Filmmaker Nawneet Ranjan is using PCs and online tutorials to create a new generation of coders in India’s largest slum, Dharavi.
The skyline of Mumbai, the financial capital of the country, is dotted with scores of buildings that soar towards the sky in a display of ambition as unbridled as that of its residents. These towering skyscrapers dwarf the stout structures of Dharavi, located at the heart of the city.
Spread over 500 acres, this slum is home to countless migrant workers who made their way to Mumbai in search of a better life. Filled chock-a-block with shanties, Dharavi offers its residents little by way of quality living.
Over the last two and a half years, however, a digital revolution has been sweeping through the narrow by-lanes of this slum, as its children discover the world of PCs, all thanks to filmmaker Nawneet Ranjan.
FROM DOCUMENTING LIFE TO CHANGING IT
“For me, Dharavi is a mini-India. People from across the country live there, and it is a truly dynamic community,” said 36-year-old Ranjan.
In 2012, Ranjan set out to capture the life of this community in his documentary, Dharavi Diary.
“The documentary was well received but the community did not benefit from it as much as I had hoped,” recalled Ranjan.
In 2014, driven by a desire to make a difference in the lives of the residents of Dharavi, Ranjan quit his job in the US and moved to Mumbai.
A NEW YEAR AND A NEW BEGINNING
“I was a professor at an arts university in San Francisco. During my time there, I designed a course called ‘Stories for Change,’ where I used storytelling, theatre and technology to make learning more fun and engaging,” he said.
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Ranjan decided to put his rich teaching experience to use in Dharavi:
“While making Dharavi Diary, I realised that the people here were extremely driven, despite the fact that the environment they were living in was not particularly conducive to their growth. I discovered that the only things they lacked were resources and guidance.”
The Slum Innovation Project was Ranjan’s way of bridging this gap.
The Project engages children through an afterschool programme that adopts a hands-on approach to learning and lays particular emphasis on contextual learning. Open to children from the ages of 6 to 18, the Project is meant to complement formal education and create awareness about social issues.
“Our methodology not only ensures that learning is interactive and fun, but that the process of learning leads to the development of problem solving skills and critical thinking. This, in turn, leads to the creation of change-makers at the grassroots level who are willing to look at the bigger picture and tackle community problems using technology,” Ranjan elaborated.
In January 2014, Ranjan set up a one-room centre in Dharavi to teach children English, science, mathematics and arts. He started with 15 students.
Within a month, the increasing importance of PCs in all aspects of life pushed him to introduce the subject in the centre: “Computers offer students unlimited access to information; they are an essential element of learning. Knowledge of how to operate a PC is also perceived as a sign of progress,” he explained.
“The children would also talk about how they would often see people on TV using computers and how, every time they passed a store selling electronic items, they would press their faces against the window, staring at the items and wondering if they would ever get to use them,” Ranjan said. “These heartrending stories made me more determined to introduce them to PCs.”
Four PCs were then installed at the centre and computer classes began in earnest, with one hour every day dedicated to the subject.
“I started by teaching them MS Word and MS Powerpoint as I believe these are important tools that help people present their ideas to the world more effectively,” Ranjan explained.
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The spread and reach of mobile phones also spurred Ranjan to begin sessions in coding: “I saw that every household had a mobile phone and felt that it was an untapped resource that had the potential to solve community problems.”
Ranjan used his own experience as well as online tutorials to teach children coding during three-hour long sessions conducted over weekends.
In just six months, the classes began to show results.
A NEW GENERATION OF CODERS
“I divided the children into groups of four and asked them to come up with a list of problems they faced. The groups then voted on these problems and decided to work on tackling the problems that had the most votes,” Ranjan explained.
The first app developed by the children was the Women Fight Back app. Created by 12-14 year old kids, the app is a women’s safety app equipped with a distress alarm, location mapping and emergency SMS alerts that can inform the user’s contacts if she is in danger or in need of help.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, children trained by Ranjan have developed more than eight apps to tackle a range of social problems. These include apps that address child labour, domestic violence, education of the girl child, and women’s health and wellbeing.
“The children have even been successful in engaging the community in solving these problems,” Ranjan said.
There has also been a sea-change among the children themselves.
“They are more confident now that they feel they have the power to drive change. They are thinking long term about what they want to do in life. They are dreaming again,” he said.
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The children’s response to a fire that broke out earlier this year, is proof of how far they’ve come. The fire ravaged more than 50 homes, leaving many families destitute and without the bare necessities. The young ones, with Ranjan’s help, raised money for these families through a crowdfunding campaign, to help the affected families rent a safe place to study, to purchase daily utilities and to install fire sensors in the houses in the neighbourhood.
Over the years, Ranjan’s Slum Innovation Project has grown to a two-room centre with 15 computers. Today, he trains close to 220 children.
The children’s progress has also inspired their mothers to step forward and join the digital revolution: “These are women who haven’t had any formal education. But on seeing the difference these classes have made to the lives of their children, they have expressed a desire to learn how to operate PCs too,” Ranjan said. “We are now in the process of launching a digital literacy programme for all the mothers.”
Ranjan’s success in helping the Dharavi children use technology to lead citizen initiatives and solve community problems has inspired him to extend the project to other slums across Mumbai: “Technology can empower people. Dharavi is proof of that. I now want to scale the project to reach out to more people,” he concluded.