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Mahila Milan was formed in the 1980s, when the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) agreed to help create a sister organisation complementary to its own, to encourage more women to enter leadership roles in slum development and poverty alleviation, with the assistance of Sheela Patel and her group SPARC.
Mahila Milan was formed largely in response to a 1985 Supreme Court ruling that granted the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai authority to demolish household structures on the sidewalks of Mumbai. These were the homes of those known popularly as "pavement dwellers". Many NGOs and community-based organizations planned mass action to confront these demolitions, however SPARC activists found that women from pavement settlements did not want confrontation and preferred to work out a way to coexist with the rest of the people in the city.
A survey carried out by SPARC between July and October of 1985 found that pavement dwellers were not transient populations, but people who had lived for over two decades in the city. This was documented and published in We The Invisible, which detailed the background of these people from the poorest districts of India - victims of underdevelopment, communal violence, floods, famines and other crises. There were no evictions, and by March 1987 Mahila Milan was established to help poor illiterate women in each settlement understand the politics of why they cannot get land in the city for their house, and to develop a strategy to present to the city.
Assisted by the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), Mahila Milan runs a number of programs. These include:
- Milan Nagar, a cooperative designed to seek alternative siting for their housing;
- Opening bank accounts establishing saving schemes to assist women towards purchasing new homes
- Providing each family with essential food and clothing
- Dealing with crises, such as the provision of emergency loans, or assisting with police-related problems.
Crisis credit scheme
When six pavement dweller groups completed a project in 1987 building shelter for themselves, they realised they needed more than housing. Therefore they created a crisis credit scheme, in which every person contributes 1 or 2 rupees and anyone can borrow a sum when they need it. One year later Mahila Milan was instructing groups across India on how to set up such a scheme and in 1989 the groups were lending to each other. By 2001, there were 25,000 households in the scheme and 5,000 borrowers.
Since most of the women were illiterate, Mahila Milan teaches a system where everyone has a pouch in which different coloured pieces of paper represent their savings. The smallest unit is 15 households, all of which know and trust each other. Each group makes its own decisions about lending.
Mahila Milan have been active in advocating the earmarking of vacant land for the homeless, and designing strategy to help the poor into their own homes. The organisation became a model for other NSDF-affiliated organisations between 1985 and 1995, providing principles and frameworks to form the basis of discussions between informal settlements and cities. In 1995, the government of Maharashtra integrated pavement dwellers for the first time into the classifications of households entitled to land for relocation in the Slum Rehabilitation Act.
Mahila Milan negotiates with local administrations for women to be able to build their own sanitation units in their own local area. As of 2016, the group has facilitated the construction of 100 toilet blocks.
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