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Social Enterprise

Telling a story of social change in Dharavi

Archana Sudhendranath
23rd Apr 2013
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What can a storyteller do to bring about a social change? Well, to start with, tell a worthwhile story. But is that really enough? Does bringing about an awareness towards a social problem really solve the problem?

We spoke to Nawneet Ranjan from Dharavi Diary to understand this.

Nawneet Ranjan, a filmmaker from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco, is using his means and medium to bring about a social change in the lives of the people of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum community.

It all started with a story


nawneet

Dharavi Diary is a slum innovation project which started with a short documentary film following the lives of people living and working in the recycling industry in Dharavi. “Storytelling is my passion and I’ve always wanted to use that to make a difference to the lives of people living on the fringes,” says Nawneet about his documentary, which has been screened at various film festivals across the world, creating awareness about the community, the people, their work (in the recycling industry) and their challenges.During the course of filming, Nawneet realized that to bring about a real paradigm shift, the entire exercise would have to be more meaningful to the community. With that in mind, he developed the idea of creating a ‘recycle design school‘ in Dharavi. “Dharavi is a thriving community of people from all over the country with unparalleled ideas and jugaad skills and they deserved a chance to participate more actively” says Nawneet, of the thought behind taking the initiative further than the film.

The women, who are used to segregating fabric from plastic and glass and reselling them, are now putting together products such as laptop bags, wallets, purses etc. with the help of volunteers – mostly product designers and design students. The products are sold on platforms such as itokari and etsy and Nawneet is in talks with people to expand the production and reach out to more retail networks.

It’s not just about employment

Nawneet’s idea is not just to create an employment opportunity, but a platform which gives people a chance to innovate. “There are many ideas in the community which have never been given a chance” says Nawneet, citing the example of a woman who ‘upcycled’ an old carton into the missing third arm of her ceiling fan. Accordingly to Nawneet, this kind of ‘design thinking’ is bringing about a huge change in the mindset and confidence of people involved with the project.

Nawneet also feels there is a huge gap between the Dharavi community and the rest of Mumbai which needs to be bridged. To further this objective, they have initiatives such as a ‘slum tour’ and they are also developing a game which will take people on a journey through the slum life, giving them tasks to use their imagination and resources to innovate like the community.

The challenges

When the dreams are big, circumstances are often limiting. The initiative has so far been bootstrapped and is thriving on volunteers only. Nawneet and his team are currently working on fund raising proposals to local and international organizations. They have also made an attempt at crowdfunding, which Nawneet says wasn’t very successful. “Many women are interested in the workshops because they’ve seen a positive change in those who we’ve been working with us” says Nawneet, of the potential of penetration of the initiative in the community.

Besides the funds, Nawneet tells us that the biggest challenge is to keep the community engaged. “Women who come here are living day by day and they need to see at the end of each day how this works for them” says Nawneet.

Another challenge is the lack of empathy in India, towards innovation, recycle and social ventures. What doesn’t help is the large number of organizations making similar products to cater to the small group of people who care.

An initiative like Dharavi Diary is only as successful as the people who it is for. With over one million people packed into Dharavi, the potential to really make a change is tremendous, but take into account the limitations and challenges and you know, Nawneet has a long way to go.

We wish him all the best in his endeavor.

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