Breaking Out

Click here to subscribe to the print edition. [image, unknown] new internationalist 109[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] March 1982[image, unknown] Click here to search the mega index.

THE GARDENS [image, unknown]

[image, unknown]

Breaking Out
Is there a life after projects?

FOR the women of Samagipura Garden the need to be away from their homes for part of the day to earn money — and the wish to see their children well cared for — led to the suggestion of starting a preschool in their Garden. After discussion at the Community Development Council, UNICEF was approached for help.

At the next CDC meeting, the cost of the building, chairs, tables, and equipment was worked out with the people of the Garden. It was obvious that they could never hope to repay such a sum.

"Why do we need a building?" asked one of the mothers.

"Only to shade the children from the sun and shelter them when it rains," laughed one of the others.

"What’s wrong with the tree?" replied the first.

In the corner of the Garden, a magnificent cong tree rises above the house and spreads its branches almost threateningly over the rough square formed by two houses and the Garden wall.

"Well, the tree is OK for shading from the sun, but what about when it rains?"

"How often does it rain and how much more does a building cost than a tree?"

Before the question arose of where all the chairs, tables and other equipment would be kept, it was decided that these items too could not be afforded.

Today, a few months after that initial discussion, permanent wooden benches form a square under the cong tree. The ground in the middle has been levelled, swept, and covered with natural coloured rush mats decorated with purple dyed diagonals. The wood for the benches cost $14 and they were made by one of the CDC members, as was the framed blackboard which is nailed to the trunk of the cong tree. Being permanently outside, the blackboard is sometimes difficult to chalk on if it has rained and dried out again. But a combination of soot from the kerosene lamps — and a rub over with half of an erandu fruit which grows wild nearby — soon restores its writing surface.

As the children begin to assemble under the tree, the teachers carry out the boxes of playthings from their own homes. Straight away, the children get out the cardboard bobbins and cotton reels with black numbers painted on them, the boxes of bottle tops, the home made dice and picture cubes, colourful calendars, a punctured plastic football, and a milk powder tin full of rubber beans.

Illustration: Clive Offley Within minutes, ‘pando’ — ceremonial arches — are being built for a miniature Wesak ceremony, rubber seeds are being counted out into piles of equal numbers, shiny bottle tops are being separated from the rusty ones, cardboard cubes are being carefully piled up into towers and ‘accidentally’ knocked down to the accompaniment of tears from the architect.

The three teachers, Rita, Merlin and Dhanawathie, were chosen by the mothers of the garden. Twice a week for four hours, they went to sit and watch the teachers at another preschool. Total training — ten days. "We learned that teaching is not just about telling the children what to do," says Merlin, "and we learned that playing is part of learning and growing up. What the child itself does we encourage with attention and time. For some of the morning, we have more formal teaching — the alphabet, the names of the colours or animals or foods, rhymes and songs and stories. It’s obviously an advantage for the children now, and it will make it easier for them when they go to school. It also helps the mothers and gives them time to cook and shop and take things to the market. The CDC collects a small amount from each of the mothers every month so that we earn something as well."

The teachers move in to break up a fight occasioned by one of the boys who has accumulated all the bottle tops, about a hundred of them, in his own corner. Children and bottle tops are redistributed on the mat by one teacher whilst post-revolutionary tears are dried by the other.

It’s ten o’clock now and the same firewood which has been boiling morning tea for the adults in the nearby houses is used to boil water for the vitamin enriched ‘thriposha’ powder supplied by CARE. Mixed with a little sugar, the thriposha is rolled into a dumpling for each child. "The children, of course, grumble about it," says one of the teachers. "They want biscuits instead."

"We think our preschool is as good as any," sums up the teachers. "It’s not the building and expensive toys that really count in a preschool."

Samagipura’s preschool teachers, in their enthusiasm for and their relationship with the children, are as good as could be found anywhere. And the preschool in the slum has been started with a lot of work and virtually no money. The school is clearly of benefit to the children of this Garden — and the blackboard nailed to the tree is a symbol of pride, almost of defiance, for the whole community.

About half a mile away from Samagipura is another pre-school.

Inside, the advantages of buildings over trees seem more obvious again. It is very much cooler, the flies are conspicuous by their absence, and walls suddenly seem useful. Pinned up around the room are the children’s drawings, a collective mural, a complete set of coloured alphabet cards, and a height measurer in the shape of a giraffe.

At the tables, some of the children are drawing and colouring with felt-tip pens on sugar paper or fitting different shaped pieces of wood into their corresponding holes.

On the floor, toys are being put away — large wooden jigsaws, a sand box, paints, clay, coloured counters, plastic alphabet blocks.

To the music from the record player in the corner of the building, the children begin to dance. They are of the same age group as the children of Samagipura. But they are taller and heavier, there are no listless ones; and there are no sores on their legs. Outside, the rain begins to fall.

[image, unknown]

THE basic services which the Colombo Project tries to bring to the city’s poor — whether it be water or nutrition education or pre-schools — are clearly a big improvement on no services at all. But the question of whether basic services are intended as the beginning of a development process which could eventually lead to greater opportunity for personal and community development — or whether they are merely the cheapest possible way of containing the problems of poverty at the minimum possible cost and without necessitating any changes in the society of which that poverty is part— is a question which runs through the Colombo Project.

Inevitably, it is a question which comes closest to the surface in the most controversial aspect of the Project — the Community Development Councils.

If the Colombo Project is to be a beginning of a better life for a significant number of people in the slums and shanties, then it is the people’s own organisations — the CDCs — which must be considered at the heart of the affair. The Project itself, as a formal and financial entity, may well come to an end in 1983. The Health Wardens may move on to other Gardens or they may carry on doing the same work. If any future potential for continuing change resides in what has been achieved so far, then it resides in the question of whether the Community Development Councils take on an independent life — and with it the challenge of continuing to improve the lives of the slum dwellers.

[image, unknown]

IN the efficient-looking air-conditioned office of the indistinguished lawyer Jehan K. Cassim, now Chairman of the Common Amenities Board (CAB), the role of the Community Development Councils is being rather passionately discussed. It is the CAB to which a large part of UNICEF’s Colombo Project money goes and it is from this building that the contracts go out for the installation of toilets, washrooms and taps in the slums of Colombo. Several senior officers are present, though the different speakers need not be identified:" The Common Amenities Board was burdened with the responsibility after an extreme piece of socialist legislation — the Housing Ceilings Act which took the slum Gardens away from the landlords and made them the responsibility of the municipality."

Despite that, it’s only since this government came to power in 1977 that we’ve had the money — and the drive —to do anything about our mandate, and really start improving the amenities in the slums."

"Obviously, UNICEF’s money has paid for a lot of it. In the 300 Gardens included in the Colombo Project, all the costs of actually installing the facilities have been paid for by UNICEF."

"We’re on target with the installations, though work is slowing down now. What can you expect? When the Colombo Project began two years ago, a bag of cement was 19 rupees. Today it is 80 rupees. For a mason (builder) you used to pay 10 rupees to 15 rupees in 1978. Now it’s 50 to 60 rupees a day. And all the good ones have gone to the Middle East. Some of the ones who come to us saying they are builders can’t put one brick on top, of another."

When the argument is put to officials of the CAB that there are skills in the slum Gardens themselves which could be used to help install facilities — and that this would have the advantage not only of providing a few days employment to slum dwellers but also of involving them in the project and thereby improving the quality of both installation and maintenance — the reaction of the CAB is sceptical:—

"We tried it. We tried it in one Garden. We were upgrading houses there, raising the heights of walls, putting on new ceilings. There were people who lived there who said they were masons or carpenters. So we employed them. We got nothing but complaints because the other people in the Gardens were jealous."

"They came to us and said that the man we were using as a carpenter was keeping all the best wood for his own house. The bricklayer was accused of making a better job of his friends’ houses . . . and so on.

"Things are more difficult to do in practice than they appear to be from the documentation."

The accusations most commonly levelled against the CAB from the slum dwellers themselves — that between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of the cost of the facilities goes into the pockets of contractors and officials through the use of materials of a standard somewhat below the official specifications — produced contrary reactions at the CAB itself:—

"It’s absolutely impossible. We have inspectors who have to see the work and sign documents saying that it’s been done properly. The Community Development Councils and the people only say that to cover up for their own failure to maintain the facilities we’ve installed."

"No, no, what happens is that the people in the Gardens won’t allow the concrete to dry out before they start doing things like chopping firewood on it. Then they complain when it cracks."

"Or someone on the CDC will say to our contractor" do this or that to improve my house, I’m on the CDC". If our man refuses, they complain to us that the work hasn’t been done properly."

"I’m disturbed about this. It happens, of course it happens. It happens in all countries, industrialised or developing, The people who make their ‘cut’ are also usually quite poor. I have appointed a consultant to look into it"

The CDCs, in general, get short shrift from the Common Amenities Board which considers that the people’s own organisations have yet to prove themselves:—

"Community Development Councils and Health Wardens are fine on paper. But the Health Wardens don’t even concern themselves with all the garbage that’s lying about. And the Community Development Councils don’t even maintain the facilities we install — which is what they are supposed to be for."

"Frankly, there is no noticeable difference in the Gardens where there is a Community Development Council. The taps are still stolen, the water still runs all night. And there is still vandalism. Everyone’s keen on setting up Councils and Institutions and having seminars and symposia and evaluations and documentations and workshops and all the other U.N. jargon, but we don’t see it working efficiently.

"First let the Community Development Councils prove that they can do what they were set up to do — clean the toilets and the washrooms, stop the wastage of water, prevent vandalism and theft, keep the drains clean, and collect up the garbage.

"When they have done that it will be time to see what else they can do. In some of the Gardens the CDCs are working efficiently, but in general they are not making any difference."

Also discussed is the question of exactly how many toilets, taps and washrooms are installed by the Common Amenities Board in each Garden — and who decides this.

Under the Colombo Project approach, the Health Warden works with the Community Development Council to complete the application forms for communal facilities. In the process of doing this, the Health Warden advises the CDC on how many taps or toilets can realistically be provided. The request is then drawn up on the basis of the CDC’ s own knowledge of how many people live in the garden. Completing this form is normally the first major function of both Community Development Council and Health Warden.

From the Gardens, the forms come to the Common Amenities Board and the facilities requested, (if the numbers conform to the norms known by all parties in advance) are installed. In practice, senior officials of the Common Amenities Board have no knowledge of the forms completed by the CDCs:—

"We do our own survey of each Garden to find out how many houses and people are there. Then we install one toilet for every five houses, one bathroom for every eight houses, and one standpipe for every ten houses. That’s the basis on which we work — if there’s space. We don’t need the CDC’s forms."

[image, unknown]

THE City of Colombo is divided, for administrative purposes, into six districts and 47 wards. There are slum Gardens in every ward, though a ward like Mahawatta has 99 per cent of its residents in shanties and tenements whilst Bambalapitiya has less than one per cent.

To discuss the wider problems of the city’s slums and shanties, the Colombo Project envisaged that a representative from the Community Development Councils in each ward would meet at district level. In theory, the district level CDC Presidents would then elect one of their number to form part of a City Community Development Council at which six men or women, coming from and elected by the people of the slum Garden themselves, would participate in meetings at the highest levels of city administration.

"Elected representatives from these district Councils meet monthly at the city level forming the City Community Development Council chaired by the Chief Medical Officer of Health of the Municipality" says one of the Colombo Project’s foundation documents.

In practice, that meeting between slum dwellers representatives and city level officials has never happened. The City Community Development Council does meet — but there is no-one there from the slums.

[image, unknown]

THE room in which the City Community Development Council meetings are held is on the second floor at the front of Colombo’s impressive town hall. The meeting itself is supposed to have begun at 9.00 am, but it is now almost ten-o’clock and people are still arriving,

Illustration: Clive Offley The city Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Trevor Pieris who is to chair the meeting, continues working at his desk in front of the windows. On the walls around him are bar-charts measuring the city’s birth and death rates and recording year-to-year the incidence of typhoid, cholera, chicken pox, dysentry, polio, whooping cough and diphtheria. One column, headed ‘smallpox’ has fallen into disuse.

"I myself am not in favour of the Community Development Council Presidents being directly represented at his level" says Dr. Pieris. "The Garden Presidents meet at district Development Council meetings under the chairmanship of my six Medical Officers of Health. Any complaints or recommendations which they want to raise at the city level can therefore be brought to me here by the Medical Officers of Health. If the Presidents of the CDC’s come here themselves, they will only start talking and voicing their grievances and we wouldn’t be able to get through our work. It’s not often that they get a chance to talk at this level and if they came here all of them would like to talk and it would be impossible for anyone to do a day’s work."

More people are still arriving and greetings are being exchanged at the large refectory table where the meeting is to take place. Through the open windows, past ancient rubber plants, are the white pillars of the town hall facade and, beyond them, the well-watered lawns of Viharamahadevi Park.

In general, Dr. Pieris does believe that the Health Wardens’ part in the Colombo Project has been a success. "Our normal cadre of Health Inspectors, Nurses and Midwives were leaving because of lack of prospects and low pay. We were also under-staffed, and still are, on the health education side. The Health Wardens have helped us to overcome these shortages. Apart from preventative health and hygiene teaching, another of the important jobs they are doing is helping to organise the immunisations. By March of this year we have achieved at least 80 per cent coverage in 28 different slum Gardens."

"I’m now in favour of keeping on training the Health Wardens and I think they should be allowed to carry thermometers, aspirins, paracetamol — not antibiotics. But there would be a lot of opposition!"

The City Community Development Council meeting eventually gets under way with a formal reading of the minutes. In the hour that follows, the water works engineer is criticised because water supplies have still not been connected up to slum Gardens where the CAB have installed facilities some time ago. In turn, the water works engineer explains that this is because the CAB has been using unlicensed plumbers to do the job and that if the standpipe work is not done by a council-registered plumber then the council will not connect up the water supply.

UNICEF’s Leo Fonseca then raises again the arguments for employing people who actually live in the slum Gardens to help with the job of installing the facilities. The representatives of the Common Amenities Board says that this is not the place to discuss it.

"One question I would like to raise" says the Chairman, Dr. Pieris, "is the problem of the hundred thousand school-age children in the slums. They have nowhere to study at home. There is no place at all where they can work. They roam around with others and get into mischief. How can we help? Can we arrange any facilities in the schools after school hours? Can we keep one or two classrooms open after school and during weekends or holidays? Or would the community centres be better?"

This kind of scheme, he is informed, can lead to problems and is properly the concern of the Ministry of Education.

A question from one of the Community Development Councils is now about to be relayed to the meeting via one of the Medical Officers of Health: "For those areas where shanties and slums are built on water-logged ground, is there a possibility of connecting up the latrines to mains sewage because the pit-latrine system does not work and it is a great health risk where the water table is high?"

The Common Amenities Board replies by saying that the problems are exaggerated and that "their whole motive is to get sewage connection at our expense."

Behind the conference table, almost 300 red pins — each one representing a Community Development Council — are stuck into a map of the city of Colombo on the scale of 16 perches to the inch. The coarse chorussing of the jackdaws on the windowsill sounds loudly in the long room.

[image, unknown]

AT the other end of Colombo, in the city’s fifth district, CDC Presidents from five of the eight wards are meeting. It is a Saturday evening.

The elected slum-leaders are a mixed group. Some are automatic choices as Presidents by virtue of their being the richest person in the slum garden. Some may be the choice of the local patron who does not live in the garden at all, but holds sway over such decisions by his power of patronage. Some have been chosen by the slum dwellers because of their seniority in years of experience — and some because they are young, educated and impatient.

In the slum Gardens represented here there is no doubt that things are beginning to happen. Garbage is being collected, facilities are being cleaned and maintained by the CDCs themselves; money for repairs is levied from each home. In one, some of the older men are holding after school classes to teach English to the Garden school children. In another, the CDC has established a small fund, collected from each house, to enable children of the Garden to continue at school rather than dropping out if there is no money for exercise books or a pair of shorts. In most, nutrition demonstrations have been popular and effective. Films in English, less so.

One Garden represented here almost went to war with the people of the adjacent slum before the CDC intervened. "We had our new facilities," explains the President, "but just over the wall in the next slum Garden there is no CDC and no amenities. Their people started climbing over the wall to use our toilets and taps and washrooms. It was very difficult Our facilities weren’t built to be used by so many. Fights broke out every day.

"We called a meeting of our CDC and decided, after a long discussion, that if we really were a community in the true sense of the word then we couldn’t draw the line at the boundary wall and ignore the needs of the people on the other side. So we decided to let them use our facilities and at the same time to help them get organised and get their own facilities."

"Some of the people in our own Garden took some persuading. But it’s amazing the difference now in the relationship between us!"

In the chair is the Medical Officer of Health for the district. The secretary for the district Community Development Council meetings is automatically the Assistant Health Education Officer for the district. Also present are Stephen Perera and UNICEF’s Leo Fonseca.

"We must meet more often and we must discuss things more openly," begins one of the Garden Presidents. "This district Council is supposed to meet once a month. Yet we haven’t met for over a year. Why haven’t meetings been called?"

"That’s because you insist on having senior people from the Town Hall before you will have a meeting," says the Assistant Health Education Officer. "Officials can’t attend meetings every night of the week — you should be content to have Health Wardens at your meetings."

"We don’t mind the Health Wardens but they don’t have any power," says one of the Garden Presidents. "We want to discuss our problems with people who can do something about them."

The argument goes on, ending in a compromise that monthly meetings will be held with Health Wardens present and that officials like Health Education Officers will attend once a quarter.

Soon, the meeting has turned to the ubiquitous question of the facilities which have been installed in the Gardens. With some, the problems are as few as the benefits are many. But one of the Presidents is now insisting that the Community Development Councils should have more control: Were the contractors supposed to demolish our old latrines and then build new ones using the same bricks?" he asks, "or did they get money for new bricks from UNICEF? We should be given the specifications for the job and it should be the CDC of the Garden which has to sign the papers saying it’s been done properly. And whoever is doing the job shouldn’t get paid until we are satisfied that the job has been done properly."

"But you are not technically qualified to judge whether a job of that kind is done properly."

"Nonsense. We have skilled men in the Gardens who know about these things."

"But most of the men are away during the day-time when the jobs are being done."

"Yes, but even the women can tell that the cement mixer is putting in five cement to eight sand instead of five to three. Don’t talk to me about proficiency to judge. Come and look at the cracked floor. We are the ones who have to use the facilities all the time so really we are the only ones who are proficient to judge whether they are done right or not. And frankly, we know that a lot of the money is going to the contractors and others instead of going into the job itself."

"Yes, we should control it. In fact we could do the job ourselves."

"But you don’t have the qualified people in every Garden to do a job like that"

"No but this is a district level meeting we’re having now and there are lots of Gardens represented — if we pooled the skills in all the Gardens represented here then together we’d have more than enough skills to do any job like that."

[image, unknown]

IN a slum Garden somewhere near the Wellawatta elected officers of a slum Garden are sitting on a narrow verandah. One of them is speaking, a glowing cigarette end tracing the exact pattern of his argument as the dusk begins to fall.

"The trouble is that you have to write a hundred times before you get a reply," he concludes.

The subject is two broken taps, two bathrooms unconnected to the water supply, and a growing mosquito problem.

"They won’t reply," says one voice.

"What we need," says another, "is higher people at our meetings. The Health Warden is OK, but there’s not much he can do."

"Does anybody know how we can get a loan to start a business in the Garden? The bag-making plan would make money. We all know that It’s at least ten jobs. So why don’t we really try it? Raise a loan and get on with it?"

"Maybe the CDC would be accepted as a guarantor?"

"Look, let’s get the taps fixed first. We haven’t even got the money for that"

"Why should we pay for the taps. We all know why they’re broken in the first place."

"Look," says the man sitting on the floor next to the open brickwork of the verandah wall, "we have to break out from projects and officials for all things like this. We have to organise it ourselves. Why are we asking the officials to call meetings for us all the time. We can call our own meetings. We can find out where the other Community Development Councils are and we can call meetings of our own. Whether the officials from the town hall attend or not is up to them. It’s pathetic to keep on saying we can’t hold a meeting unless an official of a certain level is there."

There is a long pause while hot sweet tea is served. Round the kerosene lamp a cloud of mosquitos is gathering. One of the men moves his chair away. "I think we should try it," he says.

"I think so too. We’re supposed to represent all the people of these Gardens. That’s where the authority comes from. It’s not from how high the official is who happens to be there."

"You know what they’ll say if we do that?"

"Yes, they’ll say it’s political."

Illustration: Clive Offley

Previous page.
Choose another issue of NI.
Go to the contents page.
Go to the NI home page.
Next page.

New Internationalist issue 109 magazine cover This article is from the March 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop