Jakob volunteered with Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) from September 2019 to March 2020. In this blog, he shares his reflections and insights from his time at YUVA.
I wished to volunteer at an organisation working on the realisation of human rights — with the people on the ground and with the authorities at an advocacy level. Given my background in law I was glad to be involved in YUVA’s work, especially towards the right to livelihood and housing segments, which included being able to better understand various situations ranging from the case of the homeless or non-notified informal settlement residents to the problems of the public rehabilitation and resettlement housing process for the urban poor, and the struggles of informal workers in the city. Soon, I learned how diverse the formal background of the challenges can be.
My insights on the challenges from a legal standpoint
As a student of law, let me start with three reflections related to my field of study:
- On some fields, there are no laws realising what has been agreed on in international law. For example, the Maharashtra Slum Areas (Improvement, Clearance And Redevelopment) Act, 1971, addresses provisions regarding adequate housing only to particular urban areas, leaving out the case of tens of thousands of dwellers in Navi Mumbai.
- On others, there are laws that have been structurally voided, for example, through inadequate implementation. For instance, by not reappointing the competent board or not attributing the sufficient funding to realise the prescribed measures, as in the case of the Maharashtra Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board Act, 2008: The board does not consist of any members representing domestic workers and their employers (even though this is mandated by law) and, worse, it just comprises of a single-member who constitutes a board. Furthermore, the lack of funding makes it unlikely for registered workers to actually receive the fixed benefits that are assured like assistance for medical expenses and financial assistance. I saw how this erosion of a law creates further adverse effects: The unwillingness among the domestic workers to spend scarce time on frustrating registration issues, as the registration under the Act did not appear to lead to any tangible benefits. This further complicates any concerted effort to demand an improvement of the situation, as the lack of workers’ engagement under the Act may be presented as an indicator that there is no need for improved measures with regard to their social welfare.
- Furthermore, I also came across situations in which the law by itself cannot offer an adequate solution, but only an adapted answer of an authority or institution to an occurrent situation can. For instance, a naka worker or daily-wage labourer will hardly ever pursue a case of wage theft, given the pressures of his daily life and lack of knowledge of or easy access to justice systems. Therefore, a mediating institution with a low-threshold accessibility like YUVA’s labour helpline can be helpful to at least bring the parties together and demand for just wages. Another example of this is: Many cases that the YUVA Urban Initiatives-run Childline team deals with can only be addressed thanks to the reporting by people from the child’s social surrounding or by those roaming attentively in public areas.
Given the variety of challenges, the range of topics YUVA covers for so many different communities is immense. I would not have thought of such an approach — not to just focus on a particular issue, but to extend the scope step-by-step according to the issues community members are experiencing. However, this responsive reach can be understood in the light of YUVA’s inspiring history and its foundational strength in organising youth for change.
Furthermore, YUVA’s vision of facilitating the creation and action of community-based organisations on a range of issues will stay with me as the mindset to drive change by working with, not for the people. I saw how the concept of strengthening youth leadership and community ownership was put into practice through various workshop formats. One in which I was closely involved is the City Caravan, a 10-day-course for the youth to strengthen their knowledge of fundamental constitutional principles and the competencies of official urban bodies, to raise their awareness of social issues and particularly vulnerable groups, ultimately to empower and encourage them to engage with the issues in their city. The course tagline — co-creating inclusive cities with youth — sums up its objectives succinctly.
During this workshop in particular, I was impressed by the participants’ endurance during long-hour sessions as well as the youth’s openness to question their own perceptions of the factors affecting their surroundings.
The critical connection with communities and work on the urban
Nevertheless, I also learned how difficult it proves to reach out to community members in order to realise this vision of community-led action. Often I met with similar groups of community members, even though YUVA has been working with some of these communities for several decades now and even recruits its staff from (young) community leaders, which further demonstrate its rootedness in the communities.
The challenges in retaining and strengthening motivations among community members also made me think of the marginalised communities in Germany who regularly abstain from elections in disproportionately higher numbers: Might it predominantly be a manifestation of the same phenomenon that makes the local vulnerable communities choose not to organise and demand for change? Because, regardless of what one does, there does not seem to be any prospect that the external conditions may change? In any case, through such isolated, yet recurring perspectives I not only learnt about Indian society, but I discovered common or related phenomena which may simply concern other population groups or lead to other visible consequences than in Germany, due to the social context.
For example, my time at YUVA made me realise how vital official recognition is and what kind of vulnerability being labelled ‘illegal’ brings about for any concerned individual — may it be for refugees with unclear perspective to stay in Germany or for street vendors or dwellers of informal settlements in Mumbai. YUVA strengthens the latter’s resilience, when it facilitates the acquisition of basic documents, which are needed to claim any right. Another step is taken on a broader level within the ‘Right to the City’ frame, working towards an inclusive city by making every resident feel like a recognised part of it. It was important for me to understand that, in order to root this sentiment of belonging and nurturing of the city through one another’s efforts, it may also require a range of creative formats, such as cultural events or a youth convention, components that YUVA arranges for notably during the weeks of its annual urban festival ComplexCity.
My work at YUVA also showed me how critical it is that an established organisation constantly remind itself of the concept and attitude that legitimated its rise in the first place, despite the fact that surrounding factors change and new challenges may appear. I was able to take part in a range of programmes, even some that, to me, varied quite a bit from YUVA’s traditional approaches, possibly due to the need to adapt to the changing non-profit landscape with innovative methods.
To conclude, I am grateful for all the experiences and learnings my time with YUVA brought about, for exposing me to the multi-faceted work on visible and less visible disparities shaping Mumbai. YUVA’s vision is very convincing, yet working towards these ideals is a never-ending steep road, a mission that needs to be pursued in any place of the world.
Jakob Teigelkoetter, Intern, YUVA