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Instruments of collective flourishing.
Notes from Shaktivel Nagar convening by the Urban Systems Lab
Sounds from the Shaktivel neighbourhood
While making your way through the busy streets of Shantinagar, if you can avoid the darting autos and the lumbering buses, you’ll notice a small lane that takes you to an open playground. As you enter the playground, you might feel that it is a dead end, but pause for a minute and take a second look, for there’s an entire community in front of your eyes. That lane is the entrance to the Shatkivel slum with rows of houses stacked together, developed over the years by a Tamil-speaking migrant community.
The housing area which is the size of two basketball courts, is a maze with narrow lanes accessible only by walking. It connects more than 300 houses. In our conversation with Mr. Soundarajan, (the person who invited us to the event we are about to describe), he shared the story of how their parents struggled to live in this place. Over the years, their generations have converted the Kutcha houses into Pucca and semi-Pucca houses. Every home, regardless of its size, is equipped with essential amenities.
The slum is sandwiched between two temples located in the front and back of the living quarters. The temple in front is the Muthimariamma temple, their beloved village goddess in Tamil Nadu, who is now blessing their Bangalore hamlet. The back of the slum is a Lord Ganesha temple. To an aerial visitor, like one of the kites that frequent the neighbourhood, the two temples serve as the vigilant guardians of Shaktivel .
Inside the borders, the houses are a bright collage, with contrasting colours painted on the walls, three generations of residents sitting together, discussing daily work or life. The men in the slum often work as plumbers and painters and the women as housemaids, but some have also started their own businesses. Everybody in the slum seems to know each other and looks out for each other professionally and personally.
Our venue for the April 14th event was going to be the open field space on one side of the slum. We learnt that this land used to be a man-made pond or a catchment area for storing rainwater which was turned into a dump yard. The area was later filled up with earth and then became a dumping ground once again. 3 years back the trash was cleared out and the open space is now used by the residents for various activities.
On one side of the field, there’s a community toilet for men and women. Next to it, is a series of wall paintings of their Goddess Muthimariamma, of Mother Mary carrying her infant, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and others. The open space still has some huts/houses built out of metal sheets and metal scrap kept on the L-shaped edge of the field. Goat rearing is common, so one can see goats of all ages and colours tied to metal poles, sleeping in a vegetable vendor's cart, or walking around looking for food. The main colours for April 14th celebrations were blue and white (including the canopy used for our stall, the main pandal, balloons, the blue chairs, and the blue t-shirts of the association members), except for the colourful rangoli/kollam. The air was filled with the aroma of biryani being made in one corner of the field. But the hot summer sun with dusty winds made us thirsty while interacting with the visitors.
Now is the time to go back to the top of this essay and listen to the sounds of Shaktivel
Assumptions have to be made to get started with our work. But they must be quickly validated and corrected to keep the process honest.
Developing tools with the community is useful
While we were clear on this why this is necessary, this event showed us that -
Shaktivel Nagar citizens are eager to learn and collaborate with us. They helped us choose the clues for the treasure hunt and informed the selected owners that we would come by to give them the clues. Even though we didn’t end up doing the activity, we learnt about the local landmarks and the stories behind them while co-designing it with the community
We also think this model may be a preliminary yet important step in building a sense of participatory, deliberative democracy. When people of a community see places they find important represented on a map and co-build these activities with us, we are putting our theory of change (get them to be aware of their ward —> build belongingness —> participate in the planning of the ward) into practice.
Being invited to the event by Soundarajan after he attended the health convening also validates our belief that one of the ways we can embed ourselves is by “showing” our tools to the community and not just “telling”/talking about them.
Lack of clarity on the number and diversity of attendees and the flow of events can lead to chaos
This was true. During the event, many children were curious about why we were there and excited by the badges and stickers. They came to the stall eager to participate but weren’t willing to wait their turn. Due to space constraints, we couldn’t take them anywhere else so we distributed papers for them to draw/ make origami and bring back to us instead of playing Ward Pictionary with them.
Worry: Residents may not respond/engage with our tools
We weren’t sure if residents would be excited by the games we had planned for them and if they would participate. However, people across ages were curious and came by the stall to play the games and ask about our project.
Words lead to Worlds
Words reveal our world view. It is also one of our primary means of communication with the citizens of the ward. Pay close attention to the words being used by the people. Are they significantly different from the language used in our communication?
Portraits of Shantinagar, Ward No.182
Srikanth, 27/5/1980: Grew up in the area but migrated to another big city for a job for about 10 years. Speaks good English. Came Back to Bangalore a few years back and is now volunteering with a local organization for their area development.
Sudeep M, 07/03/1995: College graduate but is currently unemployed. He lost his left eye in an accident as a child. Spends his time hanging out with his friends at the graveyard close by.
Savitriamma, 09/12/1965: Migrated to this area from Tamil Nadu as a young child. Worked as a housemaid for many years. Enjoys taking walks to drink coffee with her friends at a nearby tea stall, buying vegetables and for exercise in the morning.
Paul Raj, 23/06/2010: He is the child of one of the community leaders in the area. He studies in class 6. He speaks English and Kannada along with his mother tongue Tamil. He embraced his role as a ‘natural leader’ among the children who attended the event.
The Story of the Event from One of Us
Three of our team members arrived in their own vehicles while others arrived in public transport such as buses, autos and cabs. The roads got narrower as we got close to the venue. So, even though we travelled in cabs and autos to reach, we eventually had to walk to reach Shaktivel.
The roads were relatively less packed because it was a holiday as it was Ambedkar Jayanti as well as the New Year for many cultures. Since it was Ambedkar Jayanti some of us also saw garlanded Ambedkar’s statues on the way to the venue.
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One of the main worries was how the community would respond to the stall and activities designed for them. We are new in the Shaktivel slum; the person who introduced us to the community couldn’t attend because of work commitments. Since the agenda of the program by the organizers were not very clear, it made us unsure about the day’s proceedings.
Though our mapping exercise was successful in another convening, with Shaktivel we were confused if we could co-relate and interact with the map.
As we entered the lane, the first thing that you sense was the loud upbeat music. Every house in the Shaktivel was decorated with a Kollam in front. The venue itself was in a space without borders, it was a community playground. The space felt inclusive as it can be accessed in all directions.
Three of our team members arrived at the venue at the stated time. The space was set, but it was still being prepared for the event. As soon as the organisers saw us standing in the ground, they rushed toward us, asking where do we want to set up the tent and what would be required to play our activities. A group of young adults and children rushed to the tent and helped us set up the NWND space.
Though there was lack of clarity on the timing of their event, they helped us set up the stall.
With the help of community residents, we set up our stall by 11:30 am. As we set up, many residents peeked into our artefacts and asked what we were doing and if we had any vested interests in doing such activity. We even had a couple of patrol police officers stop by our stall and inquire about our organization and the purpose of setting up the space.
One of our team members made a smart move by inviting them to locate their station in the ward and then play a Pictionary game.
At the beginning of the event, we inaugurated our first social media standee with the kids of the Shaktivele slum. Slowly, the teenagers who helped set up the main space walked into the stall and started inquiring about our project. Some directly interacted with the map and discussed it with their friends.
Our stall seemed very busy throughout the day because of the high-energy kids swarming around us. One hour into the event, all six of our team members were thinking of new ideas to engage the children. But we were impressed by their imagination of their wards and the daily objects they interacted with. Almost every kid participated in the ward Pictionary and drawing exercise to showcase their skills.
The people of Shaktivel had planned to unveil a statue of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar by the Circle Inspector of that area. The meet and greet event lasted for an hour, and our team slowly eased into explaining activities to the members visiting the stall. We could see that they were interested in this partnership when they decided to contribute half of the money required to set up our stall. They made sure we were comfortable throughout and ensured we were supplied with water, cool drinks and food.
Learnings (for us)
What did we learn about Shaktivel Nagar?
This locality has been around for 4-5 decades. It has transitioned from having about 30 kuccha and sheet houses to having more than 300 households today. The residents of the locality are largely migrants from Tamil Nadu that came in many years ago.
In the past three years, a few involved residents have formed an Ambedkar People’s Welfare Trust to renew the efforts to improve their area. They have already about change by transforming a water tank turned waste dump into a community ground where our event was conducted. They’re proud of this transformation and want to do more for their area. This is their main motivation to collaborate with us.
What did we learn about being embedded in the ecosystem?
In 3 years, through the Namma Ward Namma Dhwani initiative, we want to be embedded in the Ward ecosystem, and what we mean by that is-
Ward residents use the knowledge and expertise we curate in our ward dossier, etc,
Ward residents invite us to facilitate convenings using our citizenship tools
Get referred by the community members to other wards, other residents, groups, etc
A strong, diverse, inclusive network of about 500 ward citizens to take this forward in each ward
Some progress has been made on each of these counts. That Mr Soundarajan introduced us to the Ambedkar People’s Welfare Trust after attending our previous convening, that we were invited to be a part of the Ambedkar Jayanthi celebrations, and community members engaged with us to develop clues for the locality-based games are signs that we are getting embedded in the ward system.
What did we learn about Citizenship?
On the day of the event, as we reached the location, we could see people coming together and contributing to set up the place. There were 20 adults guided by Mr. Srikanth who were busy setting up the space. Additionally, 5-6 men and women were chopping ingredients needed for lunch. At the main stage, two adolescent girls passionately drew colourful Kolams. We could see three generations of people were actively involved in setting up the venue and making it visually vibrant, just like their community. Through these observations, as a team, we reflected on the notion of being a citizen of Shaktivel:
Members of the community are deeply connected to their locality. They have a history to remember, a present to live, and a future to aspire to.
They strongly promote cultural unity by sharing and caring for each other.
They own the place by actively contributing to the space through different dimensions of the place.
They seek and build better infrastructure and spaces.
They are willing to explore new ideas by collaborating with organizations, cultures, and individuals.
They have a growth mindset and maintain relationships with partners who can provide good outcomes for their community.
Though their efforts seem like individual interests, the outputs and outcomes of these activities benefit the community as a whole.