Category Archive : ACORN India

Slums as self-confrontation

ACORN International focuses on organizing slumdwellers in India.  The following essay by Ashi Nandi is an interesting discussion of the overall issues much on people’s minds in India as slum removal is a bitter, though often cosmetic, issue in advance of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

By Ashis Nandy

The attempt to free cities of slums will only make them invisible.

There is another way of looking at slums, which is not only more creative but also more compassionate and humanitarian. Slums are parts of the city that constantly reminds us of our moral and social obligations. They are reminders that another India exists. People loathe slums not just because of the poverty they display, not just because the slums embarrass them in front of foreign visitors, but also because the slums look to them like indicators of their backwardness and do not allow them to forget or deny the poverty and the exploitation on which their prosperity is built. They blow up Rs 40,000 for a dinner for four persons at a five-star hotel while people scavenge for food outside the hotel. The slums are reminders of the open wounds of a city. That reminder is painful. Many do not want such reminders to be there.

Many see slums as failed parts of cities. They are regarded as parts of a city that do not conform to ruling ideas of an ideal city held by people in other parts of the city.





There have been some changes in the way people have looked at slums ever since colonial cities emerged. At one time, slums were seen as a kind of an invisible city: a place where servants and the poor blue collar workers stayed and one did not have to care for them. The architect-activist Jai Sen had a term for this attitude: in an essay in the journalSeminar he called a slum an Unintended City. There was little or no genuine attempt to accept the poor and disadvantaged as part of the city’s future—to accept them as equal and integral citizens or to re-plan the city according to their needs—Sen wrote

I think things have changed in the three decades since Sen said this.


Slums are not just the unintended city. They are now regarded parts of the city that should not be visible. City authorities in Delhi and Mumbai are planning to cover up slums for the Commonwealth Games. They are an embarrassment, which foreign visitors to the city must not see.  A slum is a part of the city that has no business to be there.


Then there is the political-economic perspective on slums: people with low earnings prefer to stay in slums because they are close to their places of work. So the rich and middle classes get their cheap labour—drivers, vegetable vendors, domestic helps—from the slums. This approach has a built-in contradiction. The upper and middle classes do not want to pay their domestic helps at First World rates, but they want slums eliminated as in some First World cities, or in Asian cities pretending to be First-World cities like Singapore and Hong Kong. They will not do what citizens of Singapore and Hong Kong have done to eliminate slums. In Singapore and Hong Kong, too, you have to pay through your nose to get a domestic help or a chauffeur.

Slums are not regarded as political issues in many countries. But that is not so in India. Here, elections still reflect some of our real issues. You are always afraid when you see slums: it reminds the middle class they are sitting on a volcano. The fact that our political system has not forgotten the slums makes the wealthy and the middle class nervous.




Such anxieties have cultural consequences. In fact, I would go to the extent of saying that in the West, the more interesting cities have slums. New York has slums; Houston does not, not at least visibly. Los Angeles does not have conspicuous slums, Washington has and it’s a more interesting city because of that. The contradictions of the city are in full display. A society’s creativity depends on the oscillation and dialogue between slums and the rest of the city.




New York is an intellectually rich city because it has many things that are going out of fashion in mainstream America, such as street life and street food, street graffiti, street-side artists and musicians. It also has crime, sleaze and drugs. The latter have an effect somewhat similar to that of the activities of the Naxalites or the Maoists: they remind the middle classes and rich sections of a large number of disposable people living at the margins of desperation. In New York, the capital of global capitalism, more than 40,000 homeless adults live in streets, subways, and under bridges and train tunnels of the city; and 25 per cent of all children live in families with incomes below the official poverty line. New York is New York because it has, to some extent, learnt to live with slums. Many other cities in the West have dismantled slums but not homelessness.

Slums highlight such contradictions. If you have disowned parts of yourself and built up an elaborate system of psychological defenses, the contradictions do not vanish. They remain and you feel you are always being held accountable, being accused—by yourself. Such contradictions sharpen creativity. They impinge on the writers, artists and thinkers. The finest Dalit poetry in India, for example, has come not from writers in rural India where the situation may be more oppressive for the Dalits or from Dalits who have made it, but from writers living at the margins of society. They have lived either in a slum or close to it

This is not an attempt to romanticize slums but to emphasize that the slums are often the only connection the urban middle class has with some of the grim realities of society. The well-known Bangladeshi economist Mohammad Yunus once said that the only time the country’s rich and the wealthy faced what the poor in the country’s villages had lived with for centuries was when floods came to Dhaka. Likewise, the slums create a certain awareness, which we can afford to ignore at great risk. If we remove slums, the only people in touch with that reality may well be the Naxals, the Gandhians and some of the much-maligned, politically-aware NGOs.




Town planners in many countries think slums can be replaced with low-cost housing. Low-cost housing has relevance but it is neither foolproof nor offers a long-term solution. Once you give people such houses some of them might sell them to developers for gentrification and, ultimately, the other city encroaches on such projects. People who had some protection in slums, at least had a roof on their heads, lose that protection. Low-cost housing might lead to American-style gentrification in our political economy, too.

Even by conservative estimates, one-fourth of India is poor. They cannot be ignored. In our political system, electoral pressures and vote banks matter. And empowerment can be a solution. It is working in the case of the Dalits. It can bring small reliefs such as better sanitation, cleaner water, minimal healthcare and more toilets. Even now, without such facilities, lots of people prefer to stay in slums; they try to make something beautiful out of whatever little they have. Human beings are a resilient species and many prefer to live in a place where such resilience is in full display. The well-known Hindi film director Manmohan Desai used to stay in a locality that could be classified as a glorified slum. So did Vinod Kambli, the famous cricketer. Harlem has even become fashionable; former President Clinton has an office there now. Slums are not infra-human.




Planning cannot eliminate slums. As long as there is large-scale deprivation, as long as our rulers, our media and our urban middle class believe that proletarianization is better than being a farmer, artisan or a tribal, there will be sizeable number of people who will be made available for blue-collar work in our cities. Such people will like to stay close to their places of work. If you upgrade or destroy one slum, others will come up in its place a few hundred feet away.




The recent attempts to free Indian cities of slums will merely make the slums less visible. This is not a new project. Sanjay Gandhi tried it. Jagmohan tried it. I don’t blame them any more in retrospect. The urge to make slums invisible is there in almost every unthinking Indian—not just in the powerful, the foolish and the heartless.




The desire to secure services from slums and yet not see them is one of the diseases of our times that is taking an epidemic form.






A sociologist and a clinical psychologist, Ashis Nandy is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi

CNN interviews Vinod Shetty of Acorn India / COI

CNN Mallika Kapur looks at how India is trying to dispose waste.

Water to Earth

Right to Education for the Disabled

ACORN India in Bangalore organized a Kalajatha (Street Play) to create awareness on
right to education for the disabled in our working areas. The Kalajatha was organized by ACORN and supported by SN Basaveshwara Education Trust and the Acharya Institute of Management Studies. The Kalajatha was held in five slums of Bangalore where ACORN has members. The Kalajatha was held on 12th and 13th of March.

 On 12th the Kalajatha was held in Binnamangala and MV Garden. On 13th the Kalajatha was held in Lingarajapuram, Rajiv gandhi Colony and Devarjeevanahalli.

The Students of AIMS supported by acting in the plays and  SN
Basaveshwara Education Trust supported by providing the sound system
and the vehicle was supported by the BBMP.

Waste Matters

On the 14th of January, 40 students and 4 teachers of the American school (ABS), Bandra Kurla Complex visited the Dharavi Project to meet our members and see the recycling Industry in Dharavi. The recyclers were struck by the age of these  young environmentalists from the 5th grade who were participating in our “waste matters” project.
The International school has children from all over the world studying with them. The 2 buses arrived at 11 am in Dharavi as part of the community and social responsibility project of the school. The Dharavi Project has been chosen as one of the NGO’s with which the ABS will be working this year. The 5th graders have already seen the documentary “Waste” and attended my talk last month on the work we are doing in Dharavi. I was asked many questions by these bright students during the talk, their young minds were delighted when I told them that they could visit  Dharavi and see  the  recycling process which finally took place on the 14th .
At every unit the students wanted to feel with their own hands the material being recycled, raising fresh questions, which our committee members gladly answered.
After visiting the segregation , cardboard, footwear, plastic units, the students got back into their buses and went back to school.
The students and teachers thanked our members for being such kind hosts and allowing the  them to walk into their working spaces and educating them on the importance of  recycling.

The Workshop

The Acorn Dharavi Project conducted a successful workshop for children of members living in the Rag pickers communities in Dharavi on 13th december, 2009. The workshop was conducted by a visiting volunteer Ekaterina Nikolova ( Katya) who used a mix of theatre, craft, games , physical activity, drawing , art and various other teaching techniques to make the children laugh, cry , shout ,learn and unlearn about their city and Dharavi.

The three hour workshop was attended by 35 students, and acorn committee members Anil, Vinod, Rafiq, Lakshmi, Sabya, Sangita, Kamble Moushi, and Fatima who assisted  Katya. What is remarkable was that Katya was able to communicate with the children despite speaking very little Hindi, and the kids knew very little English.
The workshop started with a introduction of all the kids to each other where they learnt their names, by shouting it out loud for all to hear, there itself the ice was broken when they all held hands and learnt their own names.
This followed by a theatre session, where the children played various synchronised games i.e clapping, tom and Jerry, blind cat, Hawa chali and role reversal games. All these games were conducted in the open ground of the Xavier Institute where the workshop was conducted.

The next session was the Art class which involved the children doing a collage of “My Mumbai” with waste paper, the children could not believe their eyes that they had made the collages themselves, their smiles say it all.This followed with a small lecture in English and hindi on global warming by Katya and Vinod, Recycling and the role of their parents in Rag picking and waste segregation. They also participated in a discussion on what problems that Dharavi was facing and the children came up with the burning issues i.e water, housing , electricity, schools, colleges, health etc,
Finally the entire group participated in a group drawing of ” My life in  Dharavi” , each group consisted of 5-6 children and they drew to their hearts content using crayons, and felt pens and plastic waste from segregation units in Dharavi which they were familiar with.
The workshop ended with some impromptu dancing and singing and after a few snacks and drinks the students received their passing out gifts from Katya teacher, the kids said their goodbyes and headed back to Dharavi to their waiting mothers and fathers to report on their magical day at the acorn workshop , before leaving one small girl with crayon marks on her face asked when the next class would take place.

Eye Clinic in Dharavi

The ACORN Foundations Dharavi Project conducted a successful eye clinic spread over 2 days in Dharavi ending on  9-01-10 where over 150 people had their eyes tested. Many of the Dharavi residents were testing their eyes for the first time, they received a complete eye check-up in the hands of a team of doctors and nurses, and were given free eye glasses from the Lotus Eye Hospital which conducted the eye clinic free of cost, the mobile eye clinic ambulance was made available from Impact India.
Some of the more serious cataract cases were referred by the doctors to other eye hospitals for free surgery. The mobile clinic was a much needed medical service and we witnessed long queues from 8 am onwards , two hours before the start of the clinic The clinic checked the  residents eyes,  and those who required high numbered lenses were told to collect their custom made eye glasses next week .

The committee members of the Dharavi Project Lakshmi, Rafiq,Sangita ,Fatima, Mangla , and other active members under the guidance of staff co-ordinator Anil Sawant  were the volunteers for the program. 

The same day we saw a visit from a International film crew of the National Geographic Channel  which is making a 50 minute documentary on Dharavi  featuring a segment on the Dharavi Project. The new year has begun on the right note, more next week on the waste matters project in 22 schools in Mumbai, which is distributing  bins to the schools this week, our members get to collect the dry waste in return for my training the school kids in waste management and screening Parasher Baruah’s documentary. This week also sees a day visit to our community by 30 students of the American school as part of the year long program in the school.


About ACORN Argentina

ACORN Argentina, founded in 2006, in Buenos Aires, campaigns for basic human rights such as public housing, basic education, clean air and water and against pollution.

Our achievements include:

A campaign in La Boca, in the southern district of the capital, where ACORN Argentina members organized against eviction and ‘temporary displacement’. The homes of the affected people were slated for demolition by the Institute of Housing that had bought the area in 1991to build higher income housing. Due to the efforts of ACORN Argentina and its members, majority of the homes were saved, although some families lost their homes. Till today, ACORN Argentina continues to fight for the public housing tenants. It has since expanded itself to some of the poorest areas in the city such as Barracas, Constitucion, and Paque Patricios, while consolidating its presence in La Boca.

In 2006 we worked to bring to the attention of the Ministry of the Public Works the failing pipe system in Buenos Aires. The city slopes upwards as it spreads north. The pipe system in the south bears the brunt of water flow when it rains. Additionally, the south is seriously under-maintained. There is very little water pressure, large scale sewage problems and frequent flooding which leads to large pools of stagnant water in areas that have high level of pollution and infrequent trash collection. ACORN Argentina and its members convinced the ministry of public works that this was serious problem for many communities in the south. Now the southern pipe system regularly receives the same cleanings as the north, and the situation has significantly improved.

Over the last one year ACORN Argentina has been conducting a campaign against heavy transport vehicles plying through poor neighborhoods. This campaign emerged out of the concerns of our members around their water and sanitation infrastructure. The campaign targets huge 18 wheel trucks illegally barreling down the narrow streets in poor neighborhoods. The weight of the trucks damages the underground pipe system and, with passage of time, creates fissures in the walls of the dwellings. They also pose safety risk to the local residents, especially children (one child had been killed just around the time we started out our campaign). In a year’s time we have secured promises from both the police and the Transit Ministry to deploy more officers to the enforcement of laws barring the trucks in the neighborhoods. The Transit Ministry is working to make sure that the trucks are clearly directed to appropriate routes and fines get imposed on the errant trucks.

ACORN Argentina is battling rampant security problems in the poor neighborhoods while simultaneously providing safe educational spaces for children and youth in areas with high rates of drop out, unemployment and illiteracy. We are working with local police officers to increase communication between disconnected neighborhood stations and to encourage relationships between members, communities and police officers in an effort to build trust. We have also asked more patrols, and we are advocating for more funding and increased budget transparency.

Our Kid’s Project addresses the needs of local youth. This is an entirely volunteer based and member-led initiative that provides free classes as well as after-school homework support in Spanish literacy, English, art, music, and dance. This initiative also provides a forum for crucial interaction between the elder members and the under-privileged youth.

ACORN Argentina is working towards the objective that, by the end of 2008, citizens of Buenos Aires will be one step closer to autonomy by finally having a system in place called the Comunas. This system will group current political districts and culturally recognized neighborhoods into 15 comunas. Citizens of Buenos Aires will be able to vote for local representatives who will comprise a Communal Board of 7 members for each comunas. There will be a president of the comunas voted by the people who will then head the Communal Board. This system will not be perfect, but it will allow citizens to have more control over the budget and over the municipal services in the city. ACORN Argentina plans to build a City-wide non-governmental coalition to ensure that this step is taken when Mauricio Marcri (PRO) takes office in 2008, and further steps are taken from then onwards.

Campaigns and Victories: India

ACORN India has an impressive range of victories. The India FDI Watch has used the power of mass mobilization, coupled with an effective media strategy, to raise the profile of the issue of Wal-Mart’s entry into India.

In November, 2006, the campaign mobilized hundreds of hawkers, street vendors and social activists to warn the government not to allow FDI in retail sector. In January 2007, the Chairperson of the ruling alliance UPA, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, publicly warned the Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh about the dangers posed to the economy and to communities by allowing multi- national companies to grow rapidly and without regulation across India.

In February 2007, upon the arrival of a senior Wal-Mart executive to India to sign a deal with Bharti, the India FDI Watch campaign organized press conferences and public demonstrations in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. As a result of these demonstrations, Sonia Gandhi refused to meet with the executive in Delhi. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) responded to the campaign by recommending that Wal-Mart’s entry be delayed until a Special Task Force of interest groups, including unbiased academic institutions, has had the chance to study the issue.

The campaign gained a lot of strength in spring 2007. In April 2007 FDI India watch and its partners staged the National Convention to Resist Corporate Hijack of Retail in Delhi. At this Convention and later meetings, the plan to form a National Steering Committee was agreed upon and later implemented. The movement was given a name: “National Movement for Retail Democracy.”

In 2007, we also collaborated with research organizations and academic institutions on a case study that qualitatively and quantitatively documented how large retailers and malls had already harmed the sales of surrounding small businesses and hawkers in Mumbai, which was published in the journal “Economic and Political Weekly.” Finally, we supported the research of a Mumbai academic documenting the working conditions and wages of workers in the enterprises of Indian suppliers to Wal-Mart.

In 2008, the campaign has gained more visibility. It has reached out to and collaborated with other international organizations working on issues of development in India.

In spring 2008 Mr. Dharmendra Kumar, the director of India FDI Watch, was invited to speak to the British All Parliamentary Group in London, England.

On 1st May 2008, on the occasion of Workers Day, in a march of rag pickers to the Delhi state assembly, 400 of our member rag pickers participated.

On 29th September 2008, hundreds of hawkers under the banner of National Hawkers Federation, a national partner of India FDI Watch, held a demonstration in front of the Metro Shop in Kolkata. The shop is yet to become operational.

ACORN India recently started organizing in the Dharavi squatter community in Mumbai. Dharavi is Asia’s largest slum where some of the largest recycling units of Mumbai are located. ACORN India has recently embarked upon two campaigns in Mumbai called the Dharavi Project and Waste Matters. The main goal of the initiave is to raise awareness about the plights of rag pickers and to generate funds to work towards the redressal. As part of the Dharavi Project, a documentary will be filmed which will be distributed in four languages in schools and colleges. One of Bollywood’s (Indian film industry’s) top music trio will do a music video for ACORN India about its work among the Rag pickers. The trio will also do a show in Mumbai on January 13th, 2009, the proceeds of which will go towards setting up an organization for the Rag pickers. The Dharavi project will bring in artists, school students and architecture students in direct interaction with the rag picker community.

ACORN India has also successfully developed a partnership with Action Aid. Action Aid is funding ACORN India for a three-month (Oct to Dec) research on Hawkers and small retailers in five cities across India.

ACORN India in the process of forming Hawkers’ union in Mumbai. Under the banner of the Hawkers Union ACORN India recently organized a well-attended meeting in Mumbai.