At the Kanak Durga slum colony in RK Puram, New Delhi, the lanes are named after the women. It is in “Rajkumari ki gali" that we meet 48-year-old Rajkumari Thakur. Leaning against a Pulsar motorbike that her eldest son, Prabhakar, has just bought, she tells us about the genesis of this oddball nomenclature.

Thakur is a lane volunteer for Asha, the NGO that has adopted her slum. Her duties involve checking on the 25-30 shanties in her lane to see if medicines are being administered properly; if the women are following up their contraception routine; and if the infants are getting their vaccinations in time. When she encounters a medical situation beyond her reach, she calls one of Asha’s community health volunteers—these are women from Kanak Durga who’re equipped with a medicine kit and paid an honorarium.

Path to progress: (from left) Prabhakar, Ravinder, Thakur and Diwakar outside their home. Madhu Kapparath/Mint

Emancipated women aren’t the only anomalies here. There’s no foul odour from the open drains of Kanak Durga—a slum with 25,000 inhabitants. The narrow lanes that connect the houses are paved. And when we visit, at noon on a weekday, the children are walking back home from school. The slum has an evolved civic system and the women are at the helm of it all.

Thakur recalls how wretched things were when she moved there as a newly-wed 30 years ago. Her husband, Lal Kishore, had left behind a family of landless farmers in Muzaffarpur in Bihar to work as a whitewasher in Delhi. He would head out every day looking for work, and for months she didn’t know how to go about getting a ration card. A hillock bordering the slum stood in as a communal toilet. The women bathed in their houses, by the door, so that the water seeped out into the drain that cut across the slum. Disease was rampant.

When Kiran Martin, a paediatrician who was later awarded a Padma Shri for her work, set up Asha in 1988, women such as Thakur were suspicious of the NGO’s activities. Dr Martin had set out to treat victims of a cholera outbreak but realized that though healthcare could be her entry point, far more needed to be done.

Dr Martin’s stratagem seems to have worked for Thakur. After she got two of her sons vaccinated at the Asha mobile clinic, she sat in on some sessions of the Mahila Mandal (women’s group) that Asha had instituted and decided she would join in it. A member since 1988, she was appointed treasurer two years ago.

Mahila Mandal works as a pressure group for the community, meeting every week to draft proposals for civic change. When P. Chidambaram, then Union finance minister, visited the area two years ago, Thakur was among those who campaigned for financial assistance. Chidambaram got to work immediately and had all the nationalized banks offer low-interest loans for the financially underprivileged. Thakur’s family has availed of two such loans: one for household repairs and one for the new motorbike she is leaning against.

Thakur’s two elder sons, Prabhakar (22) and Diwakar (20), are members of the Yuva Mandal (youth group) while her youngest, Ravinder (13), is the secretary of the Bal Mandal (children’s group), both of which run parallel to the Mahila Mandal. It is the Bal Mandal that ensured the civic authorities appointed someone for the upkeep of the open drains. Each family pays 30 a month for the service.

In her house, Thakur tears open a packet of biscuits as she puts a kettle on the boil. She has a come long way since the days when she didn’t know how to get a ration card. Today, she helps other women get birth, death and caste certificates. If there’s a sanitation, electricity or water issue in her lane, she knows exactly which municipality officer to call. Yeh humara haq banta hai (This is our right), is something she has learnt to say often in these interactions.

Her sense of entitlement spills over to her children. Diwakar brings out a hardback Oxford Hindi-English dictionary he was awarded by the New Zealand high commissioner during a special dinner for a few of Asha’s Yuva Mandal members. He also recounts details of his meeting with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton during her visit last year.

Both Prabhakar and Diwakar are set to do MBAs eventually. Prabhakar is pursuing a BA by correspondence and works at a health insurance company in the evenings. He earns more than his father, who still makes daily wages of 150. Diwakar is in the final year of a BA programme in political science at Ram Lal Anand College. Next year, he plans to study for the common admission test (CAT). He is among the first batch of students from Kanak Durga to attend college. The Thakurs have decided to ensure that Ravinder becomes an engineer. As the conversation veers to him, Ravinder brings out a drawing book to show his latest work to the Asha social workers who’re with us: Krishna Vatsa, a programme coordinator, and Harikishan, who’s in charge of Asha’s field office at Kanak Durga. Among the Santa Claus and still life, he has a sketch of his father at work. It is a reality as distant for him as Santa Claus.

While healthcare is still Asha’s mainstay, the main focus is to empower the women, Vatsa says. The Thakur family is proof that Asha slums are different. This fact is also backed up by hard numbers: the under-5 mortality rate—a leading indicator of overall development—is 28.2 (out of 1,000) in Asha slums; the average among India’s poor is 112.

But not everything has changed in 30 years. The Thakurs still live in a 25 sq. yard room. Their land allotment under the slum rehabilitation scheme was botched for reasons that are unclear. Thakur still bathes inside her house, by the door, so that the water can seep out. But now she knows she is entitled to a bathroom. That’s what the Mahila Mandal’s ongoing campaign is about.