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Thursday, 24 January 2013 16:41

A doctor’s willpower improves the life of deprived people in India

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A doctor’s willpower improves the life of deprived people in India

Vivek Agrawal is Vice Chair of Working Group Collection and Transportation Technology of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) and Director, CEO of Kanak Resources Management Ltd. He also has a 20 year of experience as a Head of Waste Management organisation (Centre for Development Communication) and as a project coordinator in Jaipur's Rural Health Development Trust. As a doctor, he'd worked on improving quality of life of people from most deprived segment of the society.

As a doctor, with different social and professional background, which was the source of your willpower to help people leaving in slums in India? Which is the story behind becoming a philanthropist?

 While working with Government of Rajasthan, under its health department, I realised that development has different meanings and to improve health, more proactive and people centric interventions are necessary to be introduced. Since, health infrastructure was not available in slum areas, people used to avail curative services from unqualified / under qualified personnel, who would play with their health. It was there that I sensed the need to establish a health system in slum areas. Also, I found that it is because of poor education or literacy that people are being exploited. Just by framing policies and plan health cannot reach to people living at bottom of pyramid. There were certain defects, like policy and planning at top level, instead of involving people in the process. Though, many attempts were made by the Govt to provide health care services to common man, but those didn’t reach to the real beneficiaries, as benefits were stolen by chunk of people who otherwise could have afforded. So, with this, I decided to work with public, instead of public sector. Initially, I thought of establishing free health clinics and schoolrooms in the slum areas, but, despite of best efforts, nobody turned up. They simply said that their priority is bread! It was then that I realized the hierarchy of needs, and started working on creating sustainable livelihood for people at the bottom of pyramid.

The Centre of Development Communication (CDC) has a long and successful history in cooperating with poor urban communities. Which are the primary objectives of the CDC, and what makes its actions different than others?

At the time of initial formation of CDC, our focus was on health and education, but after gaining some hands on work experience, we realised that unless issues related to economic empowerment of people and sanitation are not taken care of, health objectives cannot be achieved. So, as I mentioned above, we shifted our focus to creation of sustainable livelihood. I think statistics can alone prove CDC to be different from others, to quote, daily average income of waste workers increased from US$ 0.2 to US$ 3, apart from benefits like mediclaim, provident fund and pension funds. In fact, our models are now being replicated across India. Further, it is pertinent to note here that with establishment of CDC, we also had an ulterior intention to demystify the myth of NGOs being dependent on grant funding, and institute the thought that NGOs can run without grant funding, with models of self sustenance. Development indicators are not achieved because of the welfare approach. And so we have, for last 18 years we have been working without any grant funding and with the hypothesis that every component of development should take place with a business model; and that we could establish in sector of waste management.

The ability of informal sector to get organized is most of the times questioned. Private sector customarily is unwilling to cooperate seriously with waste pickers, arguing that they are not trustworthy partners. Nevertheless examples like yours exist, where informal sector managed to improve working manners, organization and as an outcome they managed to improve the life of their families. Which was the parameter that made it possible for them, and not for others?

By them you probably mean CDC, accordingly, I would like just to say that we started as a non profit organization, and worked at ground levels with these workers initially. But later, when we had to make things happen, we did not take any grant-in-aids, rather, we preferred to collaborate with an Indian corporate giant, ILFS group, to fund our objectives. The beauty of this partnership is that CDC, the NGO, is itself member of the profit-making entity, and not any individual, ensuring that the profit is routed back to CDC alone, and not to anybody’s personal motive. So, ILFS group kept an eye on funds, and we, CDC, ensured welfare of our employees, waste workers and rag pickers. Additionally, informal sector gets organized only when your objectives and intents are clear. They are very wise in judging what hidden objectives you possess. So, once you establish that trust and confidence, nothing remains impossible. One thing has to be established that you are not there to cheat them, as it usually happens. Historically, people may blame poor for not being trustworthy, but it is vice versa. What is required is a mix of passion, transparency and clear objectives to make them partners not to be employees.

Which were the main problems you had to confront when applying your project? How did you manage to attract slum inhabitants to follow your idea?

Well, as I said, for slum inhabitants, we did not make followers, we made them partners in our mission, and they joined in. As regards the issues, confrontation was never with people actually working, but it was so called leaders who did not want them to rise above the poverty line, to maintain their realm. And, yes we had quite a number of problems which mainly included following:

a) Stringent Traditions which were very difficult to break through

b) Waste management was considered to be undignified job, even at supervisory level, let alone the waste workers

c) Waste management was considered to be fit only for SC/ST Community

d) Poor Socio Cultural stand

e) Lot of dependence on State for implementing and executing any idea

f) Municipality said they were not answerable for anything

g) Worsening Sanitary conditions

h) No customization locally

i) Waste not Treated as Resource

Your project is a reference initiative for India and all over the world. CDC has already begun setting up an operation in the Maldives, and plans to enter select African nations in the near future. What is your vision for the association and the future of waste management in general?

Let thousand flowers bloom... We understand our limitations, we are aware that CDC alone cannot bring the desired change, but then we are also aware that this particular intervention can create millions of livelihood opportunities for people. Thus, we will be happy to collaborate with those who are compassionate about people living at bottom of pyramid and treat at them as partners. Within waste mgt segment we consider and emphasis that primary collection should remain in domain of waste workers and they should also get rights over recyclable material.


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