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Interview with Sheela Patel

‘Working with the poorest of the poor is messy,’ says Sheela Patel, co-founder of SPARC – the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres. Having witnessed the ‘sanitized’ approach of governments and NGOs towards Mumbai’s pavement dwellers in the late 1970s, she and some former colleagues decided to roll up their sleeves to tackle the problem head-on.

Launching SPARC in 1984, their first action was to conduct a census of those living on the streets in India’s – and the world’s – most populous city. The results laid to rest myths that had been propagated about this growing community.

It counted 27,000 pavement dwellers, two-thirds of whom lived on the minimum wage, all of whom had no assets and very few rights, but who, having migrated from rural villages, had made the streets their home.

‘Previously they had been treated like transient people but we proved that they live there sometimes for 20 or 30 years,’ Patel says.

A key part of SPARC’s work is the creation of community centres within which pavement dwellers can congregate and share experiences.

‘Large numbers of people create data and produce a collective voice,’ Patel says. Sitting down to talk to pavement dwellers marked a sharp departure from previous attempts to tackle this growing problem.

Patel had worked with a government-funded NGO which had made some headway towards gaining basic rights for pavement dwellers, but which had stopped short of doing more than patching up the ‘leaky bucket’ under which these people precariously existed. ‘Every 15 days the municipality came and demolished their houses.’

Her former employees held back from truly confronting the issue for fear of rocking political boats, however. ‘They liked to tell people they were working with the poorest people but stopped short of taking it to its logical conclusion,’ she says.

So Patel and her colleagues decided to go it alone.

‘We said if we want to spend our lives championing the process then this was the wrong institution. Working on real poverty should be a political issue.’

Collaboration is at the heart of SPARC, whose key aims are to work in participation with poor people, to work with the poorest of the poor (‘development doesn’t trickle down’), and to make women critical to the issues (‘Once women get the idea that transformation can occur they go into it with more vigour than men’).

When SPARC first asked what they needed most, the consensus was clear.

‘They said we want to build proper houses,’ Patel says. ‘I was, like: “O my God, how do you do that?” I don’t know anything about construction.’

But not for the first time Patel was humbled by their spirit. ‘I’m middle class and educated. My initial reaction is to say “We can’t do that” but I have to swallow my words as they make it happen,’ she says. ‘They believe that everything is possible.’

Having formed partnerships with the National Slum Dwellers Federation and with Mahila Milan, a network of poor women’s collectives, the three groups formed an alliance which acted as the backbone to enable the poor to gain access to housing and vital infrastructure. It has since been responsible for the construction of housing for over 8,500 families and toilets for 500,000 households.

It has its own non-profit construction company that now competes with private-sector firms for construction business, has developed relationships with financial institutions that previously shunned the poor, and now even takes on government building contracts.

SPARC’s relationship with government has never been a comfortable one, but it was one of the first to start a dialogue with the powers-that-be at a time when social organizations took an agitational – or a fearful – approach to government. ‘It starts with confronting them with the reality and collaborating exploratively,’ she says.

SPARC’s model for low-cost housing solutions has now spread to a further 70 Indian cities and it has networks in 20 countries internationally.

‘Poor people face the same problems everywhere,’ Patel says. ‘If people have an idea and use it collectively they become more confident. In a globalizing environment, if one government finds an idea that works, it legitimizes it.’

When Patel began her work, the idea of urban poverty hardly registered; today, the urban poor are a problem that every city in the Majority World is facing. In Mumbai alone, six million people live in slums and by 2025 half the world’s population is forecast to be living in cities, with a billion people living in slums.

‘We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg,’ Patel says.

But by focusing on the poorest of the poor, she has established a framework for affordable housing solutions across the globe.

Sheela Patel talked with Clare Goff

New Internationalist issue 398 magazine cover This article is from the March 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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