life, how does he find the inspiration for so many ideas? “The most important thing is to keep an open mind,” says Aabid. “We need to keep clearing our cluttered heads to make space for new ideas.”

Aabid has been advised to seek sponsorship and has even been offered funding to expand his NGO, but he is certain he doesn’t want to scale up operations. “I want to concentrate on spreading the message of saving water,” he says. “I have set the ball rolling with my ideas. Anyone can pick it up from here. Everyone can become a part of the movement by just turning off a leaking tap.”

 
Sumaira-Abdulali-feature-photo

A Woman Fearless In The Face Of Violence And Injustice

sumaira abdulali
 

A woman fearless in the face of violence and injustice

Sumaira Abdulali comes from a long line of freedom fighters. Her great-grandmother was jailed during the freedom struggle. Her grand uncle led the Salt Satyagraha after Gandhiji was arrested.

In India’s most noisy city, Mumbai, she is famous for her work against noise pollution, but Sumaira has been fighting a far more dangerous battle – against illegal sand mining barons. Sand mining is a global environmental crisis that causes great damage to both nature and infrastructure; it can weaken bridges, causing them to collapse.

In Kihim, when Sumaira challenged the illegal sand-mining trucks, she was first threatened. When she refused to back down, the sand miners came for her. She was attacked by goons who hit her in the face, broke her teeth, and smashed her car. Sumaira still gets headaches from the old injuries.

She hasn’t given up. Her work with Awaaz Foundation has seen success against noise pollution. Peak noise in specific spots and average noise during festivals has decreased. Decibel levels of car horns now cannot exceed 85 decibels. 10 PILs were filed tackling different sources of noise like transport, construction, religious celebrations and festivals etc. The Horn Not Okay Please, a nationwide initiative of the government, has seen resonance in the Horn Vrat campaign here.

Awaaz Foundation raises awareness about many other issues as well, such as stone quarrying, protecting wildlife corridors in the Western Ghats, examining the proposed coastal road. There is also the Movement against Intimidation, Threat and Revenge against Activists or MITRA.

Her advice to future heroes of the city is simple. “You hear people complain ‘why doesn’t someone do something?’ Well, get out more and do it yourself. There is no shortage of issues in this country or in the world. Pick what is bothering you. Start working on it. Just do what is obvious. Don’t risk your life but don’t sit at home!”

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero celebrates the Insaafer spirit of Sumaira Abdulali!

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Sumaira Abdulali’s story begins long before she was born.

Her great-grandmother was jailed during India’s freedom struggle. Her uncle Abbas Tyabji was chosen as Mahatma Gandhi’s immediate successor to lead the Salt Satyagraha in case Gandhiji was arrested. (After the Dandi March on May 4, 1930, Gandhiji was arrested. Tyabji, the Grand Old Man of Gujarat, was put in charge of the next phase of the Satyagraha.) Her illustrious family tree includes ornithologist Salim Ali, social activist Laila Tyabji, and the First Acting Indian Chief Justice of Bombay High Court, celebrated progressive Badruddin Tyabji, who founded the Anjuman-I-Islam University in 1874. Her mother, Rabia Futehally, was one of the first women pilots of India and co-founder of the Indian Women Pilots Association.

Today, Sumaira Abdulali’s name is synonymous with the battle against noise pollution in Mumbai, the noisiest city in India. But Sumaira has also been working against a far more dangerous enemy: illegal sand-mining barons.

It began years ago, when local fishermen came to her house in Kihim to complain about the beach being blocked by a wealthy resident. She took up the matter with the police and the collector. There were many firsts – reading the laws, filing a police complaint, being threatened. But finally, as she watched the road being cleared one day, she couldn’t believe what she had accomplished. She began to consider her options. “My children were too small for me to move to a rural area to work,” she says, “so I thought I’d do something in the city.”

But her work there wasn’t done yet.

In Kihim, she noticed trucks driving away from the beach loaded with sand. So she stopped one. She laughs when you look shocked. Sumaira is delicately built and soft-spoken. Her bravery seems astounding. “Men came out of the truck,” she says, “and showed me some permission, but I told them, ‘This is not a sand mining permission. You cannot mine here.’ For some time, the mining stopped.”

But, as she suspected, fighting crime was never a simple thing.

“The collector changed,” she says, “and once the new collector arrived, the mining started again.” This time, the illegal sand mining cartel sent her a serious warning via people in the village. She was told to stay away. Not mess with them.

Weeks later, a call came at 11:30 p.m., waking Sumaira up. The illegal sand mining trucks were back. “I didn’t really want to go,” she admits. But she was conscious that it was decisive moment. “I didn’t tell my husband and I went.” She drove off quietly in a car her husband had been prepping for a rally and was not supposed to drive. She expected to be home before anyone noticed.

What happened after she confronted the trucks was horrific. She was attacked by goons who hit her in the face, broke her teeth, and threatened her driver and cousin. As she tells the story, Sumaira unconsciously touches the part of her forehead that was injured. She still has headaches on some days.

As she was being beaten, in the middle of the village, she was repeatedly reminded that one of the men was from an influential family. No one came out to help. One by one, lights went out in the houses. “People were scared,” she explains. Her generosity is baffling and admirable.

After they’d beaten her, the goons went to work on the car. They smashed its windows, completely ruined it. She watched aghast. After spending the rest of the night at the police station, she went home in the morning to see her husband worriedly pacing the garden. “Sit down,” she told him calmly, “you’ll never believe where I was.”

Her husband listened and, not one to police his wife, he didn’t freak out.  “How is the car?” he asked instead. “Well, it’s not in very good shape,” Sumaira said. She laughs at the memory. “He called the driver and told him to take it to the garage and we never spoke of it again.”

After the incident, her daughter jokingly posted on Facebook: “It’s time for my mother to stay home and cook now.”

But the woman whose journey in activism started with volunteering as a typist with her uncle “to get out of the house two or three times a week, away from changing nappies” had other plans.

Her work to curb noise pollution is what she is most famous for. Awaaz Foundation has made headway in court, in the press, and on the streets with raising awareness about noise pollution. “It was seen as an elitist issue,” Sumaira says, “but the people who suffer most are rickshaw drivers and slum dwellers who don’t have proper walls to insulate them from ambient urban noise.”

Mumbai, the noisiest city in the country, is seeing improvements. Peak noise in specific spots and average noise during festivals has decreased. Decibel levels of car horns now cannot exceed 85 decibels. 10 PILs were filed tackling different sources of noise like transport, construction, religious celebrations and festivals etc. The Horn Not Okay Please, a nationwide initiative of the government, has seen resonance in the Horn Vrat campaign here.

Awaaz Foundation raises awareness about many other issues, such as stone quarrying, protecting wildlife corridors in the western ghats, examining the proposed coastal road. There is also the Movement against Intimidation, Threat and Revenge against Activists, or MITRA. A campaign about light pollution is in the offing, and Sumaira has also worked on converting recycling debris, plastic, and solid waste components into aggregate usable for building construction (as a substitute for sand and stone).

Today, Sumaira is at the centre of constant flurry of activity. “Sometimes I feel like a fraud,” she says with a smile. “People representing multiple fields of expertise call, create campaigns, legal work, volunteer free of cost… We work without an office, no staff, no donations.  I have not paid a penny. I give them a few guidelines, and they mobilise their resources.”

Her advice to future heroes of the city is simple. “Don’t risk your life, but don’t sit at home,” she says,. “You hear people complain ‘why doesn’t someone do something?’ Well, get out more and do it for yourself. There is no shortage of issues in this country or in the world. Pick what is bothering you. Start working on it. Just do what is obvious.”

 
Chinu-Kwatra-feature-photo

How Tough Times Taught This Man To Help Others

chinu kwatra
 

How tough times taught this man to help others

When Chinu was in the 10th standard, his family was left with Rs. 3 crores of debt, and his privileged life fell apart. Panicking, his father suggested the family run away from Mumbai. But his mother took charge of the situation.

That year, Chinu went to school by day, worked at a dhaba until late in the evening, studied and tutored his friends, and finished his exams.

Life began to look up when Chinu met a girl he fell madly in love with. From a rich, educated family herself, she encouraged him to do an MBA, and he couldn’t wait to prove himself to her and her family. But on April 28, 2014, just before his final exams, the love of his life met with an accident and passed away. Chinu appeared for his exams and did extremely well, but he couldn’t shake the depression. He thought about killing himself.

Over the years, life has happened to Chinu and he has rolled with the punches, supported, he says, by the strong women in his life: his mother, his teachers, and his girlfriend who is now his 'angel’ up there.

He runs three charitable initiatives that are changing peoples’ lives and their environments. Aarna Foundation is a force to reckon with in its field of education and women’s empowerment.

He started cleaning Dadar beach. Volunteers have picked up 210 tonnes of trash (and counting) from there. They also go to Worli fishing village because garbage trucks couldn’t reach into the tiny lanes. Chinu and his team clear the garbage using manpower and move it to where the trucks can park.

Roti Ghar, an initiative started on the 5th of December last year, has served homecooked meals every single day to women and children in one of Mumbai’s most desperately poor areas.

Is he a hero? Chinu doesn’t want the title but he says, “You need to be happy in yourself. You need to be inspired to inspire. And you need to be human. Insaan bano. Ussi ki kami hai aaj kal.”

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Chinu Kwatra says he’s a ladies’ man and then grins as he clarifies. He has an MBA, gave up his job to run not one, not two, but three charitable initiatives full-time, and has been inspired and supported by women at every stage of his life.

In 2006, Chinu was in the 10th standard and his privileged life fell apart. His father’s business partners left his family in over Rs 3 crores of debt. Panicking, his dad suggested the family run away from Mumbai. But his mother stepped forward. A doctor who ran two commercial establishments of her own, she chalked out a plan to keep them financially afloat.

“My mother began to run a small dhaba,” Chinu says, “and I helped her. I’d go to school in the morning, study in the afternoon, do home deliveries for the restaurant in the evening, and spend the rest of the day washing utensils.” For all his work, Chinu earned tips of a grand total of Rs 2 per day. “I thought, wow that’s Rs 60 a month!” he says, laughing. “It was a great thing for me!”

As the family struggled with their new poverty, Chinu was determined to finish his education. When coaching class fees were too high, he decided to study on his own. His teachers gave him the year’s notes early to help him and, using those notes, he started teaching his friends algebra and geometry.

Despite doing well, he had trouble figuring out his next moves. After a few false starts and mediocre results in college, he met a young woman who changed the course of his life. “I’d studied in an English medium school but didn’t speak in English,” he says. “It made no difference to her. She was from a very rich family and her parents believed in a good education. So she helped me find a good MBA college and because of her, I really decided to prove myself.” The couple was very much in love and life looked firmly on the upswing for Chinu.

Around this time, Chinu’s cousin Shweta started a playschool. Chinu was helping her out with the marketing when outside the class they noticed two little girls, about 4 and 6 years old, wearing make-up. “All they wanted to do was come in,” he says, “but they also refused to. We were horrified when we realised the girls were being groomed to be prostitutes. We went to their homes and counseled their parents.” Chinu says they were lucky – the parents said, “Take them. Teach them.” More kids began to come in and the cousins realized they had to register as an NGO. Today Aarna Foundation is a force to reckon with in its field of education and women’s empowerment.

As usual, Chinu had a lot going on, “Monday to Friday I’d study and go to work, but all week I’d be thinking of Saturday and Sunday when I’d go to the NGO.” Despite how busy he was, he was expecting excellent results in his final exams.

“I couldn’t wait to show my results to my girlfriend,” he says. But on April 28, 2014, just before his final exams, the love of his life met with an accident and passed away. Chinu appeared for his exams and did extremely well, but he couldn’t shake the depression. He plunged into a pit of despair. He continued to work – he had bills to pay – but would think very often of jumping off his train. “One day I told my mother, ‘I want to kill myself.’ My mother said, ‘Don’t. I’m going to help you.’ And she did. She saved me.”

Chinu got better, made friends, began going out. On a trip to Dadar beach after the Ganesh festival, he was horrified by what he saw. “I’m a big Ganesh bhakt,” he says, “and I saw broken idols amongst the garbage. I thought, we need to do something.” He contacted Afroz Shah on Facebook for guidance about cleaning the beach. Afroz said simply, ‘just start’ and so he did. Along the way, he re-established contact with a former college professor Indu Mehta who said, “This is not a one day event, Chinu. You have to do it long term.”

It’s been a few months. Chinu makes the trek from Thane every Sunday, joined by increasing numbers of people. As the beach got cleaned, people starting using it again – to run, walk, and play on. The BMC now sends them a JCB to help with the embedded garbage. In 37 weeks, they have picked up 210 tonnes of trash. They also go to Worli Village where trash was piling up because no garbage vans can access the seafront. Chinu is hoping they can organise a boat to take the garbage away. “There’s always more to be done,” he says.

More includes Roti Ghar, where Chinu and his volunteers serve home-cooked food to women and children in one of Mumbai’s most desperately deprived areas. It started on the 5th December 2017, and when the initiative was getting to 100 days, his friends planned a celebration. They realised it fell on the birthday of Chinu’s late girlfriend. Chinu’s smile when he talks of that realisation brings tears to your eyes. “It was quite something, that coincidence,” he says. “I miss her very much, but she is an angel to me. I pray to her, and whatever I ask for, I get now.”

Ask Chinu if he’s ever felt like giving up and he says, “I gave up on giving up in 2014 when I decided not to quit on life.”

Is he a hero? Chinu doesn’t want the title but he says, “You need to be happy in yourself. You need to be inspired to inspire. And you need to be human. Insaan bano. Ussi ki kami hai aaj kal.”

 
Sushila-sable-feature-photo

Grit And Grime: A Ragpicker’s Story

sushila sable Stree Mukti Sangathana
 

Grit And Grime - A Ragpicker’s Story

From a childhood on the streets of Mumbai as a rag picker to speaking at the United Nations Climate Change conferences in Copenhagen, Durban, and Rio De Janeiro, Sushila Sable has come a long way.

Driven out of her village by drought, Sushila arrived in Mumbai in 1973 and was forced to beg to survive. Her mother began to scrounge through garbage to earn a living, and soon Sushila also became a rag picker.

But things changed when Stree Mukti Sangathana, an NGO that supports women and women’s rights, came to Sushila’s slum. Over time, they introduced the idea of a self-help savings group, organised cleaning contracts, and taught them to make compost. At their financial and leadership training courses, they realised Sushila was a natural public speaker.

Sushila was quickly recognised as a leader. She learned how to read and write in Marathi, started working with social workers, and today runs the organisation that saved her. She is an environmentalist and serious advocate for progressive waste management, an area where India is failing miserably. “The biggest problem is our mentality," she says. "Nobody separates their trash. They think because they pay taxes, it’s the responsibility of the municipality. Very few people care about the environment and future generations.”

Sushila is also changing attitudes towards menial labourers. “They do it not just for their family and children," she says, "but also for the society and country. This job is not inferior to others.” However, the biggest change is with the future generation. The women she works with are now financially secure and evolving. “They don’t get their girls married at a young age anymore,” says Sushila, “This is a huge mark of progress.”

Sushila Sable overcame her own obstacles and is empowering other women like herself.

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero celebrates the Insaafer spirit of Sushila Sable!

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Sushila Sable looks embarrassed as Asmita drags a stool and Sushmita climbs up to retrieve a black trophy. “That’s a real diamond,” says Asmita, pointing to the statuesque woman’s forehead, a smirk on her face. Sushila’s face breaks into a smile that even her neon green pallu can’t hide. “They talk such rubbish sometimes,” she complains. But her eyes twinkle with pride at her granddaughter’s impeccable English. She considers them her real prize, a sign of her success.

Sushila’s older granddaughter is the same age as she was when she came to Mumbai. Her mother came to the city first. She left Sushila and her siblings behind in their village in Jalna but was forced to return for them. “We didn’t have anything to eat over there,” Sushila recollects. “All the animals were dying. All the crops were drying. There was not a drop of rain.” Driven out by the drought, 10-year-old Sushila arrived from the baked hinterlands of Maharasthra to the squalid streets of Mumbai in 1973 and felt like she had stepped from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. “We would beg and eat whatever we got,” she says. “Those were tough times.”

Sushila’s mother took a cue from some families in the neighbourhood and started scrounging through garbage dumps to earn a living. Sushila tagged along, and soon she was a rag picker herself. “Before I knew it,” she says, “23 years had passed. I had a child and was back at my mother’s house. We didn’t think anything could ever change in our life. Then Stree Mukti Sangathana came along and suggested we build a self-help savings group.” Founded in 1975, the Mumbai-based NGO runs many programmes, campaigns and facilities to support and propagate women’s rights. While initially sceptical of the women with “bob-cut” hair, the rag-pickers in Sushila’s slum slowly grew to trust the members of the organisation and started setting aside money every month to be accessed in times of dire need.

The women’s faith strengthened when Stree Mukti Sangathana started procuring cleaning contracts for the rag-pickers and taught them to make compost. They also started attending financial and leadership training courses organised by SMS. This is where Sushila had her first taste of public speaking. “At the end of the first day’s session,” she recalls, “I thanked the lecturers. Everyone realised I could speak well and immediately pushed me to the forefront. For 16 days, I got up on stage and made short speeches.”

Sushila’s eloquence and confidence made her the obvious choice to head SMS’s microfinance federation of self-help groups called Parisar Bhagini Vikas Sangh when it was founded in 2004. What started as a small experiment with a handful of women now has a membership of over 3,500 in 180 self-help groups across Mumbai. Apart from providing financial assistance, the organisation also trains women to segregate and recycle dry waste and make compost from the biodegradable waste. Sushila’s own progress followed a similar upward trajectory. “I was scared when I started,” she says, “because I was uneducated. But I learnt how to write in Marathi. I went with the social workers to municipality offices. Now I have the confidence to run the organisation and speak at big functions also.”

By ‘big functions’, Sushila means the United Nations climate change conferences she has attended in Copenhagen, Durban, and Rio de Janeiro. What impressed Sushila more than the progressive waste management techniques was the attitude of the citizens towards trash, especially in Denmark. “People are habituated to separating their garbage,” she says. “You don’t see rag collectors roaming around with bags. Every person takes responsibility for their own trash.” Unfortunately, that is where India falls behind. “The biggest problem lies in the mentality of the people,” says Sushila. “Nobody separates their trash. They don’t think it’s their responsibility. They think because they pay taxes, it’s the responsibility of the municipality. Very few people care about the environment and future generations.”

So how can citizens make a difference? “I want to tell everyone to separate their garbage and give it to people who can get money after selling it, like domestic helps,” says Sushila. “Parents should start explaining the importance of waste management to their children at a young age. They should use their wet waste to make compost at home. People should not treat rag-pickers disrespectfully.”

Sushila in turn also tells women of the organisation to take pride in their jobs. “Nobody becomes a rag-picker out of choice, but women should not be ashamed of it,” she says. “They do it not just for their family and children but also for the society and country. This job is not inferior to others.” From spending hours in unsanitary conditions without decent pay or healthcare to leading organised lives and educating their children, the women of Prasar Bhagini Vikas Sangh have come a long way. “They don’t get their girls married at a young age anymore,” says Sushila, “and this is a huge mark of progress.” Another telling sign is that the women are financially independent and can borrow up to Rs. 50,000 from the federation at only 2% interest. “Earlier we felt helpless in case of emergencies,” she says. “Now we are empowered.”

 
Stalin-Dayanand-feature-photo

Vanashakti Is Fighting To Protect Mumbai’s Green Spaces

vanashakti stalin dayanand
 

Vanashakti Is Fighting To Protect Mumbai’s Green Spaces

He spent his youth chasing butterflies and catching fish. Stalin Dayanand now spends his day fighting for the most voiceless of our city – the environment!

Our childhoods are vanishing with the mangroves, the salt pans, the urban forests, the groundwater. “Citizens are happy in their ignorance,” says Stalin. “The pyramid of priorities has been overturned. Fancy lifestyle takes precedence over clean air and water now.”

Stalin is fighting a hero’s fight against what he calls an ‘anti-environment’ government. He believes we are custodians of this planet and there’s no point leaving money for the next generation if their world cannot sustain a healthy life.

Vanashakti, the organisation he works for, has had the High Court declare wetlands as protected areas, the Sawantwadi-Dodamarg wildlife corridor as an ecologically sensitive zone (ESZ) in 2013 and, most recently, correct the omission of Aarey Milk Colony from the state’s Development Plan 2034. Thanks to them, Mumbai got back 800 hectares of trees from Aarey Milk Colony.

But the battle is only just beginning!

Stalin is challenging the rich and powerful and dealing with the murky underside of the government. He’s been threatened and attacked but this man is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Irom Sharmila. “Nothing deters me now," he says. "This is my passion. I have found my calling. I’m not leaving. Everyone can do something everyday for the environment. Talk about issues. Don’t be afraid to question the government. Don’t run away!”

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero celebrates the Insaafer spirit of Stalin Dayanand!

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Stalin Dayanand spent most of his childhood in the mangroves of Bhandup, chasing butterflies and catching fish with his bare hands. When that got monotonous, he would pocket chunks of salt from the salt pans and lick them while walking around his verdant village. When he realised that his most precious childhood memories were vanishing along with the mangroves and salt pans of Mumbai, Stalin decided to do something about it.

“When I joined Vanashakti in 2009,” he says, “the organisation was in hibernation after the initial success of its battle against the Forest Rights Act. We decided to scale up operations, and since then we have been combating for different environmental causes.”

Vanashakti conducts educational activities and workshops, undertakes restoration of forests and wetlands, and also works to empower fishing communities, but the organisation is best known for its flurry of petitions. “We are famous across the country for our litigations,” Stalin says with a grin. "We have 23 PILs, probably the most filed by any NGO for the environment.”

In Stalin’s own words, these petitions are backed by “solid data” unearthed by the organisation’s passionate research team. Vanashakti’s perseverance in protecting the environment and mounting pressure on the government has paid off a fair number of times. Stalin lists the success stories – the High Court’s declarations of wetlands as protected areas and of the Sawantwadi-Dodamarg wildlife corridor as an ecologically sensitive zone (ESZ) in 2013, the landmark Ulhas River case in 2017 and, most recently, the omission of Aarey Milk Colony from the state’s Development Plan 2034.

Even though Vanashakti’s efforts have given back the city over 800 hectares of lung space, the battle for Aarey Milk Colony is far from over. Stalin is currently fighting against the building of a car shed by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) in the colony. The extraction of ground water and construction next to the Mithi River is expected to cause grave damage in this eco sensitive zone. Thanks to the unrelenting efforts of over 50 volunteers to educate and sensitise the population, Vanashakti has now collected 4.5 lakh signatures against the construction of the car shed.

The lack of awareness regarding environmental issues is the biggest hurdle for NGOs like Vanashakti. “Citizens are happy in their ignorance,” says Stalin. “The pyramid of priorities has been overturned. Fancy lifestyle takes precedence over clean air and water now.” The only way citizens can make a difference, is by arming themselves with knowledge. “People should read up on any issue they feel is important before passing judgement on it,” says Stalin. “Secondly, citizens should deepen their connection with nature and learn more about Mumbai’s biodiversity.”

It is this infrangible bond with his roots that keeps Stalin going in his fight against an “anti-environment” government. That, and his belief that we, as custodians of this planet, are responsible for the wellbeing of future generations. “We cannot leave behind money for our children without any environment to sustain life,” he says. “Everyone can do something every day for the environment. Talk about issues. Don’t be afraid to question the government. Don’t run away.”

As director of Vanashakti for almost a decade now, Stalin has taken inspiration from the perseverance of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Irom Sharmila to spearhead the movement to protect India’s rich ecosystems. For years he has challenged the rich and powerful and dealt with the murky underside of the government. He has been threatened and attacked for doing his job, but he has taken it all in his stride. “Nothing deters me now,” he says. “This is my passion. I have found my calling. And I’m not leaving now.”

 
Rehan-Merchant-feature-photo

10 Things You Need To Know About How Rehan Merchant Is Saving The Environment

 

10 things you need to know about how Rehan Merchant is saving the environment

For five years now, Rehan Merchant has been cleaning and protecting the mangroves off Carter Road, making sure they thrive.

Why? Well it started because he wanted to swim in the ocean and it was too full of sewage. But one thing led to another, and Rehan built channels, cleaned crab pools, broke massive stones, and helped a secret sandy beach recover!

Mangroves regulate temperatures and floodwaters, host many species of flora and fauna, and absorb eight times as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than any other ecosystem.

Rehan Merchant is a hero and an eco-warrior for our city!

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero celebrates the Insaafer spirit of Rehan Merchant!

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  1. Maharashtra contributed to 45% of total mangrove growth across India last year!
  2. 1690 hectares at the end of Thane Creek is now a protected flamingo sanctuary, home to 10 mangrove species and over 200 species of birds.
  3. Not only do they regulate temperatures and floodwaters, mangroves are usually home to a myriad species of flora and fauna and absorb 8 times as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than any other ecosystem.
  4. Rehan Merchant has been cleaning, replanting, and protecting the Carter Road mangroves single-handedly for over 5 years, and the mangroves are thriving!
  5. He uses the force of the tides, wind, and monsoon to heave heavy trees into place, move sand into banks, and create pathways for sewage water to drain out and fresh seawater to rush in.
  6. He also breaks rocks on the shore to help the tides along in creating a sandy beach. This is why he’s in his mid-50s but has ridiculously good biceps!
  7. If you talk to him, you won’t get a word in edgewise – he’s a tidal wave of knowledge, enthusiasm and Bandra ‘slang’. Eg: ‘your granfadder’s brinjals’ = just some stuff you shouldn’t really be worried about.
  8. Rehan has found some super weird stuff in those mangroves – crabs and sea creatures but also talismans, animal offal, and sometimes human remains. Gross!
  9. He works 6 to 8 hours a day, on his own, because he wants to restore the beach and make it clean enough to swim in. He charges a nominal fee for a tour of the mangroves that goes back into cleaning and restoring them.
  10. A tour of the mangroves will give you all the information you need, bring you finally to a clean, sandy beach no one has access to normally and is a living testament to the sheer force for good one single individual can be.

 
Dipesh-Tank-feature-photo

How A Young Man Is Making The City Safer For Women One Rowdy At A Time

 

How a young man is making the city safer for women one rowdy at a time

When the Nirbhaya incident happened in Delhi, Dipesh Tank says he felt ashamed to be a man. “I made a silent promise to Nirbhaya,” he says, “that if there is ever any act of violence, physical or sexual, whether it’s a stranger or a family member, I will stand up against it.”

Dipesh started a group, WARR (War Against Railway Rowdies), whose volunteers film miscreants who harass women and also perform life-threatening stunts to scare people. So far they have managed to catch 140 ‘rowdies’ and get them booked for their offences.

The WARR team is very small, there are few new volunteers, and the work is dangerous. “I stand on the footboard, trying to record the harassing or the stunts," he says. "Sometimes I’m out till 2 a.m. I understand that not many people want to contribute to reducing harassment or take responsibility for others safety.”

It’s not very convenient, making your city a safer place. It’s actually also dangerous. Every interaction has the potential for retaliation and aggression. “Yes, when you catch them, they may try to hit you,” Dipesh says, “You get beaten up. Sometimes you have to use force to restrain them.”

Does his family worry? “I don’t really tell them,” Dipesh says, laughing a little.

He’s has just spent two days with the police, working on an operation with an anti-trafficking organisation but he shrugs off any titles.

“Don’t call me a hero. I also get scared sometimes, daunted by what I have to do but I don’t know who else is going to do it. Everyone needs to stand up for what is right. Remember, our country has paid a huge price for freedom – we lost lives, we suffered partition. You say you love your country, but what are you doing about that? Loving your country means picking up a problem and working to fix it. We will not be a great society until we are living as liberal, rational beings with social responsibility. Who said freedom is easy?”

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero celebrates the Insaafer spirit of Dipesh Tank!

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When the Nirbhaya incident happened in Delhi, Dipesh Tank says he felt ashamed to be a man. “I made a silent promise to Nirbhaya,” he says, “that if there is ever any act of violence, physical or sexual, whether it’s a stranger or a family member, I will stand up against it.”

Months later, he was travelling from Malad to his office in Bandra when he saw groups of men trying to harass women commuters on the platform. “It triggered me,” he says, “so I called a friend to ask what to do.” His friend told him to call the police.

That’s the first time Dipesh realised what he was up against. “By the time the cops came,” he says, “these guys had run away. I went with a constable the next day and realised that there wasn’t just one group. It’s so many groups. And this was not going to help. I needed to do something on a much larger scale.”

Dipesh spent every spare moment over 4 months sitting in railway offices, learning how there was confusion over the roles of the GRP and the RPS, being told after waiting for hours that the official wouldn’t see him, realising that no one was willing to really do anything.

His friends and he made an informal survey asking women about their commutes. They were horrified to find 84% of women felt unsafe travelling. “We sent this survey to the Prime Minister, the National Commission for Women, the railway minister,” he says. “Only the State Commission for Women’s Rights asked their standing committee to take action. But still, nothing happened after that and it was very demotivating.”

He could have given up but he didn’t. He won’t.

His WARR (War Against Railway Rowdies) is a small group of volunteers who film miscreants who harass women, railway police, women cops, and also perform life-threatening stunts to scare people on the platform. In the last few years, the team had 140 ‘rowdies’ caught and booked for their offences.

The WARR team is small, there are few new volunteers, and the work is dangerous. “I stand on the footboard, trying to record the harassing or the stunts,” he says. “Sometimes I’m out till 2 a.m. I understand that not many people want to contribute to reducing harassment or take responsibility for others safety. It’s not very convenient, right?”

It’s actually also dangerous. Every interaction has the potential for retaliation and aggression. “Yes, when you catch them, they may try to hit you,” he says. “You get beaten up. Sometimes you have to use force to restrain them.” Does his family worry? “I don’t really tell them,” Dipesh says, laughing a little.

Dipesh doesn’t believe everyone needs to be out there, fighting. And while there is a list of additional things authorities could do – easy numbering of the coaches to identify the location of a harasser, CCTVs and patrolling inside train compartments, a list of repeat offenders – the most important thing is that we cannot let ourselves off the hook.

There’s so much that can be done indoors – at home, in classrooms, amongst friends and family. “Start educating them young,” he says, “in school. Teach them how people need to be in this country today. You’re flying the flag, you’re saying Bharat Mata Ki Jai, and then you go out on the street and harass Bharat Mata or you see her being harassed but it doesn’t affect you personally so you don’t do anything.”

He also believes men need to take the responsibility on themselves for how they come across and are then treated. “It’s a mistaken notion that guys harass women in some misdirected form of appreciation or affection,” he says. “This is about a mentality – you even see it in the movies – ‘hey idhar aa’ – this is how they talk to women. You think it’s fun to just harass women who are doing nothing more than standing there.” If a boy actually did like a girl, Dipesh says, they need to learn certain things, “Don’t make her feel uncomfortable! Who abuses a girl because he likes her?! Approach her respectfully and listen to what she says.”

Dipesh has just spent two days with the police, working on an operation with an anti-trafficking organisation, but he shrugs off any titles. “Don’t call me a hero,” he says. “I also get scared sometimes, daunted by what I have to do but I don’t know who else is going to do it. Everyone needs to stand up for what is right. Remember, our country has paid a huge price for freedom – we lost lives, we suffered partition. You say you love your country, but what are you doing about that? Loving your country means picking up a problem and working to fix it. We will not be a great society until we are living as liberal, rational beings with social responsibility. Who said freedom is easy?”

 
Anubha-Sharma-feature-photo

This Woman Is Building Bridges Between The Rich And The Poor

angel xpress
 

This Woman Is Building Bridges Between The Rich And The Poor

When Anubha Sharma took a break from her corporate career, she had no idea her life was about change as she was about change lives. A chance encounter ended up with her teaching underprivileged kids. She’d never seen people who had so little. “Their clothes were worn out," she says. "They were so scrawny it was obvious they didn’t have enough food. And their world was so small. Some had never seen a sandy beach. Some didn’t know what a tiger looked like. They really had nothing."

Along with Beenaa Advani,  she decided to take on the responsibility of teaching more kids. But what do you do when you offer help and someone refuses it?

The slum dwellers they approached were antagonistic and suspicious. They were not at all enthusiastic when Anubha began talking about teaching their kids. “The adults were very aggressive with us at first. They’d soil the area where we taught, make it inhospitable and impossible for us to teach. The kids really wanted to come but also because it was free, they’d come whenever it was convenient, they weren’t regular.”

Anubha didn’t give up. Her volunteers showed up every day and things began to change. “The children who come in either shy or belligerent are ignored by everyone around them," she says. "They are exposed to violence and criminal behaviour, alcohol and drug abuse in the places where they live. Their parents have no time for them, nor do most understand the concept of good parenting, their solution for everything is to beat the child. At AXF centres, they suddenly find adults who are willing to listen to them understand them, love them and they just blossom with the attention, they start valuing education, start realising there is a chance they may create a different life than what they see at home for themselves, they start to feel hope.”

Today AXF runs centres that create coexistence between Mumbai’s slums and high-rises, building bridges between the haves and have-nots. They are seeing better opportunities for girls, good hygiene and most importantly, less violence at home.

Angel Xpress is a positive force for the future and a hero to these children.

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero celebrates the Insaafer spirit of Anubha Sharma!

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In 2011, Anubha Sharma was taking a self-imposed sabbatical from her 20 -ear career as a senior financial services professional. On a morning walk on Carter Road, she noticed several groups of underprivileged kids sitting down with their books, being helped by elderly folk, clearly from more affluent homes.

“I went to offer them some breakfast,” Anubha says, “and the gentleman told me, ‘This is very nice of you, but no one takes time out to help teach them. Would you do it?’” She laughs at the memory of her first reaction. “Me? I don’t know how to teach. I don’t even have kids!”

But she decided to give it a shot and found herself having a lot of fun. “They are delightful,” she says with a smile. “Full of life and curiosity. They’re so eager to download as much information as they can.” As she got to know the children better, she started to notice some not-so-great things. “I’d never seen deprivation like this. The education they were receiving was close to nil. Their clothes were worn out. They were so scrawny it was obvious they didn’t have enough food. And their world was so small. Some had never seen a sandy beach. Some didn’t know what a tiger looked like. They really had nothing.” 

When the weather changed to Mumbai’s ‘winter’ some kids didn’t even have a basic sweater to put over their threadbare clothes to combat the early morning chill. So Anubha decided to ask around for hand me downs and donations. “I checked my phone,” she says, “and the appeal had gone viral on Facebook. I’d had over 3,000 callers and that week I answered with 1,600 SMSes to calls I’d missed.”

Anubha was overcome with the intuition that something was happening – something big.

She had never forgotten a story she had read as a child, growing up in Calcutta. “A French guy adopted four or five kids, they were beggars. He had them enrolled in La Martiniere [one of the best schools there]. The story was about how they were shining at rugby! I remember reading the story and thinking that this is the most important thing: someone took a decision to give these children a safe home and security. I’d also visited my uncle who used to run a small old age home in tandem with an orphanage. I imagined that when I retired, I’d do something too.”

She would not have to wait that long.

One of the callers, Beenaa Advani, ran a little playschool in the vicinity, and she and Anubha decided to start with Bandstand. The slum dwellers there were in a constant stand-off with the residents. They were not at all enthusiastic when Anubha began talking about teaching their kids. “The adults were very aggressive with us at first,” she says. “They’d soil the area where we taught, make it inhospitable and impossible for us to teach. The kids really wanted to come but also because it was free, they’d come whenever it was convenient, they weren’t regular.”

Anubha didn’t back down. She refused to get scared. And things began to change. As invitations to play dates, movies, museum visits began to come in, the team attached outings and treats to a system of desirable behaviour, including attendance. Anubha says it worked like a charm. “You had to earn your privileges!”

Angel Xpress began to take shape, and change happened on both sides. “Parents of children from affluent backgrounds who volunteered at our centres said their kids had begun to think responsibly, act grateful for what they had, and were less demanding. The volunteers, 80% of whom were well-educated, stay-at-home mums, were delighted to be in a space where they were loved, acknowledged, and respected by the children they taught and able to spend time with like-minded people. Their decision to start volunteering also earned them respect and acknowledgement from their own friends and families. We have instituted a system of birthday posts for our volunteers on the AXF page that serves to inform their circle of the work they have chosen do.”   

The kids began to change too. “The children who come in either shy or belligerent are ignored by everyone around them,” she says. “They are exposed to violence and criminal behaviour, alcohol and drug abuse in the places where they live. Their parents have no time for them, nor do most understand the concept of good parenting, their solution for everything is to beat the child. At AXF centres, they suddenly find adults who are willing to listen to them, understand them, love them, and they just blossom with the attention, they start valuing education, start realising there is a chance they may create a different life than what they see at home for themselves. They start to feel hope.”

Today AXF is achieving its goal of celebrating the co-existence between Mumbai’s slums and high-rises, building bridges between the haves and have-nots, redistributing resources – even intangible ones like values and the mentoring an educated mother gives her children. 

They’re beginning to see change within the slums as well. “During our PTMs, we talk about not using violence to discipline at home, equal opportunities for girls, good hygiene practices, and this learning is going deeper into the community. Parents come back saying their kids are more respectful and helpful at home.” 

Anubha says you cannot hope for a better society if you’re not willing to effect some change yourself. Anyone can be a hero, she says. “Just do something for someone outside of your family. With whatever resources you have.” A friend called her recently to talk about her website. “‘It’s crap,’ he said.” She laughs. “He’s the president of a big company and travels like crazy but he’s decided to upgrade our site. He does it while waiting in airports in transit or in hotels. You can choose any way you want to be a hero.” 

Angel Xpress Foundation is a 12 A and 80G certified NGO that provides free consultation and training to citizen bodies interested in community service. With AXF’s guidance and support, over 400 Mumbaikars, volunteer for 2 to 3 hours a week in 15 covered neighbourhood parks across the city to provide daily lessons in English and maths peppered with values and life skills to over 1,500 children. A daily healthy snack, clothes, shoes, toy redistribution drives, and several fun and educational outings further help bridge the divide

To volunteer/donate/start a centre near you, check www.angelxpress.org or write to info@angelxpress.org