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Archive for the ‘perspectives’ Category

Remarks on “India’s Opportunity Gap” from WSJ

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Rupa Subramanya Dehejia, the Wall Street Journal’s IndiaRealtime blogger, talks about India’s opportunity gap in her recent post.

The main point she makes in her piece is that India’s place in the global human development index ranking is already only at 119 out of 169, not accounting for the very blatant and apparent inequalities. She brings issues to the forefront that are usually pushed to the undersurface, such as caste and community impacts on access to opportunity.

Concepts of inequality in access to opportunities for education and therefore income are ingrained in the development crises in India. Dehejia makes an excellent argument for this. But I would like to take it one step further. Opportunity doesn’t just stop at access, it even applies to desire for access.

In Sangam’s work with slum dwellers, children and adults alike, drive for upward mobility was sorely lacking, which is, I believe, the ultimate cause for their stasis and stagnation. Populations which are brainwashed into believing that their opportunities are limited cannot achieve much. Adults who have become jaded and cynical push those same mentalities onto their children, and everyone drags each other down. There are even the extreme cases of parents who ask why, if they had no opportunity for an education, should their children do any better? I speak from experience. I saw this and heard this myself.

So from an economist’s perspective, Ms. Dehejia, you’ve hit the nail on the head. And as an activist, I say there’s more to it. People who want change can achieve it. Especially in India, a nation of determined people who have made leaps and bounds over the centuries. True, things like caste and community cannot be changed. But attitudes can be changed. And I think that makes all the difference.

Food and Finance Crisis in India

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

In any circumstance which affects the health, nutrition and financial stability of a community, the members affected the most acutely are the women and children.

“The objective of the study is to examine the impact of rising food prices and financial crisis on the impact of women and children in India. It identifies the pathways for dealing with the effects of these two crisis on households particularly women and children. It also outlines the desirable macro and sectoral policies and measures, particularly in relation to social protection, which would mitigate the negative effects of the crises and effectively protect households against them through a special focus on the issues of nutrition, health, education and enhancement of child protection.”

Read this article by S. Mahendra Dev, brought to us via AidNews and Zunia.

Inspiring song by Ben Harper and Jack Johnson – With My Own Two Hands

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

From the Organizer: Medical Camp, August 23rd 2009

Monday, August 24th, 2009

A few thoughts from Vandhana, who organized yesterday’s camp:

We just successfully finished our first medical camp in MGR Nagar in association with another NGO, Paathai. It was amazing to know that we helped more than one hundred underprivileged people in such a large way. The camp was a huge success. Special thanks to all our fellow volunteers and doctors. We had representatives from Paediatrics, Internal Medicine, Obstetrics and Gyneacology, Dermatology and Psychiatry at this camp. Thanks as well to Mr. Yusuf and Drs. John Samuel and Renita for donating drugs. Of course, we could’t have pulled it off without the help of the counselor and residents of MGR Nagar. We were shcoekd to find some severely ill people for whom we had to appoint referral visits.

Overall, I feel elated at the thought of being part of an organization dedicated to the betterment of humankind. This camp has made Sangam India yearn more to work for the greater good of humanity.

Vandhana Sundharam
Health/Health Education Coordinator

Thoughts on Prajnya Peace Initiative

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Time is moving so fast, I can barely keep up. Over a week ago now, Nivedita and I had the chance to attend a seminar on peace studies hosted by another Chennai-based NGO: Prajnya ( The Director, Priyadarshini Rajagopalan was a lovely-lively woman who is obviously very passionate about her work. I was happy to be in her presence, trying to absorb both her poise and knowledge. The event was held at The Madras Terrace House, which I recommend to anyone interested in art, music, or NGOs Royapettah, Chennai, +91-44-45038391.

Group discussion covered everything from Tamil Nadu’s education system, the current curriculum in government schools, and region-wide outreach efforts to increase awareness of peace studies. We met some great people and enjoyed some delicious tea. Other women that attended, all the participants were women, which set a great empowering tone, included: Mrs. Kala Doraisamy, the Principal of the Grove School ( They seem to be doing great work integrating innovative learning techniques on topics like peace and the environment. Also there was V.R. Devika from The Aseema Trust ( who is working in Chennai slums. With energy and enthusiasm, her goals are in synch with Sangam’s. She is using performance art teach confidence, self-esteem, and English to children living in slum conditions. Overall the event was a lovely way to start the day.


I am thankful to Nivedita and Sriram for letting me tag along. Around every corner, here in Chennai, I have found new opportunities to learn and grow both personally and professionally. I encourage Sangam members to continuously reach out to others who share a vision for the future where peace and harmony can be seen in the streets of every slum, every suburb, every village. Everyone has something to offer. I hope that we can all continue to grow and learn from each other.

Read the summary of the meeting on the Prajnya Blog

Children’s Park Group Trip, August 8th, 2009

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Here’s a short statement from Vidyalakshmi, one of the members of our Educational Committee, about last Sunday’s visit to the Children’s Park, Guindy:

Vidyalakshmi on the August 8th, 2009 trip to Children's Park, Guindy.It was a nice trip on Saturday with the kids. In the zoo we divided the kids into groups of 4 and one uf us went along with them and accompanied them. We made them read about the animals given on the nearby boards. We made them sit in a circle and played a game asking them to dance and sing. Finally we asked them to share their experience about the trip with us and what they gained from it. It was a first experience like this for most of the kids, so they were all happy for arranging such a trip.

We had lots of fun with them.  We were able to interact well with the kids and came to know more about them. The kids were so happy that day and enjoyed themselves. I was very impressed with the kids shared their food with us. They were all so lovable! Thanks to Paathai for arranging this trip and inviting us too!

You can see the photos from the trip in our gallery.

my dear slum chum

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

My dear slum chum…


Which is more intense? Your hunger for food or my hunger to satiate yours?

What is it I see in your smile even when there is no roof over your head? valor or hope?

Why should your ignorance poke my intelligence?

Why should it move me when you offer your hand to mine for your well being?

What is your survival telling me? Your reality or my inspiration?

By you being ignorant,did you know you brought out the teacher in me?

When you spoke about your dream were you aware that you were shaping mine?

Why this urge to share with you what I have?

Did you know when you sat on my lap I saw the mother in me?

By giving me all this, showing me all this should I not to be grateful to you than to expect yours?

What is more benevolent? my offering or your acceptance?

Survey: A Summary

Friday, July 31st, 2009

I arrived in Chennai on July 18th, intent on doing some work for Sangam India (an NGO I had become acquainted with during my option). I had spoken to Sriram a couple of times during my time in Delhi and he convinced me that there was a significant task which needed to be carried out: a survey for the new slum that they had “adopted.” I arrived and chatted with Nivedita and Sriram (the founders and co-chairs of Sangam India) regarding the work that would need to be done and when it would need to be organized for. I got to work immediately, with help from Katie Bush, a PhD student from the University of Michigan.

There are three areas to the survey in general: the consent form, the census sheet and the survey itself. I’ll deal with them in that order.

The consent form was designed by Katie but edited by myself.  We wrote some very basic text in English and Tamil, so that if the occupant was literate in one or the other, they could sign in that language. However, many of the interviewees were not literate in any language, and therefore had to have the consent form read out to them. In a few cases, they marked their acceptance with a thumbprint. Some others have agreed to answer the questions (and then done so) but have not filled in the consent form. This may have been an oversight on the part of the interviewers or due to a lack of anything to form a thumbprint with for illiterate interviewees. The consent form basically states that there is no immediate monetary benefit to conducting this survey, that all questions are answered voluntarily, that data will be published anonymously and will otherwise remain confidential and that consent is required before the first question may be asked.

The census form is based on a tried and tested format which was used for the pilot census which Sangam India used in Ramavaram, the slum they worked with previously. It asks for the name, age, position (in relation to head-of-family), caste, occupation and education status for each member of the household. Prior to this is the name of the interviewee, their age and gender, the house number and any phone number they may have and their monthly household income.

Katie and I designed the questions, aiming at the areas we deemed most important. It was partly adapted from the National Family Health Survey 1992-1993. This included 6 broad areas:  hygiene, environment, household, nutrition, health and education. A significant deficiency in any of these could have long term effects for the slum inhabitants in the future. Below, I’ll elaborate on each of these sections.

Hygiene focused on personal habits including bathing, washing hair, trimming nails, dental hygiene, hand washing, wound treatment and the use of footwear and underwear. It also included one question on menstrual health, which we aim to build on in future visits. We had originally intended to have an extended segment on women’s health, but we felt that this would have been too forward. Since this community has very few ties with the slum Sangam India previously worked with, we are aiming to build trust over a period of time. With this in mind, we felt that this information would be better gathered at a later date. The relatively poor response rate for this question seem to back up this decision.

The section on the environment was a brief one, designed to educate us on the source of water (separately for washing and drinking), lighting and to illuminate how the slum dwellers disposed of their garbage. An important inclusion in this was of what kind of toilet facility the houses had. The answer, in most cases, was none. This section brought us the most information, since we didn’t know that there was no drainage system and no means to move rubbish from the river and behind the houses (where most of it is dumped) to anywhere else.

The household section covered whether the house was structurally sound, the number of rooms and people per room, as well as other basics details about the house. Included in these were bathroom and kitchen status, drainage, pets (and whether they stayed inside or outside the house), water storage and treatment and asked whether there was a basic cleaning routine. These questions were important so we can see what the slum is like in terms of houses (whether the abodes are more temporary or permanent) and the conditions of the residents within. The results showed that there was a variety in terms of building stability as well as the population per room. The latter, in particular, is a problem which we must address as soon as possible, as the fires occurring in MGR Nagar are consuming more and more houses, leaving people with little option but to live outdoors or depend on the charity of their neighbours and share dwellings. In the slum, however, this means cramming an unreasonable number of people into a space which is simply too small to be healthy. Other striking findings are that the bathroom and toilet facilities are all but non-existent. The facilities were often marked as “shared”, only for the elaboration to come back that people performed their ablutions freely in a field or lake, polluting the resources nearby which some other residents relied on for fresh water. As a final, related note, there were very few houses which treated their water in any way before consuming it. Though the local government has provided some metro-tanks, my understanding is that this water should be boiled or at least filtered, as its source is bore-hole wells, before drinking it.

Health covered three areas: status, access and vices. Status was included to assess the overall wellbeing of the community. We put together a few very basic screening questions to find out the prevalence of blindness, TB, malaria, diarrhoea and physical disability. The majority of health was dedicated to access, as this is the area in which we can help out the most. We asked which health centres they had used in the past and which they would consider returning to. The reason for this two-part question was to eliminate any centres which were nearby but which were not being used by the residents for whatever reason. Finally, “vices” covered two questions which covered whether anyone in the house smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol. There were many interviewees who freely admitted drug use outside of this realm, including some admissions of betel nut use. One problem with this section is that it changes depending on who was being asked. One interviewer observed that whenever the male head of the family was asked, neither alcohol nor tobacco was a problem, but when his wife or children were questioned, a different story emerged.

The education section was designed (by a separate education committee) with a few thoughts in mind. We wanted to know the number of children attending school and if there was any reason why they weren’t attending. The idea of providing vocational training for adults and children alike was voiced in one meeting, and we wanted to see if there were enough people who would commit to such a programme to consider running this. Other than this, we wanted to know what type of training they would consider. Finally, we were interested in the children who were not attending school and what they were doing instead. If they were working as labourers, for example, we were interested in giving them vocational training too, or helping them back into school. My interpretation of the results was a little disappointing, as a large proportion of interviewees gave their family’s highest educational qualification as ‘nil’, meaning that none of them had had any formal schooling. More worrying were the number of surveys which were simply left blank, indicating a complete lack of interest.

Finally, there is nutrition. We appreciated that this would be an important section to cover, but we did not anticipate how difficult it would be to get the data in a usable way. I had to abandon using the nutrition data since it was not specific enough. I had not made this section multiple choice, like many other aspects of the survey, as the sheer frequency that one eats meat, vegetables, paruppu or fruits could vary significantly. I realize that by doing this, I was being a little overambitious. While the question said, ‘How many times per week will you eat X?’, the answers often came back as ‘Whenever possible’ or ‘Daily.’ The latter was the more frequent answer, and the more annoying. Obviously, the inhabitants were commonly consuming X, but whilst ‘Daily’ for us clearly means ‘once per day,’ the nutrition habits of the slum dwellers seemed to be based around cooking as few times as safely possible, which might mean that ‘daily’ means one, two, three or more meals per day. Problems of this nature meant that I had to scrap even trying to recover data from this section.

One minor setback was that we designed the survey to be answered by one member of each household, though we soon realized that more than one family sometimes occupied one house. On the day, we gave spoken instructions to the volunteers to use one survey per family. The survey itself was carried out very well. Our volunteers were efficient and made a connection with the inhabitants. I was very aware that this survey was only partially a data collection exercise and was just as much to do with forging the kind of bond which can be relied on in later excursions when we are attempting to prove our intentions using action.


Download the Survey Materials (pdf):

Roots and Wings

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

This was the day that ….

…..gave me the luxury of being in my natural self

….made me realize that no roof above the head isn’t just a shelter missing but sleepless nights for the kids

….broke my prejudice about women who wore more jewels and smiled less

… last showed me the enthusiastic peer group I was dreaming for in my undergrad days in the guise of my students today

…i realized that students are the best teachers


…saw as the roots of hope are being deepened in the lives of the slum folks the wings of fire keep growing in the dreams of sangam kids

Enjoying my flight with the flock


Looking Backwards and Forwards: At a Juncture

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

Displaced by a recent fire, the residents of our pilot project in the Ramavaram slum are to be permanently relocated. This isn’t goodbye; we certainly still have plans for them and a few visits are being planned. But it’s clear that this chapter is coming to close far faster than we envisioned.

We’re here at a critical juncture in Sangam India. We look back and we see many successes, as well as several failures, in our attempts to promote self-sufficiency in the Ramavaram slum. For us, it was a tremendous learning experience, both in personal and professional ways. Personally, I will miss many of the people and I have learned much about myself from them. Professionally, we have learned about how to work with residents in underprivileged communities to better their lives. For the residents of Ramavaram as well; the experience was a positive one. The children, I’m sure, many of whom knew me and others by name, will miss our presence. They certainly appreciated the time and energy we put into our weekly visits.

Though we’re saying goodbye, we have much to look forward to as well. We have learned much over the last year about slums, the problems they face, and ways in which we can confront them to produce meaningful solutions. We look forward to implementing these ideas in new communities and producing real, lasting changes in them.

Our team is growing quickly and leadership is coming from across the globe. We have new ways of operating and planning our operations, and people from across Chennai are showing an interest in volunteering for our cause. Despite the sadness that comes from leaving one community prematurely, we remain nonetheless excited about an opportunity to form a cohesive plan, move forward, and make a difference.