Earlier this year our Director Bijal Brahmbhatt was featured in 'Women of Pure Strength' -second edition of a coffee table book by the Vodafone Foundation. The Book chronicles efforts of 50 dynamic women in their contribution to our diverse socio-economic milieu.
The book was launched by boxing champion MC Mary Kom at an event in Delhi.
Bijal Brahmbhatt's 'Women of Pure Strength' Story
She has single-handedly brought the Mahila Housing Trust to where we are today. We decided to publish here her full interview. It is, after all, also the story of MHT.
Give us a brief account of your journey; from where you started to where you have reached today
In 1992 I graduated as a civil engineer, however like most Indian youngsters, with no idea of the road map I wanted to follow, for my future career and life. I spent some time, exploring and experiencing a variety of things, including teaching prospective engineering students. Those were the days when a woman’s presence on construction sites was unheard of. I took that up as a challenge, and just to prove that women engineers could be as competent in execution onsite, for two years I worked with a private firm, executing projects, handling the workers and quite often, hearing some very crude personal remarks, behind my back. My academician father who was also very involved in the voluntary sector introduced me to Ms. Renana Jhabvala of the Self Employed Womens’ Association (SEWA) in 1998. She immediately proposed, that I work with the “Mahila Housing SEWA Trust, (MHT) an autonomous organization promoted by SEWA, to work on habitat related issues of poor women. Because the SEWA experience showed that for a poor woman, her house is her workplace, her storehouse, her godown and her productive asset. MHT was a nascent organization with only three years into its inception. I get nostalgic when I go down the memory lane, and recollect myself as an enthusiastic, inexperienced and ordinary engineer, who joined MHT in 1998. The initial experiences made me unlearn all that I had learnt from my formal education. MHT was working in three slums in Ahmedabad, with two other staff besides me. We had only one programme- Providing Basic services to the urban poor, with presence in a single city, Ahmedabad, our headquarter. There was no blue print to follow. SEWA leadership was extremely busy and habitat was a complex subject, specifically because it is a huge endeavour in terms of asset building and in urban areas, issues of tenure are quite complex . The idea was to go completely by the demand of the poor women.
Today, MHT has a staff of 72 employees, with over 3000 grassroots volunteers. Our work has expanded to six states some of which are very poor, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Delhi, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh.
The portfolio of our work has expanded to seven areas:
1. Basic Services for Urban poor.
2. Affordable Housing and Land Rights.
3. Housing and Infrastructure Finance.
4. Urban Governance.
5. Energy and Climate Change.
6. Rural Housing, Water and Sanitation
7. Shelter based livelihoods.
So far we have changed the quality of life of 3,04,545 families, over 15,00,000/ poor individuals across the Nation. MHT is also beginning its work in South –Asia region, in December 2015.
My relationship with MHT has been symbiotic; I have had a major role to play in all MHT’s initiatives. Graduating from a coordinator, to the director of the organization, I have become an expert in slum upgrading, renewable and efficient energy. Land rights for the poor, Housing Finance, Development of public –private peoples partnership etc.
Some of the MHT initiatives which have had received worldwide recognition under my leadership are:
The Slum Networking Project:
MHT has assisted the poor women in forging innovative partnerships, with the urban local bodies to reach improved housing and basic services including water and sanitation to over 1,94000 individuals. The Government has contributed Rs. 57,852,349/- with a matching contribution from the communities to the tune of Rs. 316,209,283/- Biogas and Eco san toilets have been promoted. MHT has been able to master the art of establishing local partnerships and taking them to a national level across six states in India. One such partnership in the “SLUM NETWORKING PROJECT” with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has received the Dubai Best Practices International Award in the year 2006.
Global showcase for slum electrification:
MHT has empowered Community Based Organizations (CBOs) in Ahmedabad, who worked with a private sector company to get legal electricity for all the slum dwellers of Ahmedabad. A slum electrification department was established at the company and pro-poor systems were created and institutionalized. All the poor households at Ahmedabad now are legally electrified. (Approximately 1, 58,000). This programme has been quoted as a global showcase by USAID in the energy sector.
AWAAS SEWA PVT LTD: A poor women’s social enterprise for market based low income housing
This social enterprise has been established as a special purpose vehicle for market based housing. MHT along with the women has become a pro poor market based developer for low income housing. The pilot project has been facilitated by Ashoka.
Incremental Housing Finance:
Most MFI’s lend less than Rs. 1,00,000 to the poor for housing. The Housing Finance Companies which lend for low income mortgage beyond Rs. 5,00,000. However, the current need of the poor is the missing middle category of “Rs. 1,00,000 to Rs. 3,00,000 lakh”. MHT has developed an innovative tool “semi formal mortgages” to determine the security of tenure and give loans to the poor in that category. MHT along with SEWA Bank and other institutions has facilitated loans to over 50,000 poor women.
MHT has been nominated on the following committees of the Government, where I represent MHT,
Appointed as a consulting expert by the Gujarat Urban Development Authority for Urban Poor Programs
Member on the expert committee for the Rajiv Awas Yojana of the Government of Gujarat
On the guiding committee of Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation for implementing JNNURM
Task Force Member, Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) task force for Affordable Housing
Steering Committee Member, Affordable Housing and Poverty Alleviation for 12th five year plan, Planning Commission
HUDCO and the National Housing Bank work very closely with MHT in formulating their pro-poor programs.
In 2012 we were recognized by Dasra among the top ten organizations at the national level doing effective water and sanitation for the poor. In 2014 we received the Asia Urban Futures award for “Urban Resilience”. In October 2014 the CNN International in its “Transformation” series showcased the Slum Networking Project of AMC and MHT.
In 2013 I was felicitated by “Women Change Makers” for my contribution to Women’s Empowerment.
DBS Private limited, a builder in the affordable Housing Market has appointed me on their advisory committee.
My work has been recognized by the SEWA Group of organizations, by appointing me on the Board of Directors of several organizations, specifically to mention SEWA Grih Rin Pvt.ltd. (a national level housing finance company) and Awaas Sewa Pvt .ltd. (a construction company for the building for the poor.) Thus I have grown personally and professionally with the organization.
What are the singular challenges that you have faced in this journey?
The challenge at the Government level is to sensitize it, change its approach and bring in transparency and accountability. At the lower levels in the Government, it is difficult to explain that MHT is not a mere construction contractor. The tremendous effort required to be put in to translate change from policy level to the grassroots is a real challenge.
Regulatory restrictions have also been a deterrent for eg. Credit cooperatives are the best financial entity suited to finance but there are severe restrictions on its geographic expansion. Thus organizations like MHT are always in a dilemma whether to have a more pro poor operational structure, or have a structure (Like a Company), which is not necessarily most appropriate for the poor, but gives scale.
Financial sustainability is one of the biggest challenges, along with maintaining the scale that MHT has already achieved. Also managing the relationships between the diverse natures of staffing at MHT, sensitization of new staff to maintain the organizational philosophy and ethos, at the same time delivering the targets to the donors has been a struggle.
Learning to work successfully with the private sector is a challenge.
On a personal level, maintaining the balance between personal and professional life has always been a challenge.
Has being a woman helped or hindered your path to success?
Being a woman has been a mixed bag of feelings. I joined a woman’s organization which was run, owned and managed by the women. Especially it had the SEWA ethos where feminism was celebrated along with the ethos of mother hood and woman hood. Children were allowed at work and a favorable environment was created where the women colleagues irrespective of caste, creed shared their work as well as difficulties and learnt to celebrate woman hood.
At the government level, the functionaries initially underestimated your abilities hindrances were less due to underestimation, which later on turned to respect and awe.
It was however a bit difficult when men and women of your immediate neighborhood were curiously asking questions, due to odd work hours, and frequent travel. Safety issues become a concern when you had to travel all alone to very remote, unknown areas.
However overall the journey has been very fruitful and one which help me shed my own inhibitions.
Does a supportive family, spouse, or social network help in a woman's career? How?
Yes, a supportive family and spouse definitely helps a woman’s career. I believe that women are creators. The virtue of patience and perseverance gives them the ability to nurture growth. The growth could be of any kind. It could be within the family as well as in her work. She has the ability to multi task. However, the support of the family, specially spouse and the social network enhance these abilities manifolds.
A caring spouse, who takes the responsibility of the children, and is supportive to odd working hours sets her mind at ease. A word or two of appreciation about her work, makes her all the more determined to face the challenges of her career and home. A free mind adds to her productivity and efficiency
Was there a specific incident that helped shape your career or an incident that inspired you greatly?
Rather than a single event, I should say that, there have been several occasions and personalities which have shaped my career. During the course of my work I was in touch with some of the very senior women leadership at SEWA, who were on the board of MHT. They were leaders who had very high educational qualifications, in some of the very reputed universities of the world, including the Harvard and Yale. However, they had dedicated their entire lives to the cause of women’s movement. Had they led a normal life, their training would have fetched them huge financial gains. They decided to give that up and be with the movement, taking only a small honorarium to help them sustain themselves, being true with the Gandhian Philosophy.
They helped me respect a woman’s role in entirety, including the beauty of being a mother, visa vis the typical picture that I had in my mind about women’s empowerment , which was created by the corporate sector. They inculcated a leadership quality in me which believed in creating, rather than destroying, to go ahead.
The other major source of inspiration have been those thousands of grassroots leaders, who despite being uneducated and poor, have strived relentlessly to change their life, thus empowering the movement and their own life and families. They helped me understand that leadership was a quality that came from within and therefore had less to do with education or social background.
What according to you is leadership and how is the definition of leadership changing for women?
Leadership according to me is having a mission in life, believing in it, enabling the masses to believe in the mission and having the vision to create a path, which leads towards the fulfillment of the mission. Leadership also should enable a change for the better. A leader leads by example.
For women, the challenge is to create a women’s movement. A movement where economic enterprises and other organizations are of the women, for the women and by the women. Enterprises which help women alleviate poverty, which bring in her voice, increase her bargaining power and visibility, thereby building her leadership and self reliance.
Which leadership qualities do you think have helped shaped your career and distinguished you as a woman leader?
Personally I am a down to earth, honest, forthright and a loyal individual. I also believe in taking risks. The environment at MHT has inculcated in me, a spirit of questioning, and willingness to learn at any age. As a leader, I have understood the changing trends in the sector, very early on, and molded the organization accordingly. I have led the organization by example.
The intention of taking challenges and risk has also brought a national scale to our programme. I believe that innovative thinking supported by effective management systems is the key to growth. I also very strongly understand that cadres of leadership have to be built to start and sustain development. I have been doing so, decentralizing the leadership and building joint cadres of leadership of grassroots women with professional women, bringing in sustainable development.
How have you balanced your professional and personal life?
I married and started a family, almost at the time I started my work with the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust. The organization was nascent then, that gave me some time with my family. I have two children, both of them very young when I started my career. I used to give more time to them then. Also my work at the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust was very new and thus not very demanding. To my husband and his family, the concept of the developmental sector was very new. The concept of development to them was more welfare oriented, rather than the empowerment approach at SEWA. My working hours were not the traditional “office time”, but suited to the needs of the grassroots poor women. Sometimes I had to go early in the morning, or late in the evenings to hold meetings in the villages and slums. During riots and disasters like earth quakes, while most women would prefer to stay at home, we had to work longer hours. Slowly and patiently I worked on them to make them understand my work and my view points. My Husband, then brought up, as a typical middleclass Indian male, not used to take care of the household chores, started supporting me, to the best of his abilities.
The task of balancing my personal and professional life has been achieved through multiple strategies. Firstly, making my children strong and independent. Secondly, increasing my own management abilities at work and at home. Thirdly at the organizational level, building the cadres of leadership which would support me and to whom I could rely on, to pass the responsibilities. The work hours, though long were flexible. While my family slowly learnt to manage itself, I spent quality time with them, always being there through all the important milestones of their education, and life and during all the emergencies.
What gives you the biggest sense of achievement?
My biggest sense of achievement comes from watching hundreds of thousands of women, joining the movement of poverty alleviation, the movement of women’s leadership and self reliance and relentlessly battling the odds to improve their habitats, their work, and thereby their quality of life
Finally, we sign off this post with our post-event office celebration.
Co-incidentally our Vodafone 'World of Difference' Volunteers were around to celebrate too.