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Understanding Dilbari – A journey through her transformation

December 17, 2018

Dilbari (meaning one who fills the heart), the only woman on the field level community awareness team of Sarvajal, is a petite vivacious young woman with an infectious enthusiasm, humor and strong communication. This effort is to explore the transformation of Dilbari.

She was born into a conservative Muslim family, the only sister to 5 brothers.  She lives with her family in a humble accommodation, in a semi-urban slum, Narela, that is situated in the outskirts of Delhi. “Closed spaces, narrow lanes, proximity to other houses adjacent to yours; you are always surrounded by your neighbors,” says Dilbari.

“My father raised me as one among the boys – not once was I asked to cover my head, I could wear what I wanted, mingle with other girls and boys and go to any place in the locality. But things did change a little when I reached my late teens; my father was concerned about my safety”. Her mother, on the other hand, wanted her to learn everything that would help her make an honest living – like tailoring and make-up. She thought this would lead to her daughter being closer to home. These skills were also promoted by government skill programs to improve the employability of young women. But Dilbari wanted to do something different, she wanted to be independent and to help people.

Everyone in the mohalla is her friend.  She says it with a smile “you don’t need money to serve people – I can help by running errands, sitting down for conversations, taking care of young children, cooking a meal for someone, accompanying people on the way to hospitals and carrying people’s groceries. I feel happy when they smile”.  Soon she found herself volunteering in an NGO – Child Survival working on HIV prevention and women empowerment. She would help them in their nukkad nataks and in awareness campaigns. The first essential ingredient – a heart which wants to serve and finds happiness in simple things.

Her father worked briefly as the security person at a Sarvajal Plant. When she informed him that she would join Sarvajal, he was hesitant to let her travel beyond Delhi – like any father worth his salt, the safety of his daughter was paramount for him. He set 6.00pm as the deadline for her to get back home. “My mother has been my greatest influence. When I joined Sarvajal, I was asked to go conduct awareness of slums in Delhi other than Narela. On the very first day of my job, I walked in the narrow stretches of Shahbad dairy which was extremely hot, stinking, mucky and slushy. I said to myself, I cannot continue, this is impossible!  I came home and told my mother, ‘Ammi I won’t go to work anymore.’ Her reply was immediate, ‘Do you want me to believe that my daughter is one who gives up so quickly? You have not come this far to have an ordinary life. Endurance is a virtue that will help you stand up and fight when the tide changes. If you get married in a place where in-laws are difficult to deal with, will you run away from there also?’ Her words remained with me.” A supportive family that believes in her is definitely another ingredient.

Dilbari began her work by doing what is known as ‘community awareness and routine marketing’ – essentially going into a slum, meeting people door to door, explaining their schemes and motivating people to drink purified water. But during one such visit to the community – a woman told her that Dilbari is not doing her duty if she is not ensuring that the water is continuously available, if the water is not available even a single day it would mean that she (Dilbari) is compromising her (the woman’s) children’s health. She could not sleep that night, it nagged her from within. How am I responsible for the woman’s children falling sick she asked? If the machine is not working how can that become my responsibility? She soon realized the acuteness of the effects of unsafe water on children’s health. The purpose of her work became clear – I am not here to sell drinking water, I am here to help people stay healthy.  She then became the voice of people from the community. Realizing the true purpose of her everyday work is a key element.

Dilbari has a special way of connecting with people, she is completely at ease with the community, whether it is a village or a slum. Even if it is the 50th house that she is visiting on a particular day – her energy is always high and she will provide complete attention to the person. Her genuineness is reciprocated by the community and they offer her water, chai and even food during her visits.  Ability to instantly connect with the communities to engage with them is the ingredient that binds it all together.

Her life took an unexpected turn when both her parents passed away one after another within just 8 months of joining Sarvajal. Two of her elder brothers went out of Narela to work, she now is the acting head of the family, working and caring for her three younger brothers who are studying, she also takes care of her sister in law and her nephew.

It is during the same time that Sarvajal team realized that she was a bundle of enthusiasm and her community engagement skills could also be put to best use in parts other than just Delhi. The team took Dilbari’s confidence and helped her understand her role. With permission from her family, opportunities were created for her to travel out of Delhi, initially to Jaipur, then to Gujarat and Bhubaneshwar as part of community engagement exercise “Jamboree”. Her enthusiasm, energy, and boldness drew awe and praise – whether it was performing a street play at a crowded bus stand, convincing a vegetable seller to buy a water ATM card, holding a meeting with crowd of oriya women on importance of safe drinking water, she was there from morning till evening with a never-tiring spirit. Dilbari has provided support for key efforts of the organization in spreading awareness about water and health in the communities Sarvajal works in.  For as long as I can remember, all I wanted to do was to meet new and diverse people and experience new places. Sarvajal has provided that opportunity for me and placed the trust in me.

In an effort to groom her, the Sarvajal Team focused on her willingness to learn, trained her in making calls to users to collect information to improve the program, and then worked on her skills to document. Initially, she was trained to use voice messages – she took to that as fish would to water. Then she was taught to use excel sheets. Containing Dilbari in an office space so that she can learn to use excel to document her calls was an uphill effort for her colleagues but their perseverance coupled with her cooperation made the exercise worthwhile. The effort to invest in her talents through focused skill building is another crucial step.

Her skills include the ability to informally address small and large gatherings, she is creative in instantly putting together skits and street plays engaging people of all ages. Her skills and involvement in the community awareness events that Sarvajal organized such as Jamborees turned them into events packed with enthusiasm rubbing off on every colleague who participated in it.

Dilbari has motivated a hesitant community to use our purification chilling and dispensing unit (PCD). She told them “Nayi Bahu ko bhi vakth lagtha hai saas sasur se sweekriti pane mein  – nayi machine (PCD) ko bhi time deejiye apnane mein”.

When an old farmer referring to the water from his home’s bore well, said “Yeh Paani se hum bimar nahi hote”, she spoke to him until he told her that unlike his childhood days, they have to use fertilizers on their farm. She then explained to him why that has adverse effects on the quality of the groundwater and why it was important to purify water so that future generations could enjoy the quality of life that he had.

Today Dilbari holds the spirit of the people living in insufficiently understood urban slums, is able to convey the desperate situations people live in and the ordeal for water that underserved communities endure each day. The recipe also includes the happiness and joy she holds for her work – her laughter is as infectious as her enthusiasm.

True to her name, she wins hearts in every community she has been with and has done it repeatedly – making team members ask, ‘Dilbari, do you have a sister whom we can employ?’!!  The Sarvajal team continues to be a part of her transformation while learning from her what it means to be Dilbari!

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