Lessons from PUKAR, Pt 1: “The Right to Research.” Community-Based Participatory Action Research in the Slums of Mumbai
Empyrean Research is pleased to share its latest video interview in its ongoing series of profiles of global practitioners of participatory research. Empyrean Research director Felix Bivens interviews Anita Patil-Deshmukh, the executive director of PUKAR, at their offices in Mumbai.
PUKAR (Participatory Urban Knowledge and Action) is a participatory action research think tank which concentrates on urban and youth issues in the sprawling mega-city of Mumbai, India. The mission of the organization was inspired the writings of Arjun Apurdurai, with an intent to put the sociocultural anthropologist’s ideas for democratizing knowledge production and research into action. Asserting a “right to research”, Apurdurai (2004) argued knowledge and research should be produced where people live, by the people who live in that situation and context.
From the beginning PUKAR was interested improving the quality of life for Mumbai’s citizens, many of whom live in the city’s 2000 informal settlements, which are often referred to simply as ‘slums’. These cobbled together cities within cities can house up to 1 million people. Indeed, more than half of the city’s 21 million people are estimated to live in these unplanned communities.
PUKAR critiqued Mumbai’s conventional urban planning processes, which drew exclusively on technical experts and excluded the voices and knowledge of the people who lived in the city, in particular the knowledge of those in the informal areas which most needed improvements to infrastructure and public services.
Like Empyrean Research, PUKAR believes that knowledge which is contextual is incredibly powerful for addressing problems at the local level, providing insights and unlocking resources and relationships which facilitate change. With this frame in mind, the PUKAR team set out in the late 1990s to create processes of knowledge generation which surfaced the experience of the people living in the city’s slums.
Central to the approach that PUKAR developed is an understanding of “documentation as intervention.” Although each person in a community has a fund of knowledge about their daily lived experiences, it is considered anecdotal when it’s simply in people’s heads; however, when it’s documented and aggregated systematically, so that its visible and tangible, it can be leveraged more widely, with policy makers and other influential stakeholders.
In this vein, PUKAR works on several fronts to co-generate knowledge about health and social dimensions of life in the city’s slums. As well PUKAR works extensively with youth on some thirty projects a year, across the city and its suburbs, which also surface and utilize community knowledge as a tool for transformation. This last program, PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Program, will be discussed in more detail in the next blog in this series.
The right to research, as expressed by Apurdurai and PUKAR, is about the right of people to be heard and recognized for what they know and have learned over years about the situations in which they live. Only they are their experts in their lives. When their knowledge and experiences are taken seriously, they recognize quickly that solutions, partial or maybe even complete, are close at hand.
Like the old man in Eckhart Tolle’s parable of the beggar on the box, who has for as long as he can remember begged while sitting on his only possession, a battered metal box. One day a passerby asks the beggar, “What’s in your box?” The beggar tells him that it is empty. He is certain of it for he has carried it around for years. At length, when passerby finally persuades the beggar to open his worthless box, the old man discovers it is filled with gold.
In so many cases, for so many communities, their treasure is also close at hand. With validation, with strategic support, with their collective knowledge fitted together through effective co-generation and analysis, their boxes too can be opened and the possibility of a better future revealed.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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