Home Away From Home: My Visits To Harijan Basti


By Nida Zareen:

“Are you sure about the physical field work? We are in the middle of a pandemic and you want to visit a slum in Gurgaon? You must be crazy. Keep the social work aside. Do something online and submit a report or something.”

After hearing all this from people around me, my field work training began with a lot of confusion, hesitation, and dilemma. I wasn’t really sure as to how I would justify my work amidst all the Covid-19 chaos going on. But I guess, the universe works in its own ways and there we must obey.

My community visits to Harijan Basti, (the heart of the project I’m working on,) have been an amazing experience. They made me realize my privileges and be thankful for them.
As a part of the project, I had been assigned the role of assisting in the need assessment survey, data collection and analysis. There have been overwhelming days that came out fruitful and productive. I clearly remember one lady telling us, “Aapko jab bhi zaroorat ho, phone karna hume (Whenever you need us, just call us).” There were days when women associated with us, in large numbers. Then there were days when the women would walk away in the middle of conversation . Then there were also days when we would hardly hear the women speak, because their husbands would step up and talk on their behalf.

Through the ups and downs, the thing that touched my heart was the home-made food made by Sarita ji, a domestic worker who has been associated with MFF for years now. She is among the women leading the project in the Basti. On one occasion, she said to me “Aa jaiye didi, saath me khana khate hain (Come, let’s eat together).” For someone who lives away from family and home, it was such a heart-warming gesture.

The Basti is a world in itself, full of shops and businesses and life. Though it is located right at the centre of huge skyscrapers and corporate offices in Gurgaon, “development” hasn’t reached the Basti. The men only care for their daily share of alcohol, and women, each of them strong individuals, live independently, earning to send their children to school and college. Listening to the life-story of any woman, and her struggle is so empowering in itself.

The leaders among them aren’t afraid to approach the police and are determined to fight for their rights, against the discrimination and challenges they’ve faced in accessing justice.

What remains with me is the lack of awareness among them. It’s ironic that being surrounded with billionaire companies, from all over they are hardly touched by CSR funds. They are visible, yet invisible. Being in the social development field, it is our prerogative to come up with feasible interventions. (After all what are we, if not lifting each other up, in whatever way we can!)

COVID-19 has just made things so much worse, but they refuse to give up. One woman said, “Jab galat nahi kiya to darna kyu hai (If we’ve done no wrong, why should we be scared)?” In January, the Martha Farrell Foundation supported them in their Postcard Campaign, sending their messages to the Ministry of Women and Child Development to act on preventing sexual harassment at the workplaces of informal women workers.

Whether it is to counter workplace sexual harassment, or create a plan to set up a resource and support centre in Basti, the women are ready to reclaim their home as a safe space.
I came to MFF for a one-month field work training. I found the atmosphere at MFF comfortable, inclusive, and homely. Every Friday afternoon, I’m given a space to pray in the office. They gave me permission to give an online exam from the office and work from home on days when I couldn’t make it . The food in the Lunch Club in the office is delicious. The fact that the official staff not just includes a new intern in their celebrations but also in rituals such as lighting of the lamp on occasions such as the 39th birthday of parent organization PRIA – Society for Participatory Research in Asia and the 5th birthday of MFF, speaks volumes about the organization’s ethos. Needless to say, a social worker isn’t just restricted to office settings. Even my field visits to Harijan Basti remind me of a home away from home!

Who would have known I’d be offered the opportunity to intern for the next three months? All thanks to the Foundation, that somehow gave me, a socially awkward person, the confidence to step up, interact with the community, and contribute my bit towards society.

Nida Zareen is pursuing her Master’s in Social Work from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. As part of her internship with the Martha Farrell Foundation, she is involved with the ‘Sapne Mere, Bhavishya Mera’ project, which seeks to set up a Resource and Support Centre for women informal workers in Harijan Basti, DLF Phase 5, Gurugram.
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