Rajendra Joshi’s organization, Saath, creates public, private and citizen sector partnerships to transform the slums of large Indian cities into equitable living environments for vulnerable communities.
Rajendra has designed a model of cross-sector partnerships, rooted in market-based solutions, that sustainably provides slum-dwellers with cleaner living environments, electricity, access to credit and job training, and other basic tenants of citizenry. His organization Saath (Together) not only provides the urban poor with basic needs and a higher quality of life, but also allows gives them freer access to local markets. By linking development strategies so closely with market economies, Rajendra has gained the commitment of public, private, and citizen organizations—all of which are working closely together and accelerating the pace of development in Ahmedabad. In the city of Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, where many of India’s recent religious and communal conflicts have erupted, Rajendra’s pilot model has been highly successful. Working in the city’s slums, Saath incorporates an integrated slum development program, Urban Resource Centers, health and education programs, and livelihood and microfinance initiatives. Rajendra is now poised to adapt his model to other parts of India, and to problems like education and women’s employment. Cities like Pune and Nagpur (Maharashtra), Jaipur (Rajasthan) and Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh) have shown keen interest in replicating his model under the Eleventh Five-Year Plan. The scaling up will be implemented by partner citizen organizations (COs) and not through Saath directly as Rajendra seeks replicable and transformative change not bound by the reach and resources of Saath alone.
According to a 2007 UN report, for the first time in history half of the world’s population was living in cities. Estimates predict that by the year 2050, there will be 6.4 billion people living in cities, up from 3.3 billion now. In India, by 2030 half of the country’s more than one billion population will be living in and around urban areas.
Poverty in India has been the focus of many debates and policies for decades. While much of the focus has been on rural poverty issues, the growing urban poverty can no longer be ignored. The biggest cities are growing faster than smaller towns, and such mega-cities have the highest percentage of slum-dwellers in the country. This indicates that as big cities grow even larger, their slums will swell.
The state of Gujarat is one of the fastest urbanizing states in India today, and the city of Ahmedabad’s population is projected to triple from the existing 4 million to 12 million by 2026. Today almost 40 percent of Ahmedabad’s population lives in slums with little or no access to basic services while an additional 18 percent live in underserviced tenements. These communities are also divided along sharp ethnic lines with state governments often fanning the already simmering conflict. Guajarat has also seen major disasters like the plague of 1994, the earthquake of 2001, the communal riots of 2003, and the floods of 2005, leaving an already marginalized community even more desperate. It is in the above context that Rajendra’s work assumes significance.
While the number of government-sponsored Urban Poverty Alleviation Initiatives (UPAIs) has increased over the years, as well as the number of market-based initiatives for the poor, in many cases not enough attention is paid to the market realities of slum dwellers. Relocation schemes often move these people far from the city centers and away from any source of real income. Schemes to provide electricity or water to the neighborhoods often exclude the poorest residents on the basis of price or access to credit. Government initiatives are often guilty of attempting to impose the same programs on vastly different kinds of communities. Finally, the focus on the delivery of goods and services continues to trump efforts to empower individuals to obtain them themselves. This approach leaves little space for families and communities to improve their situations through their own initiative. Rajendra offers a new approach with his Saath model and mosaic of solutions.
Saath serves as the umbrella organization for the entire bouquet of programs launched by Rajendra to bring the urban poor into the ambit of the mainstream economy.
Saath’s integrated slum development program began shortly after the great plague in Surat in 1994. The general belief among the citizenry was that the plague was caused by unhygienic conditions in the slums. Sensing that the time was right, Rajendra put forward a proposal to the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) that rather than evicting citizens and razing the slums, slum residents would pay themselves for upgrades and regularization of services—water, roads, streetlights, and proper toilets. He negotiated such that the costs would be divided three ways—the residents would pay Rs 2,000 (US$40), with a matching amount paid both by AMC and the textile giant Arvind Mills, a large portion of whose workers came from the slums.
This trio partnership was the beginning of Rajendra’s working model. The government bureaucracy brought legitimacy, the corporate involvement brought efficiency and planning expertise, and Saath helped coordinate the process. Most importantly, citizens themselves played an active role—this was the key to success, and has become a defining element of all of Saath’s work.
In collaboration with USAID, Rajendra launched the first electrification pilot for 1,000 households. Again, each family paid Rs 2,000 (US$40) for connection charges and USAID paid Rs 6,000 (US$120) in an effort to convince the Ahmedabad power utility that the poor were willing to pay if prices were affordable, and that affordability was possible through economies of scale. When the power company balked, Rajendra took on another project, this time with 5,000 Muslim households who had been victims of the communal riots of 2002. The success of the second pilot convinced Ahmedabad utility to bring prices down to Rs 4,000 and another 4,000 households were electrified, this time without USAID support. After this success, the program was taken forward by Ahmedabad utility itself. Today, almost all slum households in Ahmedabad are electrified and connection charges have been slashed by half to Rs 2,000, payable in three installments. Company revenues have shot up by 30 to 40 percent with 200,000 households paying for the services.
The success of the power project strengthened Rajendra’s credibility and he began to test his model in areas of health, nutrition, education, women’s employment, and tolerance. Using empathetic peer-to-peer models, Rajendra and Saath have been able to enter some of Ahmedabad’s most sensitive slum areas and bring them under the Saath umbrella in peaceful coexistence.
Rajendra’s work with unemployed youth has been the most challenging, because of the volatile environments many have grown up in, and because developing rapport and trust takes so much time. He launched an initiative that provides job and skills training. His initial efforts have crystallized into the “Umeed” of today, a successful state-level project. The program is comprised of three months of classroom training per student, which combines theoretical concepts and subject knowledge with basic spoken English and basic IT skills followed by on-the-job training. 90 percent of participants who complete the course are placed in jobs; 37 percent are women; 64 percent are from Dalit communities; and 16 percent are from minority communities. Umeed graduates have been placed in leading companies like Hutch, I Call, Subhiksha, Reliance Fresh, TVS, Godrej, Hotel Fortune, Landmark, Shree Computers, DTDC and Café Coffee Day, HDFC Bank, ICICI and ABN-Amro. More companies are coming forward because of the low attrition rate. The premier business school, the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad is considering studying the project in order to further employ youth from economically weaker sections successfully in the mainstream service sector.
Rajendra has made use of every opportunity to constantly look for more avenues for his client base. As part of the Saath network, women’s microcredit groups have also evolved into centers of income generating services. A total of 9,017 women save with these groups and Rajendra has drawn upon the services of the Delhi-based Access Development Services to formulate a fresh business plan for the credit cooperatives to cover the whole of Ahmedabad city.
These cooperatives also function as centers for women’s job training and employment. For example, the Home Managers’ program, Urmila, has so far trained and placed approximately two hundred housekeepers. Another program, the Home Care Service, trains women in basic maintenance services including carpentry, electrical services, plumbing, painting, masonry, repair work, and more. Rajendra is now in the process of combining the Home Manager and Home Care services into a company, Top Care House Keeping Services, which will take on daily maintenance of office buildings and residential complexes.
Saath has also initiated the Affordable Meals Project that aims to cater to low-income groups such as construction workers and casual laborers with good, healthy meals at affordable prices. Market surveys have been conducted among client groups in the city to understand their needs.
One of Rajendra’s more recent initiatives is the Urban Resource Centre’s (URCs) that work as community hubs to address concerns related to health, education, and livelihoods with a focus on advocacy and networking. The core aim of the URCs is to create knowledge centers at the local level. They generate awareness among the poor within a designated geographical area about resources available through government programs, and about social infrastructure and services including education, health and governance. They also enable local governments and other service providers in the public and private sectors to reach the poor more effectively and efficiently and engage with them fairly. For example, a slum resident can go to a URC and for a small fee of Rs 100 (US$2), get help for a ration card or an electricity connection, thus bypassing bureaucracy and bribes.
Saath has a total staff of 170. Expenditures for the 2007 fiscal year fiscal totaled US$1M, 60 percent of which was earned through the provision of services and the rest covered by grants. Saath is now in the second phase of expansion, and Rajendra has hired consultants to project a growth path for entry into the small and medium towns of India.
Rajendra was born and raised in Tanzania where his father worked as an accountant with the Tanzanian Railways. He came to India at the age of nineteen to pursue higher studies and was struck by the inequities that existed between different classes, castes, and communities. Rajendra graduated with a degree in Zoology and in 1984 joined a missionary group to work as a teacher in Ahmedabad’s slums. There he created an entire curriculum geared toward attracting children to school and keeping them in school.
Highly influenced by Julius Nyerere’s humanism and Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid, Rajendra began to think about ways to transform poor communities. He was encouraged by his mentor, Father Ramiro Erviti, who was the head of the missionary group. After his mentor’s death, Rajendra set up Saath in 1989 with the support of two friends.
Rajendra lives with his wife in Ahmedabad.