Volume 16 Number 6
An Infectious Spirit of Self-Help
01 December 2003

Gajanan Sawant tells Bhanu Kale how deciding not to accept poverty led to the transformation of his community.

‘Life was tough, even for someone like me who was used to poverty,’ says Gajanan Sawant as he looks back to his early married life in Mumbai. ‘There was no drinkable water, no road, no school, no doctor and no electricity. We had to walk half an hour to reach the nearest shop.’

It was 1965 and the newly married Sawant, then 19, had left his village of Morgoan in the Pune District of the Indian State of Maharashtra to find work. He succeeded in getting a job as a loom operator in the Khatau Textile Mills in Borivali. He rented a room of a tenement block in Devipada, an isolated basti (settlement) on the outskirts of Mumbai.

Sawant’s life consisted of hard work in the mill and the struggle to survive and bring up a family in these desperate circumstances. Then something totally unexpected happened. He was chosen to be part of a group of workers and managers from Khatau Mills who attended a five-day industrial seminar at Asia Plateau, a conference centre in the hill station of Panchgani, run by Initiatives of Change.

It was a huge culture shock. ‘It was like being transported into another world,’ he says. ‘In Devipada seven of us-my wife, our two children, my mother, my younger brother and my nephew-lived in a room 12 by 10 feet. It served as our kitchen, dining room, bedroom and living room. At Asia Plateau I had an entire room to myself. It was the first time I had ever slept alone in a room.’

He reels off a whole list of firsts-’eating at a neatly laid-out dining table with knife and fork; a bed with a soft foam mattress; bed sheets; running hot and cold water in the shower; ‘western-style’ toilet; meeting foreigners and attending anything like a seminar!’ His only wish was that his family could be with him to experience it, too. ‘I was made to feel I was somebody, not just a worker. People there cared for me. If a conversation was in English someone would immediately translate for me. People would ask for my views and listen seriously, as if what I said was very important. The manager and the worker sat at the same table. It was all totally different from the world I was living in.’

Sawant says he had got so used to poverty that he had accepted it as natural-something that would never change. There was no bitterness. But when he ‘saw that there could be an alternative way to live’, this led him to decide first to put some things right in his personal life and then to do something about his situation. ‘That was the most important step I took at Asia Plateau. I said to myself, ‘I am going to come up in life. I shall not continue to live in the ditch of poverty.’ ‘

The first thing he did on returning to Devipada was to plant some vegetables along a narrow strip outside his tenement door. He had noticed at the Asia Plateau centre how sewer water had been recycled to irrigate the gardens. A few feet of plastic piping brought waste-water from the corner of his room that served as a kitchen. Household waste was used as manure. ‘It didn’t cost me a thing,’ he says, ‘but it gave me new confidence in myself. I began to see how I could start coming up in life.’

A single well was the only source of water for Devipada’s 2,000-plus residents. ‘We used to watch the water level anxiously,’ recalls Sawant’s wife, Shalinitai. ‘The moment we felt it had risen we threw in our tins attached to ropes. Only the alert ones could get their share. The process went on round the clock, with endless waiting.’ The well was an open one and a lot of silt used to fall in. Over the years it had become choked with dirt.

One evening after work Sawant started moving the silt with a borrowed shovel. His solo effort was at first received with ridicule, but, as he persisted, other residents began to join in. ‘Together we cleared all the silt from the well. We also cleared the surrounding area and built a stone wall around it for safety. I still remember how much we enjoyed those evenings working together. We felt so happy to see much more water in the cleaned-up well. No one had thought of doing it before because nobody thought it was his job. We had got so used to our hardships that the thought of finding ways to overcome them just never occurred to us.’

Other initiatives soon followed. The silt removed from the well and the drains was used to fill in potholes in the road. Then the entire ground between the well and the basti was levelled to make a playground for the children. Another big step was the construction of a rough road linking the basti to the highway, allowing vehicles to come in for the first time.

‘The spirit of self-help was becoming infectious,’ remembers Sawant. ‘Every evening we used to meet after working hours to plan the next project. There was always something to be done.’ They decided to provide a school for the basti. The nearest one was three kilometres away and meant crossing the dangerous highway. A committee was formed with Sawant as president. The school opened some months later-a one-room temporary structure with mud walls, wooden planks for a ceiling and 25 pupils. When this building collapsed in heavy rain, it was decided to build a more ambitious brick structure.

Sawant’s committee began serious fund-raising, scrupulously issuing receipts for every contribution. These soon included gifts in kind-cement, roofing material, even the loan of a teacher! When the school opened it boasted a hall able to accommodate 50 pupils, an office, a veranda and a fenced-in playground. There were four classes in two shifts, catering for 200 pupils. ‘It became a symbol of the determination of the inhabitants of the basti to improve their lot,’ says Sawant. ‘It also came to be seen as a model of self-help in our whole area.’

Inspired by such grassroots initiatives, the local council decided to put in a water pipeline, and the day came when each household had running water. The school hall was used more and more by the community in non-school hours. A group of Mumbai medical students started visiting every Sunday morning, transforming the hall into a temporary clinic. A pharmaceutical company provided free medicines. On Sunday afternoons the hall was used to teach practical skills-cooking, sewing, nylon purse making-to the women of the basti, eventually opening up other sources of income. Other residents copied Sawant in growing vegetables or making small gardens outside their tenement rooms.

‘It was as if a new basti had been born,’ he reflects. ‘It confirmed my faith that if we start something with a good motive, God always helps us.’

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