Magazine article New Internationalist

Interview with Sheela Patel

Magazine article New Internationalist

Interview with Sheela Patel

Article excerpt

'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. …

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