Sumati Belady joined YUVA in 1998 as a Balwadi teacher. Since then she’s been involved in various community struggles and has been a constant support to children and women in communities in Malad. This is her account of her journey so far.
Faces shielded behind masks, people locked up in their houses, livelihoods and income sources affected! These are all everyday sights in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been more than three months I haven’t stepped outside the house, except to buy essential goods. Being constantly around people all my life, I miss my community, my work and most importantly, standing alongside the people, voicing our opinions and fighting for our basic rights and amenities — the struggles, be it with ourselves, our lives or with the authorities.
But, what did I know about rights, human development, and people’s organisation back in the 1990s, if it wasn’t for my journey with Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA)? All I knew was that I wanted to work for the interests of the community. This motivation led me to work with YUVA as a Balwadi (pre-school) teacher in New Bhabrekar Nagar, Malad in 1998. At that time the basti (informal settlement/slum) had many cramped-up spaces without proper basic facilities like toilets, water and electricity, there were peeled off partly concretised walls, open drains and no garbage management system. ‘I won’t be able to stick to this job even for a month’ I thought.
However, as days passed, the sound of ‘teacher, teacher’ from the little ones gave a sense of satisfaction and warmth. The number of children enrolled in schools were few. To try and ensure that education reaches everyone, along with other YUVA members, I took door-to-door surveys, started small study classes and encouraged children to lead, and participate in several activities. Support was provided for children to enroll in schools.
The eviction of the basti residents in Mumbai post-1998 affected kids’ education. The state authorities forcefully evicted, confiscated personal belongings and demolished homes of more than 12,000 families from areas like Bhabrekar Nagar, Ambojwadi, Azmi Nagar, Rathodi/ Kharodi, Bhaiyawadi, Ruia Nagar without providing alternative accommodation. Majority of the population living in these bastis were working in the informal sector, dependent on their daily wages. As part of YUVA’s intervention in the area, I also stood with the people in their fight for securing housing and basic facilities by engaging in activities I had never done before like writing letters to the BMC authorities, approaching local political leaders and so on.
Since 2004, people’s organisations were being formed in New Bhabrekar Nagar, Ambojwadi and its surrounding localities. Through awareness campaigns and workshops, people were organised and these groups acted as platforms for communities to freely express their demands. Strong foundations of community-level collectives such as Ambojwadi Vikas Samiti, Kharodi/ Rathodi Vikas Samiti, Azmi Nagar Vikas Samiti helped raise issues and challenges faced by the basti residents while also advocating for their rights. Through regular sessions, community leaders were trained in leading advocacy efforts, communicating with authorities, increasing awareness about local state mechanisms, conducting surveys, etc. Besides, ‘Mahila Bachat Gats’ (self-help groups) and registered ‘Deepjyoti Mahila Mandal’ in Ambojwadi focused on women empowerment in these communities.
To bring forth children’s voices and demands, groups in several parts of the bastis were formed which were facilitated by YUVA. ‘Pragati Baal Mandal’ (PBM) in New Bhabrekar Nagar, was one of the groups that were formed of children between the ages 6-15 years which, over time, had a total of 180 members. Workshops, training sessions and discussion forums focused on skill development and awareness-building of group members. The group started raising community issues of health, hygiene, education, safe environment, and basic facilities through street plays, writing letters to the BMC authorities and political leaders. De-addiction campaigns with children and youth were held, along with cleanliness awareness campaigns in collaboration with BMC.
Other children groups were formed under the banner of ‘Bal Adhikaar Sangharsh Sangathan’ (BASS) — a collective of, by and for the children in the 2000s. BASS aims to develop children leaders from the socially marginalised communities, to seek solutions to social issues and implement strong interventions to usher transformation. Today, it gives me immense pride and fulfilment to look at these children leaders of BASS, who have all grown up to become successful doctors, engineers, and nurses.
Through my experiences with the community, I learned that the struggles of any group or community are incomplete without the participation of the concerned stakeholders. Giving the oppressed and marginalised equal opportunities to lead is crucial for any social movement. It is, we, the people, who have the collective power to change and transform society.
Written as narrated by Sumati Belady