How Fahmidaben found her voice – and helped her neighbours

With training and guidance from Mahila Housing SEWA Trust, a slum-dweller works at improving her surroundings

MHT | December 7, 2020


#Mahila Housing SEWA Trust   #The Self-Employed Women’s Association   #SEWA   #Renana Jhabvala   #Bijal Brahmbhatt   #housing   #land   #property   #women   #gender   #climate change   #civil society  
Just another day in the life of Fahmidaben (Photo courtesy: MHT)
Just another day in the life of Fahmidaben (Photo courtesy: MHT)

Fahmidaben’s father was a labourer and mother a maid. She had three sisters and one brother. When the gas tragedy struck Bhopal in 1984, the family was among those affected. When a gas tank burst, they too were among those who had to run for their life, as breathing became difficult. They were saved, but for eight days, they had a burning sensation in their swollen eyes. Also, there was no work and nothing to eat.

She had studied till 8th when she got married in 1993. Her husband worked for a decoration company that would make tents for marriage and parties. She studies in class 9th in school after marriage, but she did not give exams. Fahmidaben, her husband, brother-in-law and other in-laws – all lived in one room in the city.

In 1994, she gave birth to twins. Unfortunately, they had nothing to eat for many days, and so she could not feed her infants. She gave her sons biscuits instead, and they had loose motions. She wanted to go to a doctor but she was not allowed to go out alone. On that particular day, her mother-in-law refused to accompany her to the doctor. In the absence of medical help, one of the twins died. The other was soon rushed to hospital, but he could not be saved either. In 1995, she became mother again – she had a daughter. Another daughter followed two years later. A son in 1999.

Fahmidaben started selling kerosene in her basti. She also started rearing goats. It was after 1999 that she became a member of the Community Action Group with Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT). Around this time, the registration process for water and sanitation started in the locality. The MHT started giving training to women. However, Fahmidaben’s husband did not want her to open her mouth in public. She herself was too shy to even introduce herself. Yet, she decided to shape herself with help from the MHT. She took training for a mason’s work form MHT. Then she successfully built her own house from recycled material like tiles and doors.

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Then the MHT introduced the energy access programme. The MHT staff tried to persuade her to work on this, but she initially said she could not work as an energy auditor. Then, however, came the marriage of a daughter and she incurred a debt, which made her think again. She decided to become an energy auditor but refused to travel to the main city (she stayed in a suburb called Gandhinagar). Meanwhile, she also worked as a resource person in MHT training sessions. Later, Fahmidaben started working in slums, in the MHT’s energy access and energy savings programme run, because Bhopal slums did not have access to electricity.

When her husband started forcing her to sell a half of the plot where they lived, she built a kutchha room on the plot and rented it. She started earning Rs 400 a month in rent from that room. (Now she has four to five rooms which she rents.)

As part of the Swach Bharat Abhiyan, when Bhopal was declared open defecation free, the MHT requested her to do a survey. She and other colleagues made a list of households which did not have toilets and the MHT directed her to go to the ward office and make an application for toilets in her basti.

She took residents’ signatures and went to the ward officer – for the first time in her life. At her insistence, the officer came to the field and found out the reality, and then toilets were built. She started giving applications for more slums. When the ward officer refused to take any more applications, she asked him it to state so in writing.

Fahmidaben learnt digital skills and how to make a survey of slums in the social corps software from MHT. She prepared a digital survey of the Buda Kheda slum. There was no water supply there from the municipality though it was 100 years old. The MHT guided her to go and meet the zone officer. The zonal office kept her waiting, and she had to visit it again. She told them about the MHT and Buda Kheda.  The officer told her that a minimum of 60% households should have paid fees for tap connection and taxes for the last three years. The official referred her to the Jal Vibhag in Bhopal. She kept following up the matter with various officers for 15 days. She mobilised 150 families to pay up and after three months they got water connection.

More and more confident, Fahmidaben now took up the Climate Resilience Programme at the MHT. She explained to women what climate resilience is and why they need it. She taught them about dropping ground water levels, why roof water should be harvested and how flood water works. She also introduced the community-based vulnerability assessment tool in Bira Gadh. Using games like snakes & ladders, she tried to introduce new water practices, telling them how improperly stored water often gives rise to vector-borne diseases.

In these slums, there were parts without street lights, leading to safety issues. She made an application for the same, but the municipality said that the application could be done only by the councilor, who as it happened was not paying attention to the matter. So she again organised women to protest. The councilor finally had to comply.

Harsh from MHT trained her in water testing. She understood that if water looks clean, it does not mean it is clean. She learnt how to use the tool kit: Take 10ml water and put four drops of regent in it. Then look at the colour chart and if the colour does not match the chart, it is not fir for drinking. The other test was chloride. The government standard is of 1,000 mg chloride; if it is more or less then you refer the sample to a government lab.) Thus, the community learnt to conduct 12 tests on water.

In the Jatkhadi slum, the quality of water from the government hand-pump was not good, so slum-dwellers carried out various tests themselves, and presented their own test reports with photo evidence to officers. The hand pump was sealed. While the process is on to lay a pipe line for water supply, Fahmidaben got the councilors to arrange water tankers in the meantime. Now a surveillance mechanism is in place and the slum women themselves test the water for any bacteria every week.

It is difficult to imagine that there was a time when Fahmidaben could not raise her voice in public: now she speaks every issue that touches the lives of women like her, and her husband cannot say anything, he rather makes tea for her when she’s busy. The family watches her with respect. She wants to work more for poor women – but without becoming a political leader.

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