In Bengaluru, groups of underprivileged, disadvantaged women have come together to help others like them jettison age-old detrimental practices such as child marriage, and also avail of rights and dues. Groups like the Daksha Samuha and Mahila Arogya Samiti have intervened successfully in domestic violence and sexual harassment cases and stopped the marriages of minor girls. They spread awareness about the importance of a balanced diet, assist in monitoring the health of elders, children, the infirm, and expectant and lactating women
“The rainwater came at us like a tsunami after the thunderstorm in the early hours of 15th August 2017,” recalls Usha, who lives in the extremely low-income Ambedkar Nagar neighbourhood of Central Bengaluru. “It was left to us to ensure that elders, the infirm and children were safe as the water almost reached our necks. A few government officers and elected representatives met us, but no one helped. Previously too, these people had reneged on their promises. So we just got down to the task of bailing out the water and cleaning our homes and surroundings ourselves,” she says.
Usha (36) has studied up to Class VIII. She is one of the feisty and vocal members of a group of 17 women volunteers going by the name of Daksha Samuha. The group was formed four years ago, to assist the 1000 or so Ambedkar Nagar residents in various ways. Usha has four school-going children and, like most other adults in the colony, her husband works in the informal sector.
The Samuha has conducted several types of service. For instance, it has intervened successfully in domestic violence and sexual harassment cases, and stopped the marriages of minor girls. It spreads awareness about the importance of a balanced diet, assists in monitoring the health of elders, children, the infirm, and expectant and lactating women. It started a sustained campaign for an aanganwadi (day-care centre), and the effort bore fruit three years ago.
The Samuha members hail from diverse backgrounds. Unlike Usha, Radha Bai is barely literate. Manjula, another member, cannot bank on her husband’s support for her activities through the Samuha. They continue to do what they volunteered to do, regardless.
“Until a few years ago, girls in our neighbourhood would be married off in their teens,” says Radha Bai. Parents and others opposed our interference in this practice. However, in a few cases, the girls accepted our support and refused to get married. Gradually, young girls and their families understood the adverse impact of early marriage on emotional and physiological health. Apart from that, they realised that child marriage is unlawful and that its practitioners can be penalised or punished.”
So many aspects of life in Ambedkar Nagar constitute a day-to-day struggle. The residents have to demand that rice, pulses, oil, sugar, cereals, salt and other items that are supplied through the PDS are given to them in the mandated quantity and quality; they cannot assume that they will get what is rightfully theirs. The primary health centre (PHC) in the area is inadequately staffed and equipped, so the residents have to rely on private practitioners for their healthcare needs. The ongoing Metro construction in the vicinity has increased air pollution, the storm water drains are blocked, and drinking water supplied through the govern-ment pipelines is contaminated, so they have to buy potable water.
The issues have been reported to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagar Palike (BBMP) – the Bangalore Municipality, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board and other authorities, but to no avail. There is some cause for cheer, though. There is no space for indoor toilets in each home, so the Ambedkar Nagar residents use paid common toilets. These are insufficient in number, yet they are clean, safe, and have both water and lighting. The public transport buses, particularly the vehicles of the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Cor-poration (BMTC) service the area reasonably well, and Ambedkar Nagar has relatively steady power supply.
There are government and aided schools in the locality. Education at the government schools is not quite ‘free’, the books, uniforms, accessories and stationery have to be paid for. Yet, Usha, Radha Bai and other members of the Samuha strive to ensure that both children and elders understand the importance of education and that the children are enrolled in schools, either Government-run or aided.
Ambedkar Nagar’s Daksha Samuha is not a one-of-its-kind body. The Rama Krishna Seva (RKS) Nagar in Srirampura, with nearly 3000 economically marginalised persons, has a similar organisation, named Mahila Arogya Samiti (Women’s Health Forum). Manjula Devi (43) is an active member of the Samiti, which comprises 20 women. The women educate the RKS Nagar residents about nutrition, and monitor the health of pregnant women and new mothers, infants and older children, elders, the infirm, chronically ill persons, and others in need of help.
“The Samiti members also plan to pool in funds so that they can lend it at a nominal 2 per cent interest to anyone needing it. We will deposit the money in a bank account in the name of the group. We have decided not to let external agencies, particularly men, get involved, as in other microfinance institutions which are exploitative,” says Manjula Devi. A committed and courageous lady, Manjula, who has completed Class VI, now works in the unorganised sector. She has two adult children who are employed and two younger ones who are in school.
The members of the Samiti also create awareness regarding the importance of caste and income certificates and guide residents in completing forms and submitting them to government offices as required. This has helped senior citizens, people with disabilities, widows and children to avail of social entitlements such as monthly pensions (paltry amounts ranging between Rs 300 and Rs 1000), social security and scholarships. They are also creating awareness about livelihood skills training, institutional credit and housing subsidies available under the National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM) and Rajiv Avas Yojana (RAY), respectively.
RKS Nagar has grave civic challenges. Indrani Mary, a 70-year old vegetable vendor who lives there, says “There are many mosquitoes here owing to open drains. We have complained to the authorities but no fumigat-ion was done. The mosquitoes have increased with the monsoon, and incidence of dengue and other diseases has gone up.”
Further, the rubble from an unused public building that BBMP de-molished to build an Indira Canteen (that supposedly provides highly subsidised and affordable meals) has added to the mess. Hearing that the food quality is unsatisfactory, local residents resisted the establishment of the canteen and are demanding the construction of a hall to host functions, as similar private sector facilities are expensive. But BBMP seems uninterested in catering to this need, or in completing a medical centre nearby, construction of which was begun four years ago.
According to Manjula, a grassroots coordinator with the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR), a non-profit organisation in Bangalore, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare allots a meagre Rs 5000 per locality, annually, for medicines to be distributed free of cost to the poor in urban areas through the PHC. This is usually sanctioned under the National Urban Health Mission and channelised through the Mahila Arogya Samitis.
Manjula, who has been educating and guiding the women’s groups in Srirampura on various government schemes and other aspects, says the grant was sanctioned last year, but it has not yet reached the PHC. The chronic apathy of the system is disheartening, but the groups of committed women who strive to lend helping hands to their fellow disadvantaged citizens keep faith in humanity alive.