25 Years of Transformation: A Tribute to Asha, India Habitat Centre, 5th February 2013
Honourable Minister, your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, brothers, sisters and students from the slums, I am delighted and honoured to be able to address this distinguished audience this evening, as we mark 25 years of Asha, the organisation I am proud to have founded.
Let me place our work in context. India has been independent for well over half a century. We have just celebrated 63 years since the adoption of our constitution. It is a constitution that promises social, economic and political justice to all India’s citizens; and equality of status and opportunity.
Yet all around us we still see extreme poverty and injustice. Asha was founded in the belief that India’s poor deserve to enjoy the riches of this great country’s freedom, and the security that comes from social justice. This is a belief that applies not just to those in the slums supported by Asha. It is a belief that applies to all the marginalised in this country. Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice.
Our constitution also promises fraternity, a spirit of brotherhood, a pledge that all citizens will be treated with dignity. This is one of the values that we in Asha hold most dear. I do not believe in handouts, in treating our fellow citizens as deserving of pity. We need to behave towards India’s poor with true compassion, restoring to them the dignity that is their right.
It is too easy to value people for their wealth, or the location of their homes. Instead, we need to value people for the content of theircharacter. On that basis, some of the most beautiful characters I have encountered over the past 25 years have been in Delhi’s slums.
But our work is not simply about ensuring that the marginalised gain the benefits of freedom. With freedom comes responsibility. Asha helps slum dwellers take responsibility for their own lives, and helps them become good citizens.
In everything we do, we encourage individuals to see their own value, but also to respect the rights of their neighbours and the wider community.
So, dignity and responsibility are two of Asha’s most keenly felt values. We also place much stress on non-violence. Working in the great traditions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, we do not seek to make enemies or to confront our opponents. Aggression and confrontation are replaced by love. This does not mean passivity or weakness. It is active peace-making, a belief in the inherent worth of dialogue with our opponents. It is about persuasion, reconciliation and building bridges.
The overwhelming benefits of this approach are clear from our 25 year history. I think of an exploitative slum lord, who treated us with aggression and contempt, or another who was so hostile to our work that I was in fear of my life, my tyres slashed, dead rats thrown into my office. Yet both men were treated with dignity and love, and both are now transformed individuals, and supporters of our work. For me, non-violence has become not just an approach to be used in our slum work, but a life principle. It defines all the relationships we have, treating the exploiter and the exploited as equals, and dealing with them all empathetically. Ours is a vision of achieving both social justice and social harmony.
Faced with so much poverty and injustice all around us, it is easy to despair. Yet I believe we can all make a difference. With the values I have described, comes changed behaviour, a real change that comes from the inside. Through these values, some of the poorest people in the world have become a force for liberation and transformation. Step-by-step, these values have brought hope to hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers in Delhi, and hope to the broader community, that things can change for the better. We are seeing anguish and disharmony being replaced by justice, compassion and joy.
Asha is of course not yet in a position of ease, nor do we want to be: our work must continue as a constant striving. But we are fuelled by dreams, not just for social justice in India, but for the whole world. Our nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for anyone to imagine they can live apart. We want Asha to be a global beacon of light and hope, showing what is possible through the compassionate human spirit.
Much of our work is about systemic interventions to ensure justice and equality for the poor. We have a vision of what needs to happen in society. But we focus too on the individual – on the child in a slum who has opportunities and hope as a result of our work; on the woman who, with our support, can now believe in her own worth, and strive to reach her full potential. On the man who can now support his family financially – and emotionally.
I think of Mahesh, whose widowed mother brought up seven children on 30 rupees a day, Mahesh who with our support is now a student at the Delhi College of Engineering. I am delighted that this evening we will have the chance to hear more about the impact of Asha’s work on such precious individuals.
I started this speech by talking about the Indian constitution. Let me end by stressing that our leaders must honour the fine promises in that document, promises made to the world’s poorest citizens. I cherish the ideal portrayed by the constitution of a democratic and free society, in which all persons live together in harmony – and with equal opportunities. The brave men who died for our freedom over sixty years ago have consecrated the soil of India. It is for the living to be dedicated to their unfinished work.
Asha is my humble contribution to the great land of India, and to the world in which we live. I am grateful for the support of Mr Chidambaram, who has been a friend to Asha for many years, and to everyone here for your loyalty and generosity as we continue our work. Thank you.