An Adventure in Madurai


The city of Madurai in the Tamil region of southern India straddles the Vaigai River, an ancient, sacred water source that no longer flows as a river should. I see it from the bus on the second day, a series of bridges traversing a wide, grassy trench, pocked with dark ponds, low scrub and populated by cows, goats, dogs and the occasional person. Every 3-4 years, the retreating monsoons cause it to fill and then flood, washing away informal settlements (more often referred to as slums) set up in its beds and surrounding floodplains.

Madurai is growing rapidly. It has grown by 23% over the past decade, and its 1.5 million people are expected increase to more than 2 million by 2031. This burgeoning population, along with recent farming practices and climate change, is draining the water table and polluting what’s left of the river, while creating an ever increasing demand for resources that are simply no longer there. In the informal settlements, there are also social issues to deal with, such as alcoholism, female inequality, domestic violence and the sort of entrenched poverty that will dog a family for generations.


I meet Geeta Mehta soon after I arrive. I’m in Madurai because I saw her speak at a Symposium in Perth, where she told the hundreds strong audience, “I’m going to be in Madurai from the 25th of June, if anyone would like to come.”

In her hotel room, she is kind, generous and abrupt, deeply serious about her work. She sits me down, introduces me to her intern Catherine, offers me some tea, and runs me through the first couple days of the mammoth, ever-shifting program. I’ve arrived five days in, and have yet to get my head around the trip’s complicated tangle of projects and collaborations. Geeta is here with her students, who are collaborating with local students on a project to clean up the river in association with the DHAN Foundation and AI. Rick, who has recently retired from Price Waterhouse Coopers, is volunteering as an advisor for AI and is in Madurai to get an idea of their operations. I’ve missed a pageant about alcoholism that took place earlier in the day, organised by AI in collaboration with an organisation called DHAN, and Catherine shows me  photos and videos of immaculately dressed women from the informal settlements marching down the street behind men drumming, a parade two thousand strong.


That night at dinner, Geeta asks around the table for everyone’s wellbeing score out of ten. This has been her habit since her students’ gentle western bellies began succumbing to the food. Numbers range from 5 from Andrew, one of her students who has been sick for days, to an enthusiastic 15 from AI project manager Surabhi’s nine year old son, Saumitra. “What about you, Geeta?” asks another student, and it’s the first time anyone has asked.

The next morning, Surabhi, Rick and I are in a jeep to the headquarters of the DHAN Foundation with Susan, Catharine (a different one) and Julie from Women Strong International (WSI). DHAN is a huge twenty-five-year-old organisation with more than 700 employees and around 1.35 million beneficiaries throughout India. It works with poor communities to create savings schemes, set up insurance and create support structures (among many other activities) as a way of levering them out of poverty and keeping them there. WSI are funding them over three years, and are today running a workshop with DHAN employees on gender equality in the informal settlements. AI is involved as well, and will be introducing SoCCs into one of the new communities as a pilot, another project they are in Madurai for.

Upstairs, everyone sits in a circle of plastic chairs in a concrete room and Catherine begins. “So today, we have plans to run an activity which we hope will be fun and interactive,” she starts,”and our goal is really to talk about what gender equality means in your context…and what you’d like to achieve over the next three years, what that looks like, and what are some of the key steps.”

The activity is called Word Salad and involves group activities around four gender-based questions: one about decision making power, one about roles and responsibilities, one on access and control over resources, and one about power structures. Everyone peels into groups and, after lots of moving around and discussion, major gender issues among DHAN’s communities have been identified and goals are being set, along with timeframes for achievement. “Really?” Catherine says, a little exasperated, when a card on community recognition of women’s leadership is placed at the furthest increment. “You think it will take ten years?”

“Yes!” One of the few men in the group replies. “This is very hard for us.”

Back at the hotel, the students have sat through a long day of presentations. From their faces, it has been gruelling, and a little frustrating, but important points are emerging and strategies are being devised. There is progress where there has been none, and the bleak picture of the Vaiga River is beginning, slowly, to appear a little brighter.

“I could plant a tree, knowing that I won’t be there to enjoy it,” Rick reminds me on an early morning walking tour the next day. “I might enjoy watching it grow, but I won’t enjoy it like others might, when it’s full grown and I’m out of the picture.”

– Zoe Barron, Freelance Writer

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