Bijal Brahmbhatt’s Women of Pure Strength Story

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
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 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
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
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
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
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 (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.
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
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
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 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  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

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.

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.

Share This: