Irish project aims to give children of Kolkata slums what they most desire; an address

Irish project aims to give children of Kolkata slums what they most desire; an address

Tue, Mar 19, 2013, 06:00

I’m walking around the labyrinth huts and small concrete houses in Chetla slum, the largest collection of dwellings of its kind in Kolkata, India. The homes, or shanties as they are sometimes called, are generally just one-room buildings with one large bed and a small cooking area, housing whole and sometimes extended families.

I’m visiting at a time when the rains have yet to come, and the nearby river, while polluted, has not yet overflown and reached the doorways and into the houses, bringing with it disease and raw sewage. Kids play marbles in the narrow lanes separating each area, while families queue to wash at water pumps located near communal toilets.

Despite the lack of facilities, there’s an immediate and palpable sense of community in Chetla slum.

It’s difficult to estimate what the actual population of Kolkata is as numbers vary between 15 and 23 million. Most estimates though agree that at any one time, two-thirds of the population live in slums, both officially and unofficially. So, for many of the dwellers here in Chetla, the buildings are not simply temporary residences. They are homes.

Un ique identity
The small satellite television dishes on the outside and teenage posters of Bollywood stars on the inner walls point to their permanency. A problem though for any person who resides in a slum like Chetla is in forging their own unique identity. There are no street addresses, house numbers or postcodes, so obtaining birth certificates, driving licences, bank accounts and a host of other normal life documentation is difficult, if not impossible, for residents here.

Some are born, live and die without any official record of their existence. Without an address, those who receive an education and hope to enter the workforce may find it impossible to apply for jobs or receive prompt correspondence.

Coupled with this, when there are medical emergencies in the slums, it is very difficult to direct services to the exact location. For those agencies working to deliver public health programmes in slums like Chetla, the lack of an identifiable address has also created problems in identifying those most in need.

Now though, an Irish company and an Irish NGO could be on the verge of solving the problem of identity in Kolkata’s slums. For many decades, The Hope Foundation has worked with the street and slum dwellers of Kolkata, delivering healthcare and other programmes.

Go Code, a company set up by Alex Pigot in 2005, has developed the means of creating technology to give each house and location a unique identification code. These codes can identify the spot to an accuracy of five square metres.

When Go Code and The Hope Foundation made contact with each other, the NGO immediately saw the potential benefits of such technology and began a scheme in Chetla slum on a trial basis.

GPS software
Visible over many of the dwellings in Chetla slum is a small metal plate with a code printed on it, the size perhaps of a small licence plate. Through GPS software, the coordinates can be inputted on a database and direct everything from emergency services to local post workers to the house’s exact location.

Maureen Forrest, honorary director of the Hope Foundation, says initial results are very positive.

“In our society, we take for granted having an address. But if you live in this slum, your address is Chetla slum, and the only way you can get post is for it to be sent to a local community centre,” she explains. “We began with 2,500 houses in a pilot project with Go Code.

“We found that the technology gave us a detailed database of the numbers living in each house. We can survey their health needs in a targeted way, find out how many children are in school, why they may have dropped out and so on. It is almost endless what we can do with this technology.”

A new system of social welfare is soon to be introduced in parts of India, and people will need bank accounts to access it.

Forrest points to the fact that having a unique address will enable some slum dwellers apply for this state assistance, many of them for the first time.

For Alex Pigot of Go Code, his company is providing its expertise free, and it has recently set up a project entitled “Addressing the Unaddressed” to work with other NGOs around the globe on similar projects. The technology sprang from work Pigot carried out as a result of ComReg’s examination of postcodes in Ireland in 2003. In Kolkata, the company’s work has now expanded hugely from the initial pilot project.

“Having an address has given more hope to these people that their lives will improve faster. [It has also] meant a greater sense of pride in their location and the ability to direct people and services [such as the delivery of gas canisters] directly to their dwellings,” Pigot explains.

“The number of people affected by the work to date is 15,000. We will continue until all 35 slum areas where The Hope Foundation work are addressed.”

Seeing the benefits
Some of those dwellers at Chetla who are directly affected by this new system are already seeing the benefits. One girl I met in a local community centre, who is hoping to become a judge after her studies, says the new code system will help change attitudes towards those living there.

“It is very important,” she said. “Society will change if people have addresses. Now they look down on us. In their eyes, we don’t exist, but this will help reverse that.”

Another man crouched low in his dwelling cooking fish, told me: “When I got my address, I was then included in a health programme and it was discovered I have high blood pressure and diabetes.

“When I was identified on the map, the volunteers approached me and I was taken to a local hospital where I got medicines. With an address we can now vote, so politicians are listening to us. That’s a change.”

Recently, the United Nations identified the problem of undocumented and unidentifiable persons as a major growing crisis concerning the fundamental rights of citizens across the globe: “Four billion people are excluded from the rule of law, as the lack of a legal identity often prevents them from enjoying their rights as citizens. Setting up an addressing system is the first step towards tackling that issue,” the UN report said.

Should collaborations between The Hope Foundation and Go Code continue to return positive results, there is an expectation that the UN may begin to license this technology for other locations.
Perhaps then, aided by technology and local expertise, society may finally begin to address the world’s unaddressed.

The Hope Foundation works with street children and slum dwellers in Kolkata and elsewhere.

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