Winds of change

Three months ago, Dharavi in Mumbai, the largest slum in Asia, made it to the headlines with an alarming number of COVID-19 cases. Now, once again, it is in news with the Govt. planning to unlock, as cases have significantly come down. To get a clear picture of on-the ground changes, Lockdown Voices spoke to Mr Nawneet Ranjan, the founder of Dharavi Diary.

Lockdown Voices (LV): Thank you Nawneet for finding time from your bustling community work schedule. Please enlighten our readers about Dharavi Diary.
Nawneet Ranjan (NR): After I made the documentary film “Dharavi Diary” in 2010, I started this learning centre (with the same name) for girls specifically. While making the documentary, I had observed that in many lower income families the girls are completely left out. They don’t get a chance to go to a proper school. They basically become the mother and do household chores. Whether they are the eldest or not, they take care of the younger siblings. With the thought of changing the narrative, we started Dharavi Diary with 15 girls. Now we have close to 200 kids coming to our centre in Mumbai. Today they are the “change makers of Dharavi”.

Short film on the change makers


LV: What were your first concerns for Dharavi Diary when you heard about the viciousness of the virus and the possibility of a lockdown?
NR: When COVID-19 started, my key concern was the safety of the kids. I could gauge the parents of these students, who work in informal sectors, were going to lose their jobs. The way the virus was spreading initially in the community was concerning, as neither there was proper sanitisation nor proper isolation of the family who were positive.

LV: And how are things now?
NR: Dharavi is a containment zone. But they stopped testing as the hospitals are flooded. We have been working in the community for more than 100 days now. We are taking care, with temperature and oximeter readings. But it is always a concern. We don’t know whether we are positive and asymptomatic.

LV: When the news of the outbreak began to pour in from Dharavi, what were the initial steps your team took?
NR: Our team started to prepare for relief work with whatever savings we had. Our students come from different pockets of the neighbourhood. Dharavi is huge and it is beyond out capacity to serve the entire area. It was very difficult to do home to home survey, to find out who was the neediest, who needed ration etc. Our students made the calls to find out. They really took this in their charge – the need to take care of their family and community. We used to distribute daily an average of 100-150 ration kits – from early morning to late evening. We have distributed close to 15000 kits till date. Now we have run out of resources. But 3000 people are still in our waiting list, mostly those who have lost their jobs. So, the situation continues to be grim.


LV: Besides distribution of ration what were the other initiatives?
NR: The youngsters started to make small videos and shared it on different social media platforms. They also sent it to the policy makers whose contact details we could find online. These videos showed their concern about public toilet, their neighbourhood not being properly taken care of, the impact on people who lost their jobs and things like that. This led to BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) initiate some important changes. We also started our own phone service. Our centre was converted for 90 days into almost a call centre for social goods. We got 5-6 phones for this purpose. We were flooded each day with 300 to 400 calls. Our student volunteers used to cross check from a google sheet and call back. They learnt the skills of a call centre – data collection, data analytics etc.

They also took up the responsibility of taking care of the community by checking temperature and oximeter readings. We have also started a few WhatsApp groups for mental health, learning new skills and sharing something inspiring every day. Our students are the admins. Different people based on their interests put smaller videos to inspire.


LV: What changes did BMC make in response to the video requests?
NR: In the beginning these big hoardings were painted in the city with twitter handles like “My BMC” for seeking help from BMC. No phone numbers. Most people don’t even have smart phones and twitter is a fancy thing. Looks like governance in India is for the social media [laughs]. Then the helpline that was started had only 6 lines and it was always flooded with calls. We did a lot of lobbying. Someone knew some political party. Finally they engaged a private call centre with 35 persons. Govt. has done good things, but it could have been done in a better way. The thinking of the policy maker is somewhere not community centric especially for these kind of neighbourhood.


LV: Initially, there was a lot of media coverage of Dharavi. Did that help?
NR: Today, media has become a thing of sensation. They don’t want to do the follow-up. They just grab eye balls, sensationalise and then forget it. Now, media says cases have come down. Nobody knows if sufficient testing is being done. I have been going in and around different pockets with our students to distribute. I have seen temperature and oximeter readings being taken, but no testing.

LV: The difficulty of social distancing, high population density are known challenges of Dharavi. Did you find any other aspects that took you by surprise?
NR: We unwittingly touched upon the subject of dignity of human labour. Most of the parents worked like house helps or daily wagers. They had meagre savings. But when they were busy earning, they had a level of confidence. Now, these parents are stuck at home without any work. When you are sitting inside a teeny tiny room with 5-6 members, issues of domestic violence and mental health do come up. We had to finally get in touch with online counsellors for help. The other challenge is that for 100 days, the students have had no access to schooling. They were completely left sitting at home. Many homes have a smartphone, but the data plan is not sufficient for using Zoom.


LV: Were you able to help the students?
NR: Our center has wifi and few tablets and computers. We started to open our learning centre in smaller groups. But that’s not enough to engage the kids the way we used to do. To avoid all children coming together, we are getting them in shifts. To teach the kids, we have involved the older students who are going to college. This gets them a little stipend to help their parents who have lost their jobs. Also, teaching is the best way to continue learning. It will give them confidence that they can positively impact their communities. We are trying to engage everyone and build the community in a bottoms up approach. The kids eventually will learn the tools of change making, be a community leader and make a sustainable impact.

LV: So the students have had significant experiential learning?
NR: Yes, when you are on the ground you learn most. Even I have learnt a lot. We had interesting conversations on the quality of food, community toilet, why have they never been part of the main narrative during city planning, why are they left out. When we interacted with migrant labourers, we discovered many were working like slaves in tiny workshops. It was eye opening – how in India there is a huge disparity and how if you are born in a certain kind of a family you are completely deprived of the basics. Lot of discussions from the kids. They say they will vote NOTA,  if they don’t find anyone to take care of their community.


LV: Indeed, your student-volunteers have been very active. Did you face resistance from their parents in involving them, given the health risks?
NR: There was initial resistance as Dharavi is a huge community. While distributing ration, few families complained why people were coming from other parts of the neighbourhood where there were positive cases. They thought our students would be infected and in turn spread in our neighbourhood. Now, the parents are happy and they also feel proud that their children could make an impact. The parents also got involved in identifying ration beneficiaries. If you are able to feed your family and community then there is hope that things will get better

LV: Now that COVID-19 is reportedly under control in Dharavi, what are the emerging challenges that worry you as a partial-lockdown continues?
NR: Mumbai monsoon is a major concern. And this year BMC has been very busy with COVID-19 relief. Lot of drains, sewers have not been de-silted. The task is humongous, and if it rains heavily, Dharavi will be flooded like never before. The other issue is that if a kid stays in a teeny tiny damp room for 24 hours, it leads to a lot of problems. The child gets exposed to a lot of things at a very young age in this kind of neighbourhood. We need laptops and tablets to engage these children in learning. But how to get the hardware? We have requested families and friends to lend, but not much has happened.


LV: Who have been the donors for your relief work?
NR: I don’t know most of them, in fact a lot of them. Civil society and individuals. There is this girl Aditi who helped in setting up a crowd funding campaign. I haven’t met her in person. Lot of people have played a very active role. Otherwise, this would have been a worse nightmare. But charity has also got exhausted. Let us see, how we can continue.


LV: What has been your key takeaway from this lockdown?
NR: I have learnt from this lockdown, how inclusive we all have to be, if we want to make this planet sustainable for the coming generations. We are trained to think about more and more, like every quarter you have to increase your sales by 20% – but how much do we really need to consume? Can we prepare our next generation to think whether they need to consume so much at the cost of others?


LV: You have come a long way from making a documentary film, to setting up an NGO and now working during the pandemic. What motivates you? 
NR: I get motivated when I see changes taking place, see the choices people are making in their lives. Many have stopped domestic violence, child marriage and so on. I always believe that story telling can have an impact. My idea of storytelling is to observe, capture, engage, create and change. When I see the kids coming to the centre – that inspires me. Not that we have 100% result. But lot of youngsters come from poor background. When I put myself in their shoes and think if I could have reached where they have, I feel we should keep doing what we are doing.

LV: What is your vision with Dharavi Diary?
NR: We started a program 3Cs of Hope – Classroom, Community and Citizenship. I believe if these 3Cs can be strengthened, any country can be prosperous. “Classroom” – where everyone gets an equal chance to learn, share and express. Those learnings can be applied in the “Community”. And this leads to better “Citizens”. We need to look at the world in a new perspective, so that we can make things better.

Short film on the 3Cs program


LV: Thank you Nawneet for giving us a glimpse of the outstanding work Dharavi Diary is doing. We wish you and your team the very best in your endeavours. Please stay safe!


Nawneet is a documentary filmmaker who uses his storytelling to bring about social change. In 2011, Nawneet made a film showing the gruelling difficulties of everyday life in Dharavi through the eyes of its residents. In 2014, he launched Dharavi Diary: A Slum Innovation Project. The program uses technology to create solutions that ease life for Dharavi residents and inspire advancement in society. Nawneet is a firm believer in the power of technology to engage communities and mobilise their efforts to serve larger problems.

Featured image : Stock Image
Story images : Dharavi Diary and news-sites
Video courtesy : Dharavi Diary

Standard Disclaimer : The story contributors are responsible for all views and facts provided in their posts. Lockdown Voices and its editorial team is not accountable for the accuracy of the information posted.

One thought on “Winds of change

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  1. Amazing work! You guys are real samaritans minus the limelight and publicity. You deserve my full respect and adulation for doing and involvin in such a great and noble initiative. I lived in Navi Mumbai for two weeks, and I can understand the problems faced by Dharavi people because of its high congestion of people with most of them belonging frm economically weaker section of the society… with people like you at the helm, I am damn sure India is moving in the right direction. Let’s defeat Corona first and then we will defeat Poverty too from India.

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