Stalin Dayanand, 52, wasn’t always an activist. “I generally stayed away from Mumbai issues,” he says. But his love for nature changed that. “Mangroves are very close to my heart. I grew up in an area that had wetlands. I know every part of the mangroves of Thane Creek, the vegetation, the kind of fish. What an experience it used to be, being connected with nature!” He began animal welfare work 17 years ago; he and his friends would rescue animals and release them in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. He would also take school kids there to plant trees.
In 2007, Mr. Stalin and other like-minded people founded the NGO Vanshakti, to protest against the Forest Rights Act. Mr Stalin says that the government felt it was empowering tribal people by giving away forest lands, but, “We had a different take: everyone has a stake in the forest.”
Mr. Stalin and Vanshakti have filed more than 20 public interest litigations, on issues ranging from rivers to forests to wildlife to wetlands to mining. Their efforts played a big part in the Bombay High Court passing an order protecting all wetlands and a Supreme Court ruling that the Maharashtra government pay ₹100 crore for the restoration of the Ulhas and Waldhuni rivers. The Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary is also the result of their sustained work. Vanshakti also got the areas around the National Park demarcated as an ecologically sensitive zone, but that battle has not been won yet, and he and other activists continue to protest the locating of a Mumbai Metro car shed at Aarey Colony.
Zoru Bhathena, Stalin's colleague and friend, said, “The large number and variety of cases he is battling shows his determination to save the environment. Our city needs many more Stalins.”
Knight of the slums
At a recent book launch, academics and policy experts waxed eloquent on the challenges of redeveloping Dharavi. On stage with them, Jockin Arputham, president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, listened patiently. When it was his turn to speak, he let the frustration show. “I’m tired of asking when change will come to Dharavi, when things will improve,” he said. “It feels like I’m asking the same questions today as I was in the 70s.”
Mr. Arputham, born in the year of Independence, has spent 40 years living and working in slums. He knows that, thanks partly to research and academic writing, public perception has shifted from Dharavi as an eyesore and nuisance to an appreciation of the integral role its multitude of services and small industries play in the city. He also knows this is not enough.
No one has done more to foster a sense of pride and ownership among the residents themselves than Jockin Sir, as they call him. He began as a firebrand organiser in the early 70s, campaigning against the eviction of pavement dwellers, locating tracts of unused land around the city and convincing governments of the day to build alternative housing there. His work earned him the Magsaysay Award in 2000.
After that, he switched tack. “I had to think about the kind of housing and the facilities we need.” NSDF, with SPARC and Mahila Milan, formed a non-profit to build toilets and refurbish houses in slum areas and resettlement colonies. Women from Mahila Milan — not formally trained in architecture, but intimately aware of what would work in their areas — led the task.
That principle informs his more recent work: organising Dharavi residents so that they have a stake in the redevelopment process and have a dialogue with government and developers to ensure they get the kind of housing and infrastructure that works best for them. When improvement does come to Dharavi, Jockin Sir will be at the forefront, as he has always been.
Grower of teachers
When she was 18, and on a summer visit home from college in the USA, Shaheen Mistri began acting on her dream, quality education for every child in India. She started the first Akanksha Centre at the Holy Name School, Colaba: just her and a group of volunteers using the classrooms for after-hours classes for children from neighbouring slum areas. That little idea had legs. The Akanksha Foundation now serves 6,500 children through three centres and 21 schools in Mumbai and Pune.
In 2008, she founded Teach For India, based on the Teach For America model. TFI places college graduates and other professionals in schools in low-income areas for two-year full-time teaching stints where they are exposed to the challenges of education at the grassroots. Long-term, the aim is that many of the TFI Fellows pursue their own careers in education, thus building leadership in the sector. That this is needed isn’t in doubt. A recent Pratham report — among others — pointed to a critical imbalance in the quality of education, stating that one in two Indian children can’t read books meant for three classes below the one they were in. The government school system also has numbers of teacher vacancies across the country.
“What motivated me to start Akanksha was the belief that the world wasn't fair, that children didn't have equal opportunities to fulfil their potential,” Mistri says. “That's my motivation now as well, except that today, this is fuelled by the belief that a movement is building to change this. I'm here to do what I can until that day that all children attain an excellent education.” TFI and its alumni are creating a silent revolution. What sets them apart is their attitude to teaching, a commitment not just to imparting information but also to ensuring kids enjoy learning. That attitude clearly filters down from the top.
In his irreverent, funny newspaper column, 'Ask the Sexpert,' Mahinder Watsa has answered questions with wit and compassion since 2005 and earned a cult following. But the writing is only the latest manifestation of his life’s work, demystifying sex, which he has been doing since 1956. Over the years, as trust in his advice grew, women started opening up to him with stories about child sexual abuse, being swept away by amorous lovers before marriage and being terrified of being discovered as ‘experienced women’ instead of the virgins their soon-to-be husbands expected.
He estimates he has answered over 5,000 questions in his column; and they keep coming in, over 100 a day. He’s 93, and has slowed down a little, but answers questions in bulk on some days of the week, and he has found the time to write a book, It’s Normal , which came out in 2015.
“Women feel here is somebody who is talking to guys the way [women] would want to talk to guys,” says Vaishali Sinha, who has made the documentary, Ask the Sexperton Dr. Watsa. Stand-up comedian Aditi Mittal, an admirer, says, “There is something non-threatening about discussing sex with a 92-year-old.”
But what has Dr. Watsa's writing taught him? Metro dwellers aren’t any savvier about sex than small-town people, for one. “Everyone is equally ignorant. Despite the government’s HIV and AIDS awareness campaigns spends, public knowledge is poor. Either they are dumb or I am dumb. I can’t understand how so many educated young people are so careless about using protection.” And women are going through a sexual revolution: “They are very articulate about not being sexually satisfied. They want to know why their partners can’t get it up or keep it up; they want to learn new techniques, experiment.” Men, however, are preoccupied with penis size. He reminds himself that someone writing to a stranger must genuinely need help, “But yes, I am pretty fed up of discussing size problems,” he says, laughing. “It just does not end!”
Shivendra Singh Dungarpur
Shivendra Singh Dungarpur fell in love with cinema as a child, and not just with watching movies; he collected cinema tickets, and maintained a diary of the films he saw. He later also began collecting film memorabilia and artefacts. “Since I have started the foundation, we are going about it in a professional way, developing inventories, cataloguing, and following preventive conservation practices. I have dedicated my life to saving and preserving India’s cinematic heritage.”
Mr. Dungarpur earns his living making ad films and documentaries, and making Celluloid Man (2012), on the life of P.K. Nair, founder of the National Film Archive of India, gave his long-time interest a focus and direction.
He created the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) in 2014. Today, FHF is a member of the International Federation of Film Archives (Mr. Dungarpur was elected to its Executive Committee this year), and he has some recognition, but the task hasn’t gotten much easier. “Starting the foundation and keeping it going without any support has been an enormously challenging,” he says, “but also enormously rewarding. We have introduced over 150 individuals to the world of film preservation and restoration. After our last workshop, we have had over 40 job applications. People are beginning to realise this is an important cause and a viable employment opportunity.”
The foundation is now working on raising funds expand its archives, build a world-class film archive and exhibition centre, and, hopefully, start a diploma course in film preservation.
Gautam S. Mengle