Asif Shaikh, a young man in the slums of Shivaji Nagar in Govandi, Mumbai, was working embroidering saris when he decided to take a computer course offered by a local NGO. He discovered a love for computers, despite having never worked with one before, and started maintaining computers for local schools. Soon after, he opened his own foundation and office space for computer education in the slum. Shaikh now has five computer teachers working under him and over 100 students have taken his computer coaching classes. While he still makes a profit, he offers these services at a lower cost than competitors in the community. Still in his early twenties, he is now in his second year of pursing a college degree and plans to open an English-language primary school.
The computer course that changed Shaikh’s life was sponsored by Apnalaya, an NGO that has been working in slum communities in Mumbai since 1973. Australian diplomat Tom Holland founded Apnalaya originally as the Holland Welfare Centre, a day care centre for children of day labourers. As Apnalaya began to serve more children, the staff realized that support of the child also had to include support for the community. “The focus on community development originated from the focus around the child” explains Dhun Davar, the CEO of Apnalaya. “The economic situation of the family, the actual house they live in, access to sanitation—all those issues impact the life of the child.”
Apnalaya initially scaled to multiple slums in Mumbai, but has since scaled back to concentrate all their efforts on the Shivaji Nagar slum areas in Govandi, Mumbai, where they have been working since 1975. The predominately Muslim slum area is known for being the home of Deonar, one of the largest dumping grounds in India since 1927. The ward of Mumbai that includes areas where Apnalaya works has some of the lowest literacy, unemployment, and out of school rates of all other wards in Mumbai (PDF). Apnalaya estimates there are approximately 600,000 people in the Govandi slum communities, 35,000-45,000 of which they have served.
While a trend in the social sector is to scale organizations and programs quickly to multiple locations, Apnalaya has built a model around deep scaling, focusing holistically on one community. Apnalaya’s current approach is community organization and development through five key programs areas: healthcare, education, women empowerment, citizenship, and disability. Its aim is to understand the particular needs of the community they work with, and they use a participative, non-direct approach. “We don’t decide in the board room what we are going to do in this community. We partner with the community itself” said Davar. “We’re entirely community-based. We don’t believe in having an office in the centre of the city.” Apnalaya has over 60 trained community-based staff and a range of programs and services in their key focus areas.
Shivaji Nagar includes authorized slums – which the government officially recognizes and provides civic amenities—and unauthorized slums—which are not entitled to civic amenities. Because even the authorized slums lack access to the basic civic amenities they deserve, Apnalaya’s staff works with both the authorized and unauthorized slum communities to enhance awareness of and access to government schemes and rations. Apnalaya also focuses on forming citizen identity for its residents, such as helping them get birth certificates.
Given the Deonar dumping grounds, there is a large population of ragpickers—membersof Mumbai’s underground, informal labour force. These ragpickers sift through garbage to find metals and valuables to sell and organise for recycling. Ragpickers work in an unorganized and hazardous sector, and there are no regulations on their health, exploitation, or the issue of child labour. Apnalaya has helped the community form a ragpickers association, which now includes 480 members. “Their profession isn’t recognized, so what is their identity? But they are working and helping the economy” said Davar. Apnalaya has also begun working with the ragpickers to provide additional training, such as how to make and sell paper bags from what they collect.
Other Apnalaya programs and services include health check-ups, awareness programs, and learning centres, all within the slum, where their sparse office spaces are also located. “As a community-based organization, we face the same challenges of the community. We also don’t have official water and lack electricity. Our staff is still motivated, but it is a challenging area to work, and not having the infrastructure we’d like to have means there are some limitations to what we can do,” Davar explained.
Under 30 years of age, Davar brings impressive credentials and a fresh perspective to an organization that has existed for two decades. She previously worked in international development in Africa and attained a Masters in Development Studies from the London School of Economics. Davar was brought up 20 minutes from the Shivaji Nagar slum and visited once with a neighbour who was involved with Apnalaya. “I grew up in Mumbai and it was a real shock to see a community like this. I saw people who built their homes on top of the garbage in the dumping grounds” said Davar. She immediately gave up all other career plans and two and a half years ago joined the organization.
Davar hopes to help Apnalaya’s programs adopt some of the principles and business models from the growing social enterprise movement, following the trend of many organizations moving away from traditional social services to more business-oriented models. Apnalaya currently charges for many of its services at a nominal rate, not to cover costs, but to ensure community buy-in.
Shaikh explained that because he had an opportunity through Apnalaya, he wants to provide the same to the children in his own community. “You do what you think is required and you don’t know what impact is going to roll off from that,” notes Davar about the computer course and Shaikh’s path from an Apnalaya beneficiary to now a potential strategic partner. Ultimately, social enterprise is about empowering individuals and providing them with access to resources to serve and develop their own community, which is what Apnalaya has done for Shaikh and the thousands of others they’ve served. Their model is an example for the social sector in India of an organization being entrenched with one community to understand its needs and holistically develop them, from healthcare to education to empowerment.