Urbanisation, it is argued, is an obvious indicator of progress. But at the rate India has grown and moved, indiscriminate urbanisation has also been India's greatest challenge. Cities, the nucleus of promise, delivered opportunity, but with divides and skewed urban development.
And, nowhere is that fact so persistently confronted as in Mumbai — where 65 percent of the entire population lives in slums.
These 'invisibles' are now on the radar of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), which has adopted the entire M-Ward East area to effect real change in the lives of nearly a million. It has embarked on a-five-year project that began as a mammoth data collection exercise on 28 November. Students and volunteers from the community, armed with Reliance Tablets, have so far interviewed 4,000 mothers.
Located in the North-Eastern edge of Mumbai, M-Ward East — close to where TISS itself is located — is a classic example of a neglected urban area. Nearly 77 percent of its population lives in slums. Its Human Development Index (HDI) is the lowest in the city, at a mere 0.2. Healthcare is inadequate; the population per hospital is nearly 66,881. It has the highest infant mortality rate (IMR) in the city — nearly 66.47 deaths per thousand births, where Mumbai's average is 40 per 1000 births.
At the Cheetah Camp
Firstpost visited Cheetah Camp, one of the localities where households are being surveyed. Cheetah Camp, near Trombay, is predominantly home to Muslim population from Uttar Pradesh and Chennai.
Shabnam, one of the volunteers for the project, comes from the community and is helping TISS in data collection. She says, "The government hospital is of no use to the people. There are no doctors at night. The living conditions here are terrible; even children have started suffering from tuberculosis. Most families don't have a toilet, and at night, women don't have an option for loos since the public loos are locked," she says.
Shabnam has been involved in community work for some time now. She acknowledges that surveys are common in slums. But this time, she feels things will be different because of the space and stress on a people-centred solution. "We were given Reliance tablets to collect data. And honestly, on the first night, none of us had any clue how to use them even though we were a given training by TISS. But by the fourth night, we had caught on. I've seen many surveys take place but this is the first of this scale. I'm most impatient for the 'people's plan' to come out," she states.
One of the immediate aims of the project is to bring down the IMR to the city average; TISS will undertake immediate action to ensure this happens, in January by setting up monthly camps with the Sion hospital and its health administration students. The long-term aim is to ensure a more inclusive policy for the people in M-Ward East and to improve overall child and maternal health.
TISS director, Dr S Parasuraman, who has played a significant part in conceptualising the project, argues, "It's not possible to get accurate IMR figures because very often infant death may not be reported." He adds, "The quality of post-natal care in these areas is not the best; malnutrition is rampant and to get to the root of these causes, it's imperative for us to actually to go into areas and talk to the people concerned."
Indeed the TISS survey, which saw participation from all Masters and Doctoral students as volunteers, was a massive exercise with a comprehensive questionnaire. But Parasuraman points out: the project does not end with just nine days of data collection. "We know that at times the data collection won't be entirely accurate; we will verify all that we have collected once again. We intend to go back to the field in the mid-December, once the families we have missed come back, and we shall verify the data if we find inconsistency. "
Once the mass data-collecting exercise is done, the institute, says Parasuman, will distribute reports in the local language to the community. "People's inputs in the form of a people's plan will be an essential part of this project. We are also going to ask some serious questions to the government and the BMC in March, by when we will have a full report which will included area-specific people's plan."
The survey is restricted to slum dwellers but TISS also hopes to include people in rehabilitated areas as part of the project at a later stage. It is evident from the sheer numbers involved that the project will affect millions. But more importantly, it will add a new approach to the ongoing debate on urban development — through a development paradigm that actually involves the people.
Read stories from the ground, shared by TISS volunteers, here.