ASHA’s Kiran Martin Spurs ‘Radical Transformation’ of Delhi Slums

Physician-turned-activist Kiran Martin meets residents of the Zakhira slum of New Delhi, where her NGO, Action for Securing Health for All, is working to improve the lives of thousands of people.

When Dr. Kiran Martin graduated from medical school in 1985 with a degree in pediatrics, she could have headed to the U.S. or Great Britain, where she could earn top dollar and settle down in comfort. 

Instead, she ventured into the Dr. Ambedkar Basti slum colony south of New Delhi at the height of a cholera outbreak. She set up a table and started seeing patients at no charge while setting up the slum’s first community health and development society, which she called Action for Securing Health for All (ASHA, which means “hope” in Hindi).

Today, ASHA has transformed the lives of more than 400,000 of the city’s poorest citizens.

Martin still leads ASHA in 50 slums across New Delhi, but once a year she travels to Northern California as the guest of Indian American K.C. Chaudhary, a resident of Napa, Calif., with her trip sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, his wife Jan and the Kiwanis Club.

Presented with the Padma Shri in 2002 in recognition of her achievements in the field of social work, Martin seems to have an unlimited source of energy and optimism when she discusses her work, and its latest development — a unique higher education initiative — in a recent phone interview with India-West.

“We are at a very exciting stage in ASHA’s journey,” she explained during a recent visit. “This is the first time in the history of India that in an organized and structured manner I have been able to send 900 slum children to Delhi University.”

“This is something that has never happened in our country before,” Martin added. “Slum children drop out — first of all, they don’t go to school. Even if they end up going, they don’t usually go past age 10 or 11. Their parents start putting them to work.”

“Even for them to handle the academic rigor of high school is almost impossible. They live in very small shacks, there is usually just one room, and everybody cooks, cleans, eats and sleeps in the same room. For a child, that environment, with garbage around and dirt all around, is the last thing one can imagine and expect of them.”

By setting up dedicated study spaces in the slums, and in some cases sending students to school hostels outside the slums, ASHA is able to help create an environment conducive to learning, she explained. “I’ve been blown away by the fact that now they are studying languages, studying history, the sciences and engineering across the board, and they’re studying in one of the most difficult universities in the world!”

India-West asked Martin if she’d had a chance to read “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” New Yorker and former Washington Post reporter Katherine Boo’s powerful and gritty depiction of India’s urban slums, a nonfiction book that has won multiple awards for its unsentimental depiction of how things really run in the undercity — complete with corruption and deceit at every level of the socioeconomic ladder, even within NGOs and religious organizations supposedly devoted to helping the poor.

“It’s lying on my desk to read,” laughed the busy activist. “Everyone keeps telling me about it. 

“[The book] might describe the horror of slum life, but ours is a message of tremendous hope, tremendous joy and radical transformation. ASHA is not just offering a palliative; we are seeking to bring about transformation at the deepest level — a transformation of thinking, of addressing the various social issues that India has been facing for the past so many years.”

A good place to start such a revolution is not within the structure of politics, she told India-West, but with the women who run poor households.

“There is a lot of politics that goes on in the slums, and men get into rival groups and factions,” explained Martin. 

“Women are interested in getting their slum to be a better place for the sake of their families. They’re the ones who bear the brunt of all the problems anyway; if it’s the water you need to fill from the tap, if it’s taking the child to the toilet or a doctor, it’s all done by the women. I found these women’s organizations in the slums, and I encounter lots of obstacles from the men in the community. But I’ve always had a non-confrontational approach.”

ASHA works on a broad range of issues in the Delhi slums: to make healthcare accessible to the most vulnerable by training a small army of Community Health Volunteers; to improve access to education, enabling people to take charge of their money and take out microloans through a program that brings together the Ministry of Finance and nine national banks; to empower citizens (especially illiterate women) by instructing them on their rights and helping them form leadership groups; to improve access to education from childhood to college-age, including English and computer literacy; and to improve environmental concerns such as sanitation, access to cleaner toilet facilities in slums such as Zakhira and Chanderpuri by applying patient but persistent pressure to previously apathetic local government officials (many of ASHA’s success stories are spelled out in detail on the organization’s Web site, www.asha-india.org).

Corruption, too, is finally on the decline, she said.

“When I first got here, I was taken aback by the corruption levels,” she told India-West. “You will not believe it —the policemen were so used to being able to just walk in and demand whatever they wanted from a poor person. I’ve seen them personally putting their hands in the pockets of people and walking away with whatever money they could find.

“In those days, the situation was so terrible, but with the women’s groups that got empowered I said to them, ‘Listen, we are talking about rights and responsibilities. We are creating a democracy at the very grassroots.’

“There is no point in talking about democracy in parliament if there is no democracy among the poorest of the poor.”

By showing local groups how to register as NGOs, she said, ASHA is able to turn the tables. “I tell them, ‘Now, as a registered NGO, you have aims, activities and objectives. You are here to improve the living standards of your communities and you have an action plan. So you need funds. 

“Go and ask your policeman for money! Go and ask the local councilor for money!” she said with a laugh. “You will not believe it: they’re getting donations from policemen!

They have never paid a penny. I have never paid a penny. You can do it.”

As a woman, Martin is especially sensitive to the situation of women and girls at this lowest stratum of Indian society.

“It’s still a very patriarchal society, even at this point of time,” she told India-West. 

“Even after so many years of Independence and the government trying to increase education, but even at this point in time, the girl child is a huge issue in India. 

“When I started, at every level women were suppressed, they were exploited, they had no voice, they didn’t feel like they had any intrinsic worth in themselves, or think there was any value attached to them as human beings. This is a message that has been given to them right from before they are born, with female infanticide and sex determination.

“What’s happening is right now we have all these women’s associations in all the ASHA slums, and they have become the main agents of transformation … They petition the concerned authorities, and today, after 35 years and the work of these women’s associations, you will walk into an ASHA slum and you will find that there’s clean water, there’s good sanitation – plenty of toilet blocks where people can go instead of just squatting outside. 

“The women have brought about a sense of reconciliation and a tremendous sense of harmony, because they’ve been successful in breaking down caste barriers and religious barriers. Today, you go into an Asha slum you will see the change is so dramatic — the sex ratio when we started was 866 girls to 1,000 boys. Now, it’s 999 to 1,000, so it’s equal. We have to address very complex issues with the women in the slum. But the good news is that they are the ones that really make the change happen.”

ASHA welcomes volunteers from around the world. To become involved, visit www.asha-india.org or follow them at Facebook.com/ashasociety1.

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