Innovation in India

UUSC fellowship funds community-driven water research

UUSC launched the inaugural 2015 Human Rights Innovation Fellowship to support projects with the potential to effect systemic change that advances the human right to water. Chosen out of 43 applications, the winning proposal came from Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action, and Research (PUKAR), based in Mumbai, India. With the $25,000 fellowship award, PUKAR will conduct a rapid water survey in Mandala, a slum in Mumbai, and will empower residents with the necessary data to advocate for their human right to water.

PUKAR and the right to research

PUKAR is, in its own words, “an independent research collective and an urban knowledge production center.” Founded in 2002 to encourage more inclusive conversations about urban issues, PUKAR works to make research accessible to all. Its aim: to expand access to the knowledge people need to make change and contribute to local, national, and global debates about the issues that affect their lives and futures.

Arjun Appadurai, founder of PUKAR and now president of its board of trustees, wrote “The Right to Research,” a 2006 article in the journal Globalisation, Societies and Education. Anita Patil-Deshmukh, executive director of PUKAR, explains: “In that essay, he claims that anyone can be a researcher. It doesn’t only have to be the MDs and the PhDs. . . . Common people not only can do research — they need to do it.”

PUKAR’s focus on community-driven research as a tool for advocacy stood out to UUSC. Amber Moulton, UUSC’s own researcher, said, “We are thrilled to support PUKAR and its Rapid Water Survey project. PUKAR’s innovative community-based research model ensures that rights holders are not only at the table — they are the people who will be shaping water policy.”

In addition to innovative ideas, PUKAR also has a track record that bodes well for the success of the fellowship project. Its accomplishments are impressive: 

  • Trained 3,000 “barefoot researchers”
  • Published two books  Engaged with 300 communities
  • Mapped more than 50 communities 
  • Reached out to 10,000 people 
  • Conducted 300 research projects 
  • Supported creation of more than 100 pieces of audio-video content by barefoot researchers

What is a barefoot researcher?

PUKAR’s youth fellowship program trains young people from low-resource neighborhoods to become barefoot researchers — residents who investigate topics rooted in their own lives and then use the resulting knowledge to effect change. “I believe this particular model of barefoot researchers as community-based youth action and research is a very good instrument to bring action to slum communities,” says Patil-Deshmukh.

Once PUKAR identifies youth in a given community — through community focus group discussion and ensuing informal connections — fellows receive intensive training. PUKAR leads activity-based workshops in the fundamentals of research: ethics, interviews, methodology, mapping, photographing, and more. Participants are also trained on issues of gender, the environment, caste, class, and religion.

The barefoot researchers then dive into conducting research on a topic central to their lives in the slums. As part of data collection, the youth are engaging in “door-to-door education” and strengthening vital community connections. Plus, they are often more effective at gathering data because they’re already trusted by their neighbors. Following data collection, the barefoot researchers act as organizers for action to address the needs that their data demonstrates.

Patil-Deshmukh highlights an added bonus of the youth fellowship program: “Many of our youth had actually stopped going to school because they didn’t have money to pay for the schooling. Once they become barefoot researchers and start working with us, we reimburse them for their work. They save the money, and many of them end up completing their schooling — and that is the best byproduct of our barefoot researchers program.”

Water access in India

For the UUSC fellowship project, a group of PUKAR barefoot researchers will take on the issue of water access in a Mumbai slum — and for good reason. As Moulton articulates: “The survey will collect hard data on Mumbai residents’ lack of access to water, one of the most critical, and often unmet, factors we need to realize the human rights to water and sanitation.”

In India, 75% of the population does not have access to drinking water on premises. Approximately 609,000 children die in India annually because of diarrhea and pneumonia, conditions closely related to water and sanitation access. In Mumbai 60% of people live in slums. In one slum, Kaula Bandar, PUKAR research found that only 0.1% of the residents have access to piped drinking water.

In Mumbai, the city controls water access in the slums, some of which are off official maps and therefore not properly accounted for in water plans. As a result, people — often called the “water mafia” — exploit slum residents by selling them water at inflated and unaffordable prices. And that’s not the only problem: since the responsibility for gathering household water often falls to women and girls, the extra challenges of obtaining water keep them from attending school, building livelihoods, and more.

Rapid Water Survey

PUKAR’s Rapid Water Survey will be conducted in the Mandala slum, which is home to more than 25,000 people. Half of the community is not on official maps and thereby unaccounted for in city water distribution.

The survey data collected and processed by barefoot researchers will cover the following:

  • Location of contaminated taps
  • Location of nonfunctioning taps
  • Areas without any tap water access
  • Household-to-tap ratios for each functioning tap
  • Water reliability index mapping low pressure or highly interrupted flow 
  • Water quality and quantity 
  • Cost/affordability

As part of PUKAR’s Healthy Cities, Wealthy Cities initiative, the Rapid Water Survey will provide residents with the tools and data to advocate for improvements in water service and hold the government accountable. PUKAR anticipates the project will affect 50,000 people over three years.

Ultimately, PUKAR aims to decouple home ownership from water service and ensure adequate water and sanitation for all people living in Mumbai’s slums. Moulton says: “I am excited to see the project unfold over the coming year and hope we can help PUKAR share its model with other communities who need research to create change.”

Jessica L. Atcheson is UUSC’s writer and editor.

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