Bringing hope to the slums

Goal 7 Ensure environmental sustainability

by Dr Kiran Martin.

It is estimated that more than one billion people in the world live in slums. By 2030, it is likely that five billion people will be living in cities. Four billion of these will be living in cities of the developing world. One in five of the world's slum dwellers live in India. Although India as a country has become richer in recent years, the situation for people living in the slums has not changed.

In Delhi, about four million people live in slums. Huts are about five square metres in size, and constructed with whatever is at hand - cardboard, plastic sheets, metal, scrap or pieces of cloth. Six to eight people share the space. Living in an overcrowded and unsanitary slum is more life-threatening than living in a poor rural village.

Asha was founded in 1988, and now works among more than 350,000 people living in slums in the city of Delhi. The most important part of Asha's work is empowering communities and households to get involved in slum development.


There is a high level of maternal and child mortality in slum areas. Slums usually have large numbers of untrained birth attendants with poor hygiene and no knowledge of how to conduct a safe and clean delivery.

The five main causes of death among slum children are pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria, measles and HIV. Children from slums have higher rates of diarrhoea than children of the poorest rural families because they are exposed to contaminated water and food.

Asha provides primary health care in three different ways:

  • Community Health Volunteers, Lane Volunteers and midwives chosen by the community and trained by Asha
  • the Asha health centres
  • a referral system established by Asha.

Asha encourages its staff, Community Health Volunteers, Trained Birth Attendants, and the staff of the most frequently used referral health facilities to work together.


Higher education is a distant dream for slum children. In the light of their immediate and most basic needs, most families do not see the value of spending resources on an education. It is viewed as a process that delays their children's ability to contribute to the family income.

Asha's higher education programme is a pioneering effort. For the first time in its history, India witnessed the acceptance of almost 200 Asha slum children to Delhi University in July 2009. Asha focuses on providing support and counselling to each student during the final years of secondary school, helping them with access to university and assisting them in finding jobs that will allow them to achieve their full potential.

Financial services

People living in slums usually have no links with formal financial institutions, no bank accounts and no access to credit.

In June 2008, India's Finance Minister launched Asha's ground-breaking loan scheme in collaboration with the Ministry of Finance in the Indian government and nine Indian public sector banks. For the first time in India's history, people living in slums were able to use formal banking services.

This scheme enables thousands of people living in slums to open bank accounts without having to deposit money. They can also take out unsecured loans at a low rate of interest. Family income and the standard of living has increased significantly. The repayment rate of 99 per cent has shown everyone that people living in slums are good bank customers. They are now able to take jobs that require the employee to have a bank account and an individual financial identity. They are no longer restricted to jobs that are outside the tax system and government monitoring - jobs which are usually associated with job insecurity, low wages and dangerous work.

Community leadership

Asha has created a number of community action groups that link Asha with the community. Asha has trained thousands of slum women to become lead agents for transformation. Asha's women's associations have helped people to gain access to basic civic services such as clean drinking water, toilets, paved roads and electricity, giving them dignity, better health and greatly improving their quality of life.

The work of Asha is founded on the Christian values of faith, hope and love. Asha sees itself as a Christian force for liberation and transformation. We believe that all human beings deserve to be treated with equal dignity, and that we must deal with the systems that make people poor and keep poor people in poverty. We believe that we must be at the forefront of the pursuit of love and justice, and play our part in reshaping the spiritual and social landscape of our world.

The Millennium Development Goal 7, Target 11, on improving the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020, shows that the international community has recognised that slums cannot be ignored.

It is estimated that an additional 400 million people will be drawn into the misery of slum life as the global slum population reaches 1.4 billion in 2020. This number could be even higher as many people are likely to migrate to cities because climate change has destroyed their livelihoods.

Evictions and discrimination are not the answer. Rather, helping people living in slums to be integrated into urban society is the only long-lasting and sustainable solution. 

Ultimately, as the developing world becomes more urban, and as poverty becomes more concentrated in cities than in rural areas, the battle to achieve the Millennium Development Goals will have to be waged in the world's slums. 

Dr Kiran Martin is the Founder and Director of Asha.

Ekta Vihar
RK Puram Sector 6
New Delhi 110 022