SAATH: New Business Models in Slums

SAATH is an NGO dedicated to creating change in the slums of Ahmedabad. By utilizing market-based strategies, SAATH’s efforts impact the lives of over 100,000 slum dwellers in Ahmedabad, as well as Gujarat and Rajasthan. One of SAATH’s compelling missions is “creating inclusive cities” so we were appreciative that the Managing Trustee of the organization, Rajendra Joshi, could make time for us on a weekend morning. The thing that struck us immediately about the organization’s vision is the idea of what sort of city marginalized populations should live in as much as any other inhabitant of the city – an integrated sense of livelihood. In other words, housing is not the only answer to the population pressures on cities. People also need health care, education, financial services, jobs, infrastructure and other services. A city should be made up of communities that offer these services in an integrated way. SAATH’s urban program operates with this very principle in mind, connecting slum communities to services and resources through one-stop service centers.

Local innovation. SAATH has been instrumental in slum redevelopment, which focuses on improving existing slums. SAATH’s slum networking projects involved in household level physical infrastructure upgrades that required slum dwellers to co-pay along with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation for improvements in services. While this crucial financial contribution required commitment and responsibility on the part of the inhabitants, it also meant that the government formally recognized slum inhabitants. This recognition raised inhabitants’ confidence that they would not be evicted, which encouraged them to invest in and improve their homes.

SAATH has also been successful in building a one-stop service delivery network for slum dwellers called Urban Resource Centers (URC). The URCs, a fee-for-membership based enterprise (annual fee of Rs. 120), allow SAATH and other community organizations to offer health, education, microfinance and other services under one umbrella organization. These organizations have four missions: information (currently for about 120 services), service delivery (sometimes for a nominal fee, as for getting ration cards), advocacy, and monitoring. Having one place to go to access key services saves time for poor people and ensures that they are able to access important benefits and rights. Marginalized urban communities need to be able to access the same services that more advantaged socioeconomic segments – even more so because of the education and resource challenges faced these groups. The URCs are going to be replicated in four other districts in Gujarat in 2010. This means of aggregating service users helps community organizations meet demand more efficiently. It also creates organizational linkages and informational bridges between different sectors.

Cooperation across sectors. SAATH illustrates the importance of alliances across sectors – in this case, NGOs and the government – to improve cities for low income, marginalized city dwellers.  “To change the thinking of policy makers” was one of the biggest challenges, primarily because of the prevailing concept that slum dwellers cannot pay for services and, rather, expect handouts.

SAATH has also made ties between the electric utility and the community by, again, working as a broker. The cost of providing electricity connections was brought down, slum inhabitants illustrated their ability to pay, and 80% of slums have now been electrified and electric company revenue increased substantially with the new customers. Customers now also have a record of regular payment for services that can improve their creditworthiness.

SAATH is also working with a private real estate developer to create housing solutions for low income groups.

Implications for sustainability. Slums tend to be located in vulnerable and marginal land, for instance because they are in hazard prone areas or they’re located on public land that has been bought and sold in the gray market. As a result, upgrading infrastructure and offering community services to low income communities is crucial, as we were reminded that the pneumonic plague in Surat was a wake-up call to these needs.

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