Social Enterprise in Indian Slums

The resource challenges in India's slums inspire innovative use of enterprise to solve everyday problems.

India 2013

By Leon Kaye

August 05, 2013

Also published by The Guardian

Slums in India have grabbed the attention of activists, journalists and humanitarians for decades. And as urbanisation in India surges, living conditions in these poor areas within megacities have become increasingly dire. New slums have emerged on the outer rings of older ones, resulting in situations like the one in Mumbai's Dharavi where its one million people now sit on what many Indian leaders regard as prime real estate.

Stark contrasts of rich and poor are found everywhere in Mumbai and social entrepreneurs are helping bridge the gaps.

David Levene for the Guardian

Having spent time in some of the slums of Mumbai and Delhi earlier this year, I found it was easy to focus on the jarring first impressions: the overcrowding, filth and poverty. But peel back the harsh veneer and one sees the budding social enterprises that thrive in Mumbai's M Ward and Delhi's Holumbi Khurd. New business models from large and small firms alike that foster jobs, conserve resources and inspire innovation thrive within these neighbourhoods. The scarcity of resources like water and energy force residents to become creative, thrifty and share with their neighbours.

Clearly these districts have their problems: inadequate healthcare, lack of clean water, scant opportunities in education and government indifference all contribute to the taxing daily life of most of their inhabitants. But the lack of necessities inspires social innovation, allowing many residents of these areas to progress while finding employment and, in the long run, hope. While these neighbourhoods are not necessarily models for sustainable development, what has unfolded in many of India's cities offer lessons for other cities around the world as they struggle with the influx of new migrants. Energy, water and health are just a few sectors in which necessity and creativity converge to improve lives and create new jobs.

Dharavi, for example, has long been a hub for recycling, which in turn provides economic opportunities to tens of thousands of residents. Most of the trash Mumbai's 21 million people discard ends up at dumps near Dharavi, where "ragpickers" sort through the garbage and salvage plastic from everything imaginable including electronics and broken toys. The work is tedious and even dangerous, but at a daily wage averaging $3 to $5, the pay is comparable to those who make a living making the country's much-coveted and intricate sari fabric, which often involves even longer days in cramped and stuffy rooms. Recycling, however, is old school compared to what is catching on in other areas.

Many of India's slums have no access to the local energy grid, which have forced residents to rely on pricey, dirty and dangerous kerosene. One social enterprise in Bangalore shuns the debate over whether India should build more coal-fired or even nuclear power plants. Pollinate Energy has provided solar energy to millions of poor Indians at a time when the cost of energy from the sun has declined precipitously. The company provides training to locals, or "micro-entrepreneurs," who buy locally-manufactured solar home lighting systems and then sell them to families who would otherwise depend on kerosene for light. Families in turn have access to microfinance programmes, eliminating any requirement to purchase the contraption up front.

Safe drinking water is also a leading health challenge for many of India's urban poor, and now multinationals and small social enterprises alike respond to the problem. One local company, Sarvajal, has created the "Water ATM", a stand-alone water dispenser that uses off-grid solar energy to power a reverse osmosis system and provides treated water 24 hours a day at a low cost. Users simply swipe a pre-paid card at a price Sarvajal claims is cheaper than other alternatives.

The company trains franchisees so they can own and operate these water ATMs, giving a sense of ownership within local communities instead of relying on local charities or governments to truck in water, the norm in most Indian slums. Sarvajal received a contract last year to run a pilot programme in Delhi.

Meanwhile, Unilever is an example of how a multinational can expand access to safe water to the poor while creating jobs. The company's PureIt brand of water filter, priced at $24, is a cheaper alternative than boiling water on a kerosene stove. And for consumers too poor to pay for the system entirely upfront, Unilever's India division works with several NGOs on micro-finance schemes, including one with a Facebook page that allows anyone to make contributions from as little as 10p, so these filtration systems can reach homes where they are most needed.

Technology companies can also deliver services providing critical healthcare and employment. In Bhiwandi, a poor neighbourhood east of Mumbai, Microsoft partners with the Indian firm BigTech and the charity Operation ASHA to deliver tuberculosis medicine to patients who either forget or are too weak to go to local clinics for their scheduled treatments. ASHAs, or accredited social health activists, are local women trained to participate in similar health programmes throughout India and serve as the first line of healthcare support to India's poorest citizens. Dimagi, a Massachusetts-based software firm, partners with charities in the state of Uttar Pradesh to work with ASHAs who use mobile telephones to diagnose medical conditions and offer health advice to pregnant women.

Technology and social innovation will not solve India's poverty and health problems alone. A government more responsive to its citizens needs would certainly help solve the growing disparity between rich and poor, but for now social entrepreneurs fill a void where a dismissive government and overwhelmed charities fall short.

Leon Kaye reported from India on a new media journalism trip with the International Reporting Project (IRP).

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