Rajani Kamble, 24, can never forget the experience that left a sour taste in her mouth forever. Working in a private firm two years ago, she was having lunch with a colleague when she got the shock of her life.
"When this girl realised I was a Dalit, she forgot everything we had ever shared and told me point blank to go and sit in another corner and never come close to her. I was also told to not use the water cooler at the office again and to bring my own water."
Two years down the line, Kamble is now a 'Barefoot researcher' with Pukar, and has done a yearlong research project on 'The different ways of discrimination' in the city, notwithstanding the fact that she only has an HSC qualification. She has also applied for a Bachelor in Social Work course (BSW).
Barefoot researchers are a concept that PUKAR, an NGO working on making research democratic. It involves training and then handing out fellowships to youngsters, mostly from slum communities, to conduct research projects about issues that concern them on a daily basis. These research projects then become a base for bringing in development measures in these areas.
Rekha Devkar, 46, has come a long way. From being your average housewife who used to hear horror stories of her friends and neighbours suffering domestic violence, she proudly talks about how she was able to save one of her closest friends, who was being beaten up and abused by her husband. Devkar is one of the 35 women, selected from slum communities in the city to be Barefoot counsellors, who counsel people from slums.
Dr Anita Patil Deshmukh, the executive director of PUKAR, which has trained more than 1,800 youngsters mostly from the city's slum communities to research on issues that they connect to every day, believes that 'democratisation' of research is very important. "The idea is to make research a tool for not just knowledge, but advocacy, intervention and transformation of these lives?"
Similarly, Akshara, an NGO which has been training women from slum communities to be counsellors in collaboration with the BMC's Gender resource centre, believes in localising counselling. "With these counsellors, the grass-roots support is taken care of," said Dr Nandita Shah, co-director Akshara.
Dr Kamakshi Bhate, member-secretary of the centre, agrees, "The idea is to empower people from communities in a way that it assumes social significance and translates into a bigger social transformation, like with these counsellors."
'No one wants their child married to an orphan'
Nineteen-year-old Guddu Sapre remembers the fields, the house in the middle of those fields and even the stream behind the house, where he played with turtles. But he doesn't remember who lived with him in that house.
Sapre was two years old when his mother abandoned him in a train. A wailing Sapre helplessly looked on as the train gathered speed but his mother didn't get in.
"I think it was deliberate," said the teenager, who considers himself an orphan. After spending the last 17 years in various government hostels for orphans, Sapre is now one of the trained Barefoot Researchers with Pukar, the NGO that gave him and his group a fellowship of Rs 60,000 for a year-long research project. And his topic of research was 'Difficulties faced by orphans'.
"Whenever a crime took place nearby, the police used to come to our orphans' hostel, round some of us up, and make fake charge sheets against us.
The society is no better. No parent wants to get their child to get married to an orphan," said Sapre, who has passed his SSC Board exams and is employed as an office boy in Thane. Sapre has recently embarked on another Pukar research project: The restrictions and curbs faced by middle-class girls. —Kunal Purohit
'Counsellor training helped me gain respect'
For almost a year now, 30-year-old Ujwala Pingale has known about the marital issues her niece-in-law has been facing. "I was aware of how her husband had tried to stab her with a screwdriver following which, she rushed home. But, I couldn't even dare to intervene, because she was my niece-in-law. Publicly, I couldn't even enquire with any other family member about it," said Ujwala.
It was a surprise for everyone then, when Ujwala enrolled and got selected to be a Barefoot Counsellor, trained by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's (BMC) gender resource cell and Akshara, an NGO working to resolve gender issues.
Following the training, Ujwala's newfound confidence helped her gain respect. "I was the one who sat with both of them, tried to broker peace and reached an understanding."
Ujwala also threw the rulebook at him. "I had kept a copy of the rules against domestic violence ready and even read out the sections to him, under which he could be in trouble if he even tried to harm my niece-in-law," said Ujwala. Needless to say, the husband and wife decided to move back to together again.
The counsellor in her, however, emerges even when it comes to her own household.
"Now, I politely tell my husband to lower his voice, in case he ever speaks loudly," said Ujwala.