Barefoot army behind NGO’s award-winning research on city slums | Source: Mumbai Mirror | Oct 11, 2012
PUKAR’s team of Barefoot Researchers from the very slums they are helping to improve
Anita Patil-Deshmukh was felicitated by her alma mater, the Harvard School of Public Health, last week as ‘public health innovator of the year’ for her work in a slum on Mumbai’s eastern waterfront.
But to understand the true impact of her work, you’ll have to meet Baliram Boomkar and Shakira Mulla.
Patil-Deshmukh, executive director of research initiative PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research), and Mulla and Boomkar, its Barefoot Researchers, are part of a tireless army that makes the organisation’s work possible.
PUKAR works to offer a better standard of living to inhabitants of slums locked within the city’s crevices. Tapping into youth from these communities, it empowers them to spread awareness and collect data that can be collated and then presented to authorities who hold the power to bring about change.
It was innovation in data collection, research and reaching out to the population that won Patil-Deshmukh the award. “Other researchers,” she says, “paratroop into a community. The quality of their information remains superficial. We found that involving locals empowers them. The idea of doing something for themselves is the best motivation.”
“Besides, the information they collect has a granularity which you and I could never land. They can talk to neighbours, gather and reassure them. Thirdly, it creates a wider and more personal reach for follow-up. We can create medical cards and set up appointments, but the Barefoot Researchers can remind the slum-dwellers personally and follow up their visits.”
The advantage that PUKAR gains is small compared to what the Barefoot Researchers reap. The workforce includes people from the immediate surroundings of the slum, and these interactions improve their sense of dignity. “And somehow these children are mainstreamed,” adds Anita.
Boomkar, only 19, has worked with Pukar for three years, while Mulla has been with them for two. Boomkar rattles off the projects he’s worked on: diarrhoea awareness, collecting biometric data, mental health surveys and immunisation.
According to him, tensions about the uncertainty over water, disease and toilets are the main reasons for the rise in mental health issues. Shakira works at Raghuleela Mall in Vashi during the week and Bali is doing his SYBCom from Siddharth College at Fort.
You can sense the confidence when Boomkar talks about his work and Mulla’s dreams for the future. Boomkar is a college student with multiple piercings and Shakira is quietly resolute. “We had to collect water samples for one project — from the main tap, then from the pipeline, then from our home taps and finally from the small bay near our house — to see whether it was potable. I used to bathe there when I was small,” says Boomkar, “so even I wanted to see what it contained. It was not clean at all.”
Mulla says she enjoyed the mental health survey. Their slum has a high rate of suicide. “Kal hi aur ek uncle gaya. Roj koi-na-koi karta hai (Just yesterday another uncle died. Every day, someone or the other commits suicide),” says Bali.
“The people unburden themselves by talking to us, and we tell them that if you keep looking at the pen, the pen is all you’ll see. Look at the things around it. Then they say they feel better after talking to us, that someone cares enough to ask about them,” she says.
Boomkar and Mulla are very aware of how their work sets them apart from their contemporaries. “I wanted to work for my community. As it is, no one comes to us,” says Mulla. “And when we give others solutions, it would be shameful if we didn’t apply them to ourselves. We have learnt that talking solves everything.”
How the team works
Shrutika Shitole is a 27-year-old project co-ordinator who works closely with the Barefoot Researchers. “We tap into the energy of the youth because we find they make the change process faster,” she says. While everyone is encouraged to join, the group tries to maintain gender equality and to have respresentation from each of the slum’s sub-communities.
“Usually, when people see us asking questions in an area, they come up to us and we tell them how they can help. They, in turn, bring their friends,” says the Ghodapdeo resident. They are trained thoroughly in workshops, and the reason behind each question in a questionnaire is explained. “For instance, if they are asking a person where he or she was born, we tell them not to settle for just ‘gaon’.
“We teach them how to ask questions, and familiarise them with the pamphlets and other material. Then we pilot-test the questions through roleplay,” she says.