A paediatrician visited a Delhi slum in 1988. Shocked by the poor living and health condition, she set up a small clinic under a tree. Today, she supports over 500,000 slum dwellers through her organization Asha.
The year was 1988 when Dr. Kiran Martin, a paediatrician heard about a cholera outbreak in a south Delhi slum. She offered to help and made her way to the slum. She borrowed a table and started working under a tree.
Cut to today, Dr. Martin is now a lifeline of Delhi slums and has helped over 500,000 slum dwellers through her services in about 60 slum colonies of Delhi. So how did a doctor turn into a changemaker? The story goes back to 1988.
“When I first entered the slum, I was shocked. I had never seen a slum from inside before. There was not even a proper way to enter. There were mountains of stinking garbage. The children were playing with the excrement, people were defecating in the open. There was so much illness there and an immediate help was required. This is when I immediately started my work under a tree to help the cholera patients,” Dr. Martin recalls.
Her work was immediately appreciated by a few more like minded people who showed interest in joining her. The support inspired Dr. Martin to take her work one step further and she set up Asha Society, an organization to work with the urban poor to bring about long-term and sustainable transformation to their quality of life.
She set up her small clinic in the same slum in a small building. After working with the community for some time, she realized that she could help women to take better control of their lives and health through a more structured approach.
She started training women to become community health workers. The women who were clueless about their own health earlier, gradually started taking larger responsibilities and soon became a first line of defence against common health risks and respected leaders in their communities.
“I began to understand that women were more open to change and they were a much stronger group. I believed that I had to contact them if I wanted to bring about a change,” says Dr. Martin.
Asha provides six month training to the women and gives them a medical box to address basic illness and infections. The women also give advice on nutrition, health and immunization of the children.
Gradually, this model became popular and all Asha slum areas have a health centre staffed by Doctors, Community Health Volunteers (CHVs) and trained nurses
For a more serious intervention, Asha has also set up an advanced clinic that has a sophisticated laboratory, ECG and X-ray equipment among many other facilities.
Thanks to Asha’s intervention, the Delhi slums now see reduced child mortality, fewer maternal deaths, better nutrition, a lower birthrate and virtual eradication of preventable diseases.
But this change was not easy to bring. Especially, when these slums were male dominated and were under influence of slum lords.
“Dealing with the men was very challenging. So far men were the ones who ruled. Women didn’t have any voice. It was difficult for men to see the shift in power. Also it was hard for them to think of an outsider coming to their slums for development. They protested, deflated my car tyres, threw stones and did many other things to demotivate me. I then decided to take slum lords into confidence. I did not oppose them. I thought to reject their deeds rather than rejecting the people,” recalls Dr. Martin.
Dr. Martin was not the one to give up. She had a plan in place and she followed an organised approach to bring everyone on board. Asha maintained transparency.
The team invited men in their discussion with women so they don’t feel threatened. They were not confronted aggressively, rather Asha team chose to gradually bring them on their side.
Initially, not just men but even women were first skeptical about Dr. Martin’s intervention.
“Everyone had exploited them. They had given up. They assumed that like others we will also show false dreams and promises. They had to first see a little bit of success before they could believe me,” says Kiran.
This is when Kiran helped them construct a hand pump and got them access to clean drinking water. The first positive step was crucial to develop a better understanding and trust between Dr. Martin and slum dwellers.
There was no looking back after this. Dr. Martin then went on to create various groups to empower the community. Children’s groups were created to organize sanitation drives and motivate the community to send their kids to school.
To make the slum community more empowered, Asha started a financial inclusion scheme, which enabled slum-dwellers to open savings accounts and take out bank loans. This was never done before. These loans and financial support helped slum dwellers to support their children’s education, and start or expand a wide variety of businesses.
“Slum dwellers had no connection or access to formal financial services. They would fall prey to informal money lenders and ruthless loan sharks, which further worsened their condition. I managed to get the then finance minister to visit the slum and extend his support in 2008. He saw the poor condition himself and got a scheme formulated to provide loans to the slum dwellers,” says Dr. Martin.
Hundreds of slum dwellers have now benefitted from the scheme and of course, accounts of every slum dweller that Asha works with has now been opened.
With the much needed financial support, Dr. Martin claims that, slum dwellers have managed to improve their homes, their lifestyle and in some cases their income has increased even 10 times.
Asha also started a mentoring programme, which aims at matching a college student from the slums with a professional in Delhi to provide advice, guidance and leadership as that student prepares to go forward on their academic and career journey. The Higher Education Programme that started with just 58 students has until now seen over 1200 students from the slums gaining admission to Delhi University and other professional courses
The organization has an internship programme where about 150 university students from various Asha slums were given an opportunity to do a month-long internship in good companies, during the summer break from college.
It’s been over two decades and Dr. Martin has been constantly working to change the ace of slums in Delhi. She faced many challenges but one thing she continued doing was to keep her faith alive.
Check out Asha’s website to know more about their amazing work.