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The shock of slum conditions

In 1988, Dr Kiran Martin – then a young paediatrician – became aware of a cholera outbreak in one of Delhi’s slums and was determined to help. She began to treat patients at a borrowed table under a tree.

When trying to get into the slum to reach other sick people, Dr Martin had to wade through mud and rubbish that surrounded the tiny huts and was horrified at the squalor. She saw that cholera was spreading through contaminated water from shallow wells, so she discouraged the slum dwellers from drinking it and began to teach them how disease is spread.

A sympathetic group heard of Dr Martin’s work in the slum and donated money to build a room that could serve as a clinic. Shortly afterwards, over 100 patients came for treatment every day, most of them suffering from preventable diseases. The women spent time speaking with Dr Martin about their other problems – no toilet facilities or clean water, domestic abuse, or being unable to provide for their children.

A chance to act

The clinic had been running for a couple of months when the Delhi government finished building a toilet block within the slum – a basic amenity that was long overdue. An inauguration ceremony was due to be held there with various politicians and high-profile people present. Seeing a chance to highlight the many problems, Dr Martin acted as a spokesperson for the slum residents. As a group, they refused to let the ceremony start until the politicians had walked around the slum.

The politicians were shocked at the appalling conditions, and shortly afterwards the Slum Commissioner promised his support. However, Dr Martin realised that educating and empowering slum residents would enable them to make many changes themselves. She recognised the potential of the women in particular, as they mostly stayed within the confines of the slum and could achieve a lot if they understood their rights. Dr Martin began to plan training programmes that would allow the women to act as a pressure group.

Partnerships forged

The same month, Tearfund visited Delhi and heard of the work being done in the slum colony. Impressed, they began a partnership with Asha and the first reliable funds started to come in, allowing further clinics to be built in nearby slums. By 1989, after several meetings with the slum department, Dr Martin realised that slum residents needed to be granted land rights if any changes were to be sustainable. A ground-breaking project run in collaboration with the government saw residents of a slum called Ekta Vihar gaining control of the land where they had built their homes.

Many successes had already been achieved by 1990 when Asha was officially registered as a non-profit organisation. Further support from Tearfund meant that expansion was rapid for some years, with several staff being taken on and work beginning in even more slums. Asha was the first NGO in Delhi to collaborate with the government as well as the communities that it was aiming to help.

Growth and success

After being founded by one person who worked surrounded by dirt, ignorance and despair, and who overcame the obstacles of political intrusion and corruption, Asha is now transforming the lives of more than 700,000 slum dwellers in over 91 slum colonies of Delhi. Today, the government, visitors and the slum communities themselves have great respect for Asha and all that it has achieved. Read more…