Saturday, 7 October 2017

Building Home with Home Improvement Loans

Geeta lives in a one room house in Savda Gevra, a resettlement colony in Delhi, with her husband Vinod and four children. Her family was resettled from a makeshift hut in 2006. Geeta completed her masonry training from the Karmika School for Construction Workers that MHT had opened in Savda Gevra. 

Gita's family lived in a kutcha house, unable to afford the cost to rebuild it

When Geeta and her family moved to Savda, they used what little savings they had to construct a small kutcha house. They had a blue plastic tarp for roof. During the monsoon rains, Geetaben and her four children would huddle together trying to stay dry. Without a roof or any proper walls, her children were constantly falling sick. Like most houses in Savda, they had no water connection at house. Geetaben would wake up early every morning to lug heavy buckets of water from an erratic water tank. With no sewage lines built, Geetaben's family was forced to defecate in the open. They worried about the lack of privacy, potential night attackers and the dismal state of hygiene. After nearly five years, Geetaben and her husband decided to take a Rs 10,000 loan from MHT to construct an underground water pump beneath their house. It changed their lives.

Geeta no longer worries about water shortages or carries heavy buckets of water from the water tank. She feels better about the water quality and her children's improved health. Not wanting debt on their record and eager to apply for a housing improvement loan, the family repaid their loan in less than a year. In May 2012, after becoming a member of SMBT Geetaben applied for a Rs 60,000 home improvement loan from MHT to build a proper roof, a terrace and stairs leading to the first floor. MHT assessed Geeta's repayment capacity by evaluating her household income, assets, savings history, property papers, liens on property and borrowing track record. In addition, engineers from Awaas SEWA provided a cost estimate for Geeta's desired construction. Confident of their repayment capacity, MHT granted Geeta's family a Rs 60,000 housing improvement loan in June 2012. Trained as masons from the Karmika School for Construction Workers that is run by MHT in Savda, Geeta and her husband were able to construct the house themselves in one month without hiring any external laborers. Awaas SEWA engineers also helped Geeta and Vinod in their construction process by assisting with the design and negotiating the cost of materials with vendors. MHT disbursed the Rs 60,000 loan in phases according to the pace of construction, Awaas SEWA was responsible for monitoring the construction quality and pace and for signaling to MHT that the next loan installment should be disbursed.

Vinod works in a tube light factory and Geeta works as a mason. Their household income fluctuates between Rs 8,500 to Rs 10,000 a month. While a quarter of their income goes towards household expenses, they made sure to save around Rs 2,000 a month and pay back the loan. An MHT nameplate that read "This house is funded through a home improvement loan given by the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust" hanged on the front of Geeta's house until she repaid her loan.

Urban Poor Learning about Climate Change by Playing Snakes and Ladders

How many of us grew up playing the Snakes and Ladders game as kids?

The gathering of family around the colorful board, the rush of joy we got when climbing a ladder, and the disappointment when we got bitten by a snake, are memories that we always cherish.

Today, this age-old game is being used by Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) - an NGO that aims to improve the habitat conditions of poor women in the informal sector - to impart messages on climate change, its adverse effects, and building climate resilience.

Lakshmi hails from a slum settlement in Bhopal called Garib Nagar. A community of 400 households, the area is severely affected by water-logging and vector-borne diseases during monsoons and water scarcity during summers. Uneducated and poor, Lakshmi was oblivious to the concept of climate change, although her community has been suffering through increasingly hot summers and heavy monsoons for years. Even after she was introduced to climate change through the community-level meetings, Lakshmi failed to link it to the water scarcity or frequent diseases that her community had to deal with. It was then that MHT introduced the Snakes and Ladders game.

On the 10x10 gridded board, the snakes represented consequences of climate change such as high temperatures and reduction in ground water levels that lead to illnesses and water scarcity. And the ladders represented ways to improve their lives by making thoughtful decisions on saving and investing money on availing themselves of water supplies and education. Lakshmi thoroughly enjoyed the game. In addition to that, she also learnt about the importance of saving money, making careful decisions and thinking ahead about the future of her family. Today she understands that, “saving money is important to move forward as the change in climate and unhygienic living conditions can cause life-threatening issues. I also focus on hygiene now and regularly uses water purification tablets to cleanse drinking water.”

Urban slum settlements like Lakshmi’s are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. However, the people remain completely unaware of the reasons behind the adversities they face and how they can address them. MHT uses simplified communication methods such as games, demonstrations, one-on-one meetings, videos, wall paintings and street plays to generate an interest in people and introduce the concept of climate change, its impacts and build climate resilience.

Introduced in 2016, the Snakes and Ladders game is played during training sessions and community level meetings in 105 slum settlements in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Through the game, around 3,500 women, who otherwise would not have had any knowledge about climate change or its impacts on their day to day lives, have come to understand the true reason behind unbearable summers and monsoons, and appreciate long-term planning, and focus on healthy living.

Another community member, Babitha, has also played Snakes and Ladders multiple times. She acknowledges that in addition to keeping her entertained during her free hours, the game has also improved her understanding about her own living conditions.

She said: “I have learnt that unpurified water can cause diseases, so we have to boil it before consuming to avoid illnesses. I also learnt how plants can help deal with the rise in temperature. I share everything I learn from the meetings with my husband, and have started planting trees in our yard.”

Friday, 6 October 2017

Introducing "vulnerability" to vulnerable people

“We need a cemetery,” came the united voice of residents of Nayi ki Thari, a slum in India’s city of Jaipur, when they were questioned about their top priority needs in meeting climate threats.

The message came as a shock for me, an environment practitioner working on climate change and seeking to extract information on how communities were coping with negative changes in the climate.

While climate change and its associated problems are gaining wider attention globally, the concept of vulnerability remains alien to those most at risk: the communities themselves. The most critical challenge is to transfer the science of climate vagaries to those whose resilience is at risk, particularly with limited access to climate information and information about potential risks.

What the community in Jaipur perceived to be the greatest climate challenge was not the recent floods in the area – the result of increasingly unpredictable rainfall – but the difficulties in carrying dead bodies to a cremation ground located 15 kilometers away, along unpaved and uneven roads that are ever worse when water-logged.

A large drain situated in the marshy soil of the slum often backed up and flooded, submerging the entire locality. Shockingly, children were even drowned during the last monsoon.

A number of communities said in focus group discussions they had observed significant changes in the weather patterns over time. However, 90 percent perceived these changes to be “due to grace of God” and had no clue how much human activity had contributed to the problem.

While most of the communities recognised that climatic changes would have an impact, none sensed that the problem would impact them, their livelihoods, and their lives the most, even as their contribution to the problem was the least.

Change starts with awareness. Working with communities to build adaptation to climate change, in isolation, is inappropriate if the lack of knowledge about climate change and its effects is not addressed alongside.

Now that we realize the low awareness levels of communities about climate-induced vulnerability, the need of the hour is to start initiating discussions and to equip them with the knowledge they need.

Without that, vulnerability could intensify, with the poor becoming poorer due to increased climate pressures, which the World Bank last year warned could push more than 100 million people into poverty by 2030.

The need to provide civic amenities and access to facilities is always a top priority when talking about the urban poor. But we must recognise that informal settlements are already exposed to multiple stresses and barriers. Before addressing climate challenges in the community, communities need to first have a comprehensive understanding of climate risks, before adaptation efforts get started.

Designing awareness tools and participatory risk assessment exercises in the form of creative games and shows can be an emphatic way to trigger in communities an awareness of their vulnerability to climate perils.

Emergence of this perception among communities has the potential to be a milestone in enabling individuals to cope with climate stresses or shocks and to plan for long-term resilience building.

As Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, rightly says , “Conversation often leads to transformations”. Getting communities talking about vulnerability would certainly transform the way they perceive their future challenges – and help them plan for adaptation.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Changing Lives in Informal Settlements

Sunder Nagri in Delhi is one of the largest resettlement colonies with 1000s of displaced urban residents. When the 50 or so initial households moved to Sunder Nagri, it was desolate and wild. Cut off from government services and infrastructure, residents were forced to wake up at 3:30 am and walk 2 to 3 kilometers to collect water for their cooking and washing needs. Diseases were rampant because of the lack of proper water and sanitation facilities. Many children died from jaundice, malaria and diarrhea and sickness became a part of their lives.

It was in 2009 that MHT began to organize community meetings at Sunder Nagri, through which the residents were educated about their rights to clean water, sanitation and better quality housing, and how they can access various government schemes for water and sanitation. Many of the women members were nervous about travelling alone to distant municipal offices, unsure of how to navigate complicated transport systems and respond to the questions from government officials. In order to solve it effectively, MHT organized a series of training sessions and arranged trips to local government offices, until the women gained the confidence to lead these visits themselves. Additionally, MHT also helped them obtain ration and identification cards, making them eligible for government infrastructure and housing schemes.

Later on, MHT also worked extensively to improve the water and sanitation conditions at Sunder Nagri. Recognizing an acute need for water connections, MHT began to offer loans for underground water pump and individual hand pumps. MHT also tackled the challenge of open defecation through disbursing loans for individual toilets. As a result, residents are now healthier, more productive and confident.

It was the availability of water that changed their lives significantly. One of the community members says, “We can now shower and wash our clothes and dishes whenever we want. We finally have free time. We don’t have to lug heavy buckets anymore or wake up at 3:30 am to fetch water."

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Helping Communities Affected by Ahmedabad Rains

At 5.45 am on the 27th of July, Meenaben woke up to a phone call from a slum settlement in Vrundavan Nagar in Ahmedabad. On the other end was Radhika, one of the beneficiaries of MHT, informing her that the entire slum that includes 205 households got flooded in the heavy rain overnight.

Meenaben, one of the Vikasini members, has been working with MHT for the last 17 years. Having been identified as a strong woman leader, Meenaben helps with MHT's works in 23 slum settlements in Ahmedabad to empower women to develop their habitats and build climate resilience. Since Meenaben has been working with the people of Vrindavan Nagar for around 12 years now, she became the first person for Radhika to call during a time of adversity.

Soon after she received the call, Meenaben visited the community to check their condition. She describes the situation as much worse than previous years. Since the area sits at a lower level than the recently built highway, rainwater from surrounding areas were logged in the slum. As a result, the water had gone inside their households, ruining vegetables and other foods, and people were using buckets to scoop the water out.

After verifying the situation, Meenaben called the Ward Councilor and the control room at Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) and requested for help. By noon, a team from AMC had come to Vrundavan Nagar. They pumped the water out and provided the families with food provisions.

Meenaben is glad that she is able to efficiently help the communities she works with. The trainings she received as a beneficiary of MHT continue to help her in making decisions that reap immediate and positive results. She stays in touch with the community to make sure their urgent needs are met.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

MHT is Granted Millennium Alliance Award 2017

Initiatives in promoting sustainable energy consumption among the poor has won MHT the Millennium Alliance Award 2017. A network of Indian institutions that aims to promote innovative ideas to overcome development challenges, Millennium Alliance organizes yearly award ceremonies to honor impactful social enterprises in the country.
MHT receiving the Millennium Alliance Award
At the Round IV Award Ceremony that was held in Delhi this week, MHT was recognized for works in building climate-resilient communities with a focus on urban slums. Many slum dwellings in India are constructed with plastic covers and cement and tin sheets which absorb heat. As a result, these houses create hot and stuffy living conditions and make the inhabitants vulnerable to climate change risks. Moreover, the absence of proper light and ventilation make the families depend significantly on electrical lighting and cooling.
In order to better their living conditions and reduce energy consumption, MHT came up with the solution to
  • educate families on nuances of energy usage such as bill calculation, appliance’s wattage consumption, changes in wiring to reduce energy wastage, and the use of renewable and energy efficient products
  • promote customized green energy technologies such as solar lighting-cooling systems, CFLs, LEDs, stoves and innovative building technologies such as Roof Ventilation and ModRoofs
  • support end-user financing with tailored loans and flexible collection, and
  • provide after sale services
The project will yield a 10% decrease in household expenditure on fuel consumption. Reduction in energy costs will allow poor households to increase their spending on food, health and education. For home-based workers in slums, the improvement in light, ventilation and insulation will also lead to a 4 hours increase in daily working hours. With the grant received from Millennium Alliance, MHT aims to reach 2500 households in Bhopal through this initiative and help climb the energy ladder and use more efficient and sustainable products and services.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Bhumika Following on the Footsteps of Her Grandmother

Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) aims at improving the habitat conditions of poor women in the informal sector. Since its establishment in 1994, MHT has worked with over 895 slums, reaching over 3,11,450 households. In an effort to bring up a generation of young women leaders with a passion to develop their communities, MHT involves adolescent girls from slum settlements in Ahmedabad to provide families with basic water and sanitation facilities. Bhumika, a 17-year-old, is one of the first adolescent girls to join the program. 

Bhumika was encouraged by her grandmother Jiviben to join MHT. Jiviben, who has been working with MHT for the last 18 years, helped improve the living conditions of around 150 households in her neighborhood. She says that it was her decision to be involved with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and MHT that positively transformed her life and community. She learnt how to access government schemes for community development through MHT meetings and training sessions, and turned her slum, which had no light, water, toilets or pukka housings, into a neat area of colorful houses with tidily paved paths, individual toilets and water connections. Now at the age of 60, Jiviben is proud of the changes that she has brought in her community. She also educated her children, encouraged her daughters-in-law to study and work, and now supports her granddaughter in her involvement with MHT.
Bhumika started working with MHT before 9 months, when the program was initiated with the support of Dasra Giving Circle. She helps MHT with gathering women for meetings and conducting surveys. Since her grandmother has ensured that their community has necessary sanitation facilities, Bhumika took the initiative to study their neighboring localities where people still struggle to access basic necessities. She identified two slums where people defecated in the open and conducted surveys of 53 households. While conducting these surveys, she also educated the families about the Swachh Bharat Mission, a government campaign to keep cities clean and eliminate open defecation.
Bhumika dreams of becoming a teacher and educating her students on sanitation and hygiene practices that she has learned through MHT. A class 11 student, Bhumika is instilling hope for a better future for communities like hers in Ahmedabad. 

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Women’s Actions towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Sow One Seed and Reap a Hundredfold

15 years ago, Fakira Tank Na Chapra in Ahmedabad was merely a slum with illiterate residents. Today, however, through the proactive and strenuous works of the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), the place has transformed into a formal apartment block with empowered women leaders. An Indian NGO that works for the betterment of habitat conditions of poor women living in slums, MHT began their work with Fakira Tank Na Chapra in 2002 by engaging the community through informative meetings about the slum networking project. As a part of the project, some women leaders were identified from the community who were then trained to actively interface with the government to improve their living conditions. In 12 years’ time, these leaders ensured that every family in the community received efficient water and sanitation services, electricity, paved roads, street lighting, and their own apartments. Safe and easier living conditions led to healthy and thoughtful community, where people found more time and opportunities for livelihoods and education.

Fakira Tank Na Chapra is one among 895 slum settlements from 7 Indian states that MHT has worked with thus far. MHT ensures that through its programs on Habitat Development, Climate Change Resilience and Participatory Planning and Governance, people in slum settlements have land rights and decent housing, clean water and sanitation, access to affordable energy, and empowered women leaders.

Through a focus on women led habitat development, MHT contributes significantly towards advancing United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Adopted in 2015, the 17 integrated and interconnected Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address various development issues ranging from ending poverty and hunger to improving health, education and environment, with a strong emphasis on sustainable urbanization.

Since the implementation of the SDGs, MHT helped 562 households to receive access to potable water and 114 households to get electricity, and installed 8,790 toilets and 2,330 sewers. Additionally, MHT also trained 1,825 female construction workers so they could access better work opportunities, counselled 4185 families on effective energy consumption, shared 3,894 energy efficient and renewable energy products with beneficiaries, and directly and indirectly helped 59,549 families to gain access to formal housings.

MHT’s works help realize several of the Sustainable Development Goals. They are SDG5: Gender equality, SDG6: Clean water and sanitation, SDG7: Affordable and clean energy, SDG8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, SDG10: Reduced inequalities, SDG11: Sustainable cities and communities, SDG 13: Climate action and SDG17: Partnerships for the Goals.

Access to a sound habitat makes the lives of poor people (especially women), healthier, easier and safer, enabling them to find time and opportunities for better livelihoods. As a result, these immediate results indirectly contribute to other SDGs such as SDG1: No poverty, SDG2: Zero hunger, SDG3: Good health and well-being and SDG4: Quality education.

MHT’s programs stand as strong examples of how contributing to one of the SDGs indirectly addresses other issues at hand. By focusing on 8 SDGs, MHT is indirectly contributing to 4 more of the Sustainable Development Goals.