Saturday, January 9, 2010
Day at the SPARC office, part I
Our second day with SPARC.
We started the day imagining all sorts of questions we would ask Sheela Patel when we met and those that were still lingering from our previous days’ trip.
So we got ready in the morning and as it turns out we were running on India time again, but only by a few minutes, but those were Indian few minutes. Certainly, we were not allowed to leave the house without breakfast, so even as we were rushing out, there was the whole, “Stop! Eat before you go! We shuffled into our chairs, and inhaled Upma (some rice noodles cooked with peanuts and spices) and booked it out the door.
At this point it is important to note how fast our driver is: we got to the office in an hour and a half. That might sound like a long time, but this trip was supposed to take us 2 hours. We even stopped 3 times for non traffic related issues. Also, before leaving the house, Vinisha got an earful from Aunty about the area that we were going to. She pointed out how unsafe the region is, and we are not allowed to laugh on the street there. We laugh too loud and it attracts a lot of attention, and because of the area that we are going to, it can be misleading. We followed Aunty’s directions very very carefully. This meant though that we had all our laughter of the entire day stored up and once we got into the car for returning home, we burst out laughing over nothing at all.
On our way to the SPARC offices we got a call from Avery saying that Sheela had gone into a meeting and would not be available for us until much later in the day. However, since we had already left the house and were half way there, we decided to continue on and meet with whomever was available. We arrived that Alankar Theatre and walked to SPARC office. The neighborhood was very much under construction and most of the shops around were metal workers.
At the SPARC office we were told to go to the second floor. We went up the first flight of stairs and walked around. No SPARC office, just day care centers. Then we realized that Avery had been in India already for 4 months and was speaking Indian English, which meant that first there is the ground floor and then there is the 1st and only then the 2nd floor. So we wandered up one more flight of stairs, and found SPARC. After greeting Avery, she showed us around the office. The office consists of Sheela’s office, a room with many accountants (each at their own computer) and an office manager, and a final room where the program managers and Avery sit (again, each with their own computer). Because Avery and others in the office were busy when we first arrived, Avery gave us some reading material from the SPARC archives and we quickly found our “office.” It was nice corner office, with a window overlooking an almond tree, with nice cane furniture. If you came into our office you might have just seen couple of couches in the hallway under the window, but since this is where people came to find us and we did our reading and theorizing, it quickly became our corner office with a great window.
We began with going through the literature that Avery has pulled out for us. We flipped through the pages of a fantastic book, “Dharavi: Documenting Informalities” ( produced by The Royal University College of Fine Arts, Art and Architecture department in Sweden. The book, we were told, does not offer as much information as it could, but it brings the issues of Dharavi and the transformation process to light. We were thrilled when we were told that we could bring it back to The New School so we have much more time to pour over it.
Our first meeting of the day was with Aseena, the Program Manager. She was very helpful in presenting us with a clearer picture of SPARC’s role within the transformation processes. Aseena explained a bit again of SPARC’s history. SPARC was started as a charitable trust, which focused on housing and sanitation rights. In order to prove the work that they were doing was creating positive change, they had to continually create exhibitions for government and community groups, which would show in real life scale, the work that they were looking to produce in that location. “We had to always show that we could design community toilets that function, in order to prove our knowledge and that communities would mobilize.” SPARC sought out cities in which to do their work, and began in those where the city government was sympathetic.
Aseena stressed the reason for which the government was so interested in redeveloping Dharavi. The reason is that it is located at the center of the city and is bordered by the Western and Central rail lines. Also nearby is the financial district where many foreign companies have their offices. Therefore there is a lot of profit to be had from capturing some of this land for profit.
Aseena described the relationship between SPARC and the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF). NSDF is and entity that brings together many people from within the slum communities. Because it is difficult to deem whom in the government, and at which level in the government the people should voice their concerns and needs, “SPARC becomes the face of the people and of NSDF.”
SPARC also began doing construction of houses. This is a relatively new model for a charitable organization. Because of how NGOs are defined legally, which is within very conservative parameters, SPARC created a new organization, which was solely concerned with construction. This is how Nirman came into being (we got the name of Nirman from SPARC’s website, not from interviews).
SPARC is interested in implementing a plan that she called “Incremental Housing,” in which upgrading happens incrementally. “First a resident is provided with a loan with which to begin to create a permanent residence and then later, when you have more funds you continue to build and formalize your home. You make your home permanent as you can afford int. Right now we are trying to write a plan, which will help to implement this idea. We need to make the infrastructure ready and only then continue.”
An interesting point that Aseena made clear was that SPARC is the face of NSDF in the legal sense because NSDF does not want to be legally recognized as it involves much higher operational costs. For SPARC, “there is no personal agenda, we only work for what NSDF wants and needs because we need to register and be a legal and formal entity. NSDF does not want to do this. It’s a big hurdle if they are registered as a formal entity – you then have to trust your accounting and income taxes to be done to specific standards – each of the 70 centers has to be worried about their accounting. So, receipts and payments are sent to SPARC and we put it in a form that is acceptable and understood by the government. It’s better to do it here than to get individual accountants in each of the centers.” SPARC works on formatting and translating all the financial documents for submission. This is why there is a very large team of accountants in the office, each is working with different centers and grants. It’s important to note that, “SPARC receives new grants because of its connection with NSDF,” Aseena said that because of this connection, “if we did it on our own it wouldn’t be seen as viable for lending.”
Aseena’s time was short so we started getting to some of our more particular questions based on observations we had made in the last two days. On the tour, Sharmila made note that the children’s toilets in the new toilet compound were not being used. Aseena explained that, “This was due to the design of their facility. It didn’t work because when the children squat in a circle in an enclosed space they become conscious of their gender. We need to work on a better design.”
We were still not getting clear responses to our question on pro-activity. We were told that if a person or group arrives in Dharavi after the cut-off date, SPARC is in no position to be of service to them. When Mahila Milan becomes aware of the new arrivals, they do inform SPARC, but there is nothing that can be done from their perspective. They are working solely with communities that have formed into federations and have been in their particular location before the cut-off date of 2006 for Dharavi residents or 1995 in other settlements. Aseena said that, “The municipality wants SPARC to clear the pavements and keep them cleared. Yea right! We do this with the locations that are partially cleared. We provided the municipality with the idea of placing flowerpots or formal shops in the recently cleared locations. We’ll see if they do this.” There is still no defined solution in terms of the new arrivals as we see this as perpetuation of the problem. Aseena also said that new arrivals can come to NSDF to create a biometric profile which will then be presented to the municipality. But again, from our understanding of what we have been told, nothing more is done.
Another question that we were interested in was why Mahila Milan and other individuals in the slums don’t use the banks for keeping their savings. The reason is that people want the money that they have been saving quickly. In an emergency, they need the money as soon as possible and do not want to waste their time getting to or standing in the banks. “The banks had some schemes at times when they want to open a lot of accounts and increase clientele and will allow the residents to open an account. When they see that there is very little money flowing in the accounts – they don’t open any more.” People in the slums need money and the credit and debit cards are not accessible to poor. Banks will not put ATMs in slum areas, no matter how formal or old the area is. The bank is concerned about the security and use of their ATMs, but it is interesting to note what Sharmila told us, which is that there have never been any thefts in the Mahila Milan offices. The offices are functioning during the day with Mahila Milan women, and in the evening are watched over by street children. “We have learned that during the first year or two a community tends to need additional support before people are brought in completely to the system and that they understand that they now will have a set monthly payment.” In order to save on maintenance which could make fees higher y residents, communities have come to agreements, such as not running the elevator at certain times.
We posed a question regarding the conflict of interest that might arise in projects, specifically when working with various communities who all want land. We based our question on the story that Shahnaz told us about Dharavi residents unhappy with the pavement dwellers choice of land, as it encroached on their own. There was again, not a very clear answer. What we were told was that there is severe land scarcity and a question of how accessible a particular piece of land is to people.
With regards to the political scene, Aseena told us that SPARC is a-political and does not involve itself in political campaigns and works with all parties that are in power. No SPARC members run for election and during election time, all work stops so as not to seem influenced or biased towards any particular party, politician, or scheme. Sheela is, however, a member of the Advisory Committee, which is commenting on the Dharavi transformation plans. In a conversation we had later with Avery, we were told that “Sheela has a big say in the way that RAI will be written (RAI will take over the current policy, JRNNURN) and so this won’t really change the SPARC methodology, but rather will influence the policy based on the work that SPARC has done. These changes will be affecting states and politicians a lot because there is a lot of difficulty in changing from one scheme to the next and understanding what is new and different and what is positive from that change.”
There are different reasons for why the talks on transformation fall apart. The first time talks failed was due to the fact that there was no participation from the residents in the planning process. The plan very well could have gone through if NGOs and residents hadn’t at the last moment received word of the plan. Residents would have woken up one morning in 2008, to find the demolition teams in at their doorsteps. The second was due to economic and financial difficulties. The third reason, which is where the process is currently stalling is due to a continued lack of participation and collaboration.
Residents are requesting that the plans include: larger square footage, space for industry and commercial properties, and more rights for renters.
We ended our meeting with Aseena and then picked out some food for lunch. Vinisha and Cecilia retreated to their corner office for some reading and then joined Aseena, Avery, Adityas, and Kayela for lunch. It was a nice informal time to talk about planning and studying in India versus the U.S.