AKRON, Pa. – A smelly situation raised tensions last year between Christians and Hindus living in the largest slum of Bhubaneswar, the capital of India’s eastern state of Odisha (formerly Orissa).
Like large slums everywhere in India, Salia Sahi lacks adequate infrastructure. Long-term infrastructure improvements to the area occupied without land rights by more than 40,000 people are not supported by the government and are too large for nonprofit organizations to address alone.
At issue, in this situation, was sewer water containing human waste from a nearby neighborhood. It overflowed drains and spilled downhill in front of a Christian church. The smelly, slushy area made it difficult for churchgoers to enter the building on Sundays.
The Christians diverted the drainage, but then it emptied into a Hindu community. Neither community wanted the sewage overflow. Tensions grew until the police were called, but they tossed the matter back to the locally elected leaders of the neighborhood where the sewage originated.
That’s when Vivek Digal, a decade-long resident of Salia Sahi, entered the picture. Digal had received conflict-resolution training from the Society for Nature, Education and Health (SNEH), which was supported by Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) Global Family education partnership program from 2009 to 2011. Digal also is active in a SNEH-initiated peacebuilding youth group.
Digal persuaded other members of the youth group to try mediation to end the tense standoff. After speaking to both parties separately, the youth members brought representatives from the opposing groups together at a meeting at the SNEH shelter, often used for gatherings by Salia Sahi residents. It took three meetings over a two-week period to hammer out a solution.
“Vivek led the whole process,” said SNEH coordinator Niladri B. Sahoo. “He shared with the group the experience of another neighborhood where Hindus and Christians had recently worked together to solve a water-sharing conflict, together raising money for needed pipes.”
The mediation at SNEH ended with a similar solution.
“The participants didn’t end up as friends but yielded to a common decision that diverting the drainage water to a vacant area behind the church would be for the common good,” said Manjula Patnaik, a project officer for MCC India. Hindus and Christians alike contributed a day’s labor to construct the new channel.
“Vivek helped avert a possible communal conflict which could have led to violence and bloodshed, destruction of public property, police arrests and an end to the fragile relationship shared by Hindus and Christians in Salia Sahi slum,” said Sahoo.
“There have been many other instances when a small incident has escalated to communal violence,” Patnaik explained. “This usually happens during festivals or when people are insensitive to other groups’ religious rituals. Or it might be an argument about loudspeakers blasting songs at night.”
Digal did not boldly and confidently enter the fray. Despite the six SNEH peace trainings he had attended and his own desire for a calm neighborhood in which residents respect one another, it is not in his people’s tradition for youth to speak out to elders.
“‘Before attending the peace trainings, I would always avoid getting involved in any sort of a conflict situation. But after the trainings, I feel more confident to dialogue in trying to solve the problem,’” Digal told Patnaik, who describes the young man as calm and soft-spoken.
After his success with the sewerage conflict, Digal has asked his youth group to brainstorm possible solutions to address another “fuse”: arguments and flare-ups that occur among women as they wait in long lines to draw water at the communal tap.
Emily Will is a freelance writer from Frederick, Md.