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Yashodhara – A salve for the social injuries of the Dalits in Mumbai’s slums. 

Yashodhara Salve’s style of community journalism has led to Dalit women marshalling against atrocities they faced, women standing up against traditions that exile them from society and women going on camera to demand education for their daughters which is a basic right.   

The 38-year old Community Correspondent grew up in a community that is very strong and vocal about Dalit rights. In legal and constitutional terms, Dalits are known in India as scheduled castes, in social terms Dalits are considered as “lower caste,” and often subjected to socio-economic discrimination.   

The best way to get to know this Correspondent, who has made more than 88 reports and achieved more than 18 impacts, is in a France 24 documentary about her and her husband Bipin.

Early childhood

Yashodhara has battled against gender discrimination from an early age in her education and individual identity.  She was brought up by a single mother who was controlled by her maternal grandfather and uncle -- the primary decision-makers in her house -- in the absence of her debt-ridden father, who left them when she was eight years old.  

“My uncles believed that women should not be very educated and should be married off at an early age. I've also witnessed dowry harassment and domestic violence towards my sisters, who got married at a young age. I soon became aware of this form of discrimination in our society,” says Yashodhara of her growing up days in a slum in Mumbai’s suburb of Chembur. 

These slums have a few brick structures while others are tin shacks stacked up on each other and covered by blue tarps, a common vision from the windows and balconies of almost every modern high-rise building that houses the middle class to the uber-rich.

 The slums have very poor sanitation standards and are always teeming with activity with children playing outside the houses or whatever open area they have, women going about their house chores and filling water from the common area or men rushing to the common bathroom in the daytime. 

A daily fight for every right

 Yashodhara heaps praise on her mother because she worked as a garbage sorter at a dump yard and still managed to educate all her five children. “We were three sisters and two brothers. It was very tough for her, but she managed to send us to a government school till we all got jobs and self-funded our studies or got fellowships,” she says, highlighting her struggle to get her basic education.  

Her uncles’ dominance over her daily life, movements and activities began getting on Yashodhara’s nerves. She recalls there being a dictum at her house against girls stepping out, meeting friends, talking to boys and wearing pants.   

Narrating her first hard-hitting experience with gender discrimination, she says “I was eight and I loved wearing pants but knew my uncle was absolutely against it. I still wore my brother's pants and stepped out on the streets. When he saw that I wore pants and that too in public, he slapped me on the road and said, "You can't wear these clothes at this age!". I shot back, asking 'when am I supposed to wear it then?" He didn't think it through and said, "After you complete your 10th." Back then, no girl in my family had studied till 10th grade, and he assumed I wouldn’t either. That day I decided I will study further,” she says. 

Another close instance of gender-centric injustice she experienced was when her sister was married off at 16 because her uncles “feared she would run away with a boy since she was beautiful. In my instance, since I am dark-skinned and not as pretty as my sister, they tried to get me married to widows, or older men claiming that men of my age wouldn’t want to marry me. What a mindset they have,” she remarks. 

Her sister did not have a happy married life and she returned home in a few months, alleging physical and emotional abuse and harassment due to dowry demands.

“So, even though my uncles didn’t gain anything from trying to control our lives and deciding on our behalf, they were never apologetic about their decision even when she came home unhappy and battered,” recounts Yashodhara. 

The perilous road to education 

Right from her school days, Yashodhara braved a lot of odds, both patriarchal and financial, to finish her education. “When I was 13, I made my mother loan her mangal sutra (wedding chain in Hindu marriages) to a local money lender for Rs 1000 to fund my school fees. It was her only piece of jewelry. I had promised her to earn it back, but back then, I couldn't manage to,” she mentions regretfully.  

Her uncles tried to stop her education after 10th grade because they didn't think she would need it ahead in life. When she questioned their decisions, she was slapped once again. But Yashodhara had learnt an important lesson by then, “I had realized by then that the violence was only to keep you quiet, but if you speak up, it eventually stops. In due course of time, my way of questioning their beliefs and decisions stopped a lot of unnecessary beatings. I still ask that question when people try deciding the way women should 'behave'. It almost always puts an end to that argument.” Yashodhara says, casting her mind back to the past.

 She funded her education from the age of 15 by working with Trimurti Sangathan, a social group her mother and other rag-pickers were a part of. 

Her quest to learn continued even when she got a scholarship for further studies when she was later employed with Akshara, a pathbreaking NGO in the field of women and child rights in Mumbai. 

Despite being a go-getter when it came to her education or her rights from an early age, Yashodhara has a fear she has lived with since her early school days. The fear of speaking in English. 

Fear of English

Yashodhara says she can speak as many as 5 Indian languages but can’t speak English due to her fear of the language that was triggered due to a childhood incident in a school.  

“There was no English subject in the government school I went to, but my mother got to know about English classes at a private school that was open to children from all schools who wanted to learn the language. I attended a few classes and experienced a teacher who always made degrading remarks against Dalit community students. She had a very dominating personality, and I developed a fear of the language that I never learnt again,” she says with fear and disappointment in her tone. “However, my daughter Angel speaks fluent English, and I am happy that my fear of English has not been passed on to her.”

Defying ancestorial views about cobblers 

Yashodhara’s first job was not in the social sector. “At age 17, in 1999, I landed my first job in a shoe-making company and began in the packaging department. It was ironic for me to do this job because my ancestors were all from the carpenter community, and they were very successful at it. They considered the job of cobblers and those working in the shoe industry as lower caste and un-worthy of being in the company of carpenters.”

"At the shoe factory I rose up the ranks and started working in the design section. One day I designed some footwear of the company and it did well in the market, then I decided to quit the job and turn entrepreneur by taking up similar shoe-making orders from the company and began manufacturing them with a few other women.  When I realized I could get orders from the company I searched out skilled women who could do separate job works on shoes like cutting, stitching, embroidery and created a group of workers who already did other stitching-related job works at home for a living," she says.

“It was a profitable venture for all of us and I did this for 3 months till my mother pointed out that I was a college educated girl and could do more than run a shoe making factory, which was always considered below our ‘standards’. It’s unclear why she felt this way because she was a garbage sorter herself.”

Her mother introduced her to Trimurti Sangathan, a social group she and other rag-pickers were a part of. Akshara, the NGO, supported this group and gave her a fellowship to study. 

This was her foray into working with children, learning to make puppets and kids' toys. She also learnt how to conduct storytelling sessions for children using these puppets. 

After learning this skill, she also associated herself with Coro India, a women’s empowerment organization where she raised awareness about social issues through art and fine arts and the medium of street play. 

Akshara next approached Yashodhara to join the Community Video Unit they were setting up in partnership with Video Volunteers, and her career took a new twist. 

Showing the right picture: 

Akshara, one of Mumbai’s most important feminist organizations, was one of six organizations that Video Volunteers’ partnered with in 2006 to start Community Video Units. 

Between 2006 and 2010, the Akshara Community VIdeo Unit, called Apna TV, produced dozens of videos, often in a ‘video news magazine’ format, that they would screen on widescreen projectors in the bastis, having discussions about the call to action. Apna TV, having as its primary audience the communities directly affected by rights violations, was complemented by a successful media unit at Akshara, which has used audiovisual communications to campaign for gender rights across the entire spectrum of Mumbai and the nation. Yashodhara worked for years as a manager of those media programs at Akshara.

Says Yashodhara ofthe Community Video Unit, “I was not very confident of being in a film-making project because I hadn’t even done a media-related job. But Akshara convinced me that I could do the job and that I was gutsy.”

One of the Video News Magazines the Apna TV team produced was about women’s access to public spaces. They screened this film in numerous bastis as well as colleges and other locations and it had a big impact. A raging issue at that time was the lack of safe playing areas for girls in slums and this was also something I faced, because I was not permitted to play in my childhood due to objections from my uncles,” she recounts. 

Working on the project, the group managed to provide a space playing exclusively for slum girls, an achievement that Yashodhara is very proud of even today.

Yashodhara’s life partner

Today, Yashodhara is married to Bipin Solanki, whom she met at a Community Video Training Camp organized by VV. Bipin, who is now a lawyer, was at the time a Community Producer with the CVU set up by Video Volunteers and Navsarjan, an important Dalit organization in rural Gujarat, that is credited in reducing caste discrimination and securing the rights of ‘manual scavengers’ in the state. 

In 2007, VV brought together all the Community Producers from the six Community Video Units (CVUs) Video Volunteers had set up with different NGOs in Andhra Pradesh. 

“He asked my hand in marriage. He had also proposed to me earlier, but I told him I wasn’t ready. But this time around, I assessed his personality from the time we had met and found him to be a nice and considerate person, and we shared our passion for solving social issues that discriminated against women and children. He was also pursuing his law studies while being an active social worker.  

“I accepted his proposal but told him clearly that I would not follow all the traditions and beliefs prevalent in his Gujarati traditions and ‘Ghunghat’ (veil over face) in particular because I was working towards empowering other women against this ancient tradition. I even went to meet his family to tell them upfront of my conditions in marriage,” says Yashodhara, adding that she had seen the plight of women in such scenarios. 

15 years into her marriage, and Yashodra says with pride that her in-laws stuck to their word and they never asked her to follow any of the traditions they followed. 

“I went back home after my trip to Bipin’s place in Surat, Gujarat and didn’t tell anybody about it. Coincidentally, just around that that time my grandfather came to stay with us and he asked me of my marriage plans since I was 23 years. He was worried about me and as expected was more worried that I was on the move and doing field work for NGOs. My grandpa asked me if I liked someone in particular and he even waived off the usual caste requirement saying it didn’t matter which caste or community he was from,” Yashodhara says almost laughing at the way the usual prerequisites were brushed aside just to get her married. 

She informed her grandfather about Bipin’s proposal and in 3 days they got married on September 15, 2008.  

“Sadly, the very next day my grandpa passed away in his sleep. It’s almost as if he knew he wouldn’t live longer and wanted to see me married before he passed away,” she says, adding that she was very close to her grandfather.   

A year later they had a daughter, Angel Solanki, and then decided to move to live and work in Gujarat in Dhangadhra for a while because Bipin could not adjust to the work conditions in Mumbai.  

“When I lived in Gujarat, I began working on women’s issues, made connections with those in the Ambedkar Movement. I started holding information sessions for slum women about knowing their basic rights, how to flag them and how to address them.”

When in Gujarat, she started working with Video Volunteers directly as a Community Correspondent, among her other roles. One of the videos she is proudest of was done in 2014. It was about the plight of widows of Gujarat who were not allowed to take part in any social or religious functions. She could live with the family but could not take part in family functions. 

“So, we raised concerns about this ‘tradition’ and spoke to women, rallied for support against this way of life, and motivated a woman to defy these traditions at her daughter’s wedding. Initially, they resisted our empowering stand, but then they also got convinced and allowed the widow to lead the bride-welcoming ceremony and all other ceremonies that mothers performed,” the community mobilizer says. 

She and other activists managed to inspire more women in the locality to break free from this sexist tradition, “But even eight years after we triggered this change, we know that there are still several instances and places the widow is discriminated against. That’s the power that traditions wield in our society,” the social changemaker observes. 

Yashodhara is very proud of the work she does because it is impact-driven and creates opportunities as well as brings positive changes in the life of a person, a family or a community.  

COVID-19 a virus in the world, a strain at home: 

Yashodhara and Bipin had just managed to buy a house in Gujarat after their marriage and shifting 13 houses in just around two years.  

“We had to shift these many houses because of caste-based stigma. Since we worked as social activists' people from lower caste communities visited our rented house and the neighbors complained to the flat owner and he too objected that people of the cleaning community visited his flat,” she says.  

They had just moved into their home when the pandemic-related lockdown was imposed. Their earnings stopped and Bipin had to confront the bank on the home loan he took.  “This development caused some differences between us, and he completely shrunk into a corner and stopped talking to us. That’s when I decided to give him some space and took a call to move back to Mumbai for a while,” shares Yashodhara about some of the toughest days of her life.  

She returned to Mumbai depressed, cash strapped and stuck in the midst of the world’s biggest health disaster.  

“I got in touch with Stalin [director of Video Volunteers) and he heard me out patiently. I even went to Goa to be with the team leadership and some team members and spoke my heart out about my situation. VV funded my chance to start afresh in Mumbai and I swung back into action and took on issues faced by women and children in the slums of Govandi and Mankhurd in the suburbs,” she says. 

Yashodhara considers the leadership and team of VV as “my second family”. “I am very attached to them. I have worked for so many years now. Till I joined VV, I was with most organizations for 4-5 years, but I’ve been with VV for 16 years. I am in touch with almost all my old colleagues too from all these years,” the video journalist says. 

The Covid years: 1.5 years, 12 Impact stories: 

“Once our camera got rolling in the slums, several issues started getting resolved faster than ever,” Yashodhara said with pride in her voice. Her reporting skills, community mobilization, and handling of executives has got electricity to the houses of hundreds of families, running water in their taps, safety kits to sanitation workers and an anganwadi between 2020-2022.  

“I’ve been threatened by gangsters, heckled by activists from other organizations, rebuffed by men and even my own Dalit community members. I got to see a lot of politics from various groups with vested interests while doing stories on issues also. These were very interesting stories for me to do and be instrumental in getting the job done for the people,” the VV community journalist says. 

“Issues that I work on are close to my heart. They are women’s rights, providing basic facilities like anganwadis, play areas, rights of children, child labour and trafficking, and problems of socially oppressed, discriminations against backward groups,” the award-winning Community Correspondent says.  

Professional challenges: Unsupportive NGOs and community  

Over the years, her reporting has won her awards and recognition in Mumbai, New Delhi and her work has been featured in a France 24 documentary. She has also won an award from an environmental NGO in Delhi for a solar lights story in 2014; as well as an award for best technical support from a Delhi-based organization, and finally, an Empowering Girls Award from a local Mumbai organization. 

But getting the stories done to be feted by those awards has been an uphill task. Yashodara says the professional obstacles she’s faced have mainly been from other activists or NGOs and from community members who are very rigid about their beliefs.  

“When we used to go to a new locality to enquire about an issue or incident we heard of, or to conduct a survey we would have to through an organization that was working with the people of that place for a longer time. We didn’t have a problem with that because I felt we were both looking to achieve the same thing – work towards and empower people to get their rights, justice and dues,” explains Yashodhara.  

She says these NGOs -- both in Gujarat and Maharashtra, the two states she’s worked in – try to control other social groups that try to work with the people. In one instance she and another VV correspondent from Mumbai Amol Lalzare faced opposition from one such NGO and the VV correspondents had to give a written apology and assurance that they would not work there again, an incident she describes as incredibly insulting.

Narrating an instance of the opposition she’s faced from her own Dalit community members in a village in South Gujarat, Yashodhara says she got to know of an Anganwadi worker who was diverting food ration, meant for the children, to her house. But when she asked the local women to unite and raise voice against the corrupt anganwadi worker, they refused to take action because she was from their community and caste. 

“Even when I invited women to come together to understand, discuss and then raise voice against atrocities and to demand their rights, I would have to seek permission from the men.  

“In one locality we asked the Dalits to protest and demand an equal share of the drinking water but they instead turned against us and threatened to beat us up if we didn’t leave the place. They didn’t want to go against their own caste or community people or neighbors even if they faced injustice or discrimination on a daily basis.”

Love from community due to Journalism: 

Yashodhara has also made quite a reputation through her work in Mumbai’s slums in the past 16 years. She gets warm welcomes in the places her video stories or persistent letters have nudged officials to provide people their rights while she has also seen posters thanking her for putting up in some localities. 

“If we’ve been chased away on some occasions, we also get the first round of applause when we go back to the place we’ve worked. Organizations like VV are not felicitated even though me and other Community Correspondents know that they have stood by our stories, drives, initiatives and been the backbone of this development,” she asserts. In some instances, a week after her story was published on the VV website, officials took action.

However, good intentions don’t always lead to good results, especially in the social work sector, and without people’s support nothing is possible. She experienced this during another campaign that was running for street cleaners to find out about their working rights and how to tackle remuneration issues with their departments. “Bipin and I told them to stage a dharna and we also sat with them at the protest site near their office. Then one day one of them created a breakaway faction for reasons not known to us and took the protest in another direction. "We decided to move away from the issue because of that,” she says. 

The next 3-year plan  

“After coming back to Mumbai, I’ve got a very positive feeling of life ahead. Firstly, Bipin and I reconciled a few months ago and he keeps visiting us even though he still works in Gujarat in a lawyer's firm. I am very happy with my professional growth at VV, the stories I have produced and the Impact we’ve created in lives of marginalized, neglected people and communities. I am also looking to form my own NGO that works towards women’s empowerment and I am busy trying to raise funds for that. Our daughter is enjoying her education and is doing well in all subjects. I just may learn some English from my daughter too,” she says with hope and optimism.  




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