When we picked the slum water project for the Acara Challenge, virtually everyone we talked to, especially in India, said the slums are too hard and too political. Every mentor from India told the students they need to think about the political aspects of their solution. After spending a couple weeks in the slums, we understand why people say that but I am also that most of the teams, not just Reachout, recognized this in their proposed solution. The choice of the Community Based Organizations (CBO), as a vehicle into the slums, is a great choice and likely one of the few that can work.

What are some of the issues and viewpoints we ran into with working in the slums? These are some views heard or observed, certainly not everyone’s opinion (and certainly not of any of our hosts), but attitudes that do exist.

  • Slums are, by definition, illegal settlements. The people living there don’t own the land. Therefore the people living there don’t pay property taxes (or any taxes more than likely). If they don’t pay taxes, they should not get services. (although slums are used to refer to a wide variety of communities, many of which are legal, and the people do own their home legally).
  • Slums are a symptom of the problem. The real problem is the migration of people from rural areas and small towns into big cities like Mumbai. That is the problem that must be addressed, to stop people from moving to the cities without a job.
  • Class. Issues of class exist in every society, not just India. The slums, or equivalent, have always been there, why should we worry about them now?
  • Corruption. India is known to have a high level of corruption in their politics. The issue is that politicians or bureaucrats may take, or demand, payoffs to get something done. We heard a number of examples of this.
  • Organized crime. Organized crime controls a number of things, water just being one. We talked to a community organizer that had a nasty gash on his head he received from a “discussion” with the local water mafia. It’s not unheard of for NGO sponsored projects to find their systems dismantled or removed overnight.
  • Why should Reachout, or anyone else, sell clean water? That’s the job of the municipality and you shouldn’t privatize something like water.

The first three bullets are probably answered from a humanitarian and a market standpoint. Millions of people live in the Mumbai slums alone, they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, they need solutions that work. From a market standpoint, it’s a market to be served. I think the last three are answered by the CBOs (except corruption, that is the hardest to deal with)

The CBOs are typical of the kinds of neighborhood or community groups that are at the heart of any kind of successful change in a community. Like neighborhood watch programs in the US, they take advantage of people’s inherent pride and sense of ownership in where they live. Only when the neighborhood stands together can they address issues like crime, run down conditions, etc.

No one on Reachout (or Acara) is naïve about the magnitude of the problem, nor about the fact that the slum areas we looked at were somewhat “screened” by our community and BMC guides. But the work with the variety of CBOs, and the fact that there are many success stories with them, gave Reachout and Acara hope that solutions are possible. Overall, this gives us hope that the Acara model will have the impact we all want.