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Partner Profile: PUKAR

January 7, 2016

Innovative community-driven water research in India

Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action, and Research (PUKAR) is, in its own words, “an independent research collective and an urban knowledge production center.” Founded in 2002 to encourage more inclusive conversations about urban issues, PUKAR works to make research accessible to all. As the winner of UUSC’s 2015 Human Rights Innovation Fellowship, PUKAR will conduct a rapid water survey in Mandala, a slum in Mumbai, and will empower residents with the necessary data to advocate for their human right to water.

The right to research

Arjun Appadurai, founder of PUKAR and now president of its board of trustees, wrote “The Right to Research,” a 2006 article in the journal Globalisation, Societies and Education. Anita Patil-Deshmukh, executive director of PUKAR, explains: “In that essay, he claims that anyone can be a researcher. It doesn’t only have to be the MDs and the PhDs. . . . Common people not only can do research — they need to do it.”

PUKAR’s aim is to expand access to the knowledge people need to make change and contribute to local, national, and global debates about the issues that affect their lives and futures. Amber Moulton, UUSC’s own researcher, said, “We are thrilled to support PUKAR and its Rapid Water Survey project. PUKAR’s innovative community-based research model ensures that rights holders are not only at the table — they are the people who will be shaping water policy.”

In addition to innovative ideas, PUKAR also has an impressive track record:

  • Trained 3,000 “barefoot researchers”
  • Published two books
  • Engaged with 300 communities
  • Mapped more than 50 communities
  • Reached out to 10,000 people
  • Conducted 300 research projects
  • Supported creation of more than 100 pieces of audio-video content by barefoot researchers

What is a barefoot researcher?

PUKAR’s youth fellowship program trains young people from low-resource neighborhoods to become barefoot researchers — residents who investigate topics rooted in their own lives and then use the resulting knowledge to effect change. “I believe this particular model of barefoot researchers as community-based youth action and research is a very good instrument to bring action to slum communities,” says Patil-Deshmukh.

Once PUKAR identifies youth in a given community, fellows receive intensive training. PUKAR leads activity-based workshops in the fundamentals of research: ethics, interviews, methodology, mapping, photographing, and more. Participants are also trained on issues of gender, the environment, caste, class, and religion.

The barefoot researchers then dive into conducting research on a topic central to their lives in the slums. As part of data collection, the youth are engaging in “door-to-door education” and strengthening vital community connections. Plus, they are often more effective at gathering data because they’re already trusted by their neighbors. Following data collection, the barefoot researchers act as organizers for action to address the needs that their data demonstrates.

Patil-Deshmukh highlights an added bonus of the youth fellowship program: “Many of our youth had actually stopped going to school because they didn’t have money to pay for the schooling. Once they become barefoot researchers and start working with us, we reimburse them for their work. They save the money, and many of them end up completing their schooling — and that is the best byproduct of our barefoot researchers program.”

Rapid Water Survey

PUKAR’s Rapid Water Survey will be conducted by barefoot researchers in the Mandala slum, which is home to more than 25,000 people. Half of the community is not on official maps and thereby unaccounted for in city water distribution and vulnerable to the exploitative “water mafia” that sells water at inflated, unaffordable prices.

As Moulton articulates: “The survey will collect hard data on Mumbai residents’ lack of access to water, one of the most critical, and often unmet, factors we need to realize the human rights to water and sanitation.” The survey data collected and processed by barefoot researchers will cover the following:

  • Location of contaminated taps
  • Location of nonfunctioning taps
  • Areas without any tap water access
  • Household-to-tap ratios for each functioning tap
  • Water reliability index mapping low pressure or highly interrupted flow
  • Water quality and quantity
  • Cost/affordability

As part of PUKAR’s Healthy Cities, Wealthy Cities initiative, the Rapid Water Survey will provide residents with the tools and data to advocate for improvements in water service and hold the government accountable. PUKAR anticipates the project will affect 50,000 people over three years.

Ultimately, PUKAR aims to decouple home ownership from water service and ensure adequate water and sanitation for all people living in Mumbai’s slums. Moulton says: “I am excited to see the project unfold over the coming year and hope we can help PUKAR share its model with other communities who need research to create change.”

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