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Contrasting perceptions: A rising India and the ‘real’ reality of poverty- April 21, 2012

A reader’s comment on my post about Pune and its quaint bakeries got me thinking. The reader liked the post because it showed a positive, exciting side of India instead of the endless portrayal of the slums! A few days ago, my nearly eight-year old son Udai was wading through a pile of National Geographic back issues, in pursuit of some information for a school project. He came across a map depicting the world’s population by income; this was the issue about the world population reaching 7 billion. So Udai stared and stared and looked quite aghast. For the first time, he realized that India, compared to the rest of the world, was a poor to middle income nation. He also observed that there were only very tiny parts of the word (Europe and coastal strips in the US) that were very high income. And that Africa was the only part of the world that was poorer than India.

It is hard for children raised in privileged, urban families in India to perceive of our nation as poor. Even though they see the beggars and the slums, they also see an overwhelming bombardment of visual and audio information that portrays a bunch of upwardly mobile people buying stuff, going on vacations and having endless fun! In India, for Indians, the image of India as a nation progressing and developing is the image we filter out as the one we want to see. For the rest of the world, the poor, slummy image is what represents India. What a contrasting way to look at one reality!

Poverty is a harsh reality. No matter what the Planning Commission defines as poverty lines (and there is a raging debate about that), there is no doubt that the present and future of millions of people is in jeopardy because they are poor, with little opportunity to break that poverty spiral and access essentials like nutrition and education.

When I took my kids into the slums during the execution of the Jalti Jhopdi project in Gurgaon, I did so deliberately. To show them this other reality, the more real reality, so to speak. People often ask me what I aspire for my children. I have absolutely no pre-conceived notion of what I would want to see them do as adults, but I hope they will be sensitive people. If I were to push myself and zero down, there are two streams I would be happy for my kids to follow. One is the arts; to me, to be true to your art is to be truly free and give meaning to life, yours and that of others! I can see myself being very proud of any child of mine who is a practitioner of creativity (any sort will do-writing, painting music, dance, theater, puppetry…am not choosy!) The other is to be be in professions in which they can make a real difference to the lives of the poor, the underprivileged and the downtrodden.

I know this is dangerous. To pen this down is to set expectations for them, but I had these thoughts and I cannot deny them either!

Positivity in the face of disaster: Our experience at Gurgaon’s burnt down slum- March 31, 2012

A slum of about 80 houses burnt down in Sector 57 in Gurgaon yesterday.  When a group of us visited this morning, the sight was not pretty (see pics below). The fire happened in the daytime when everyone was at work but all the children were in the slum being watched by a few adults. By some miracle, no lives were lost. Everything these poor families possessed- clothes, vessels, savings, documents- was lost to the fire, that consumed the jhuggi in 12 minutes flat!

Staring at empty space where their homes stood just a day ago!

Charred remains of things essential

At site, we found people sitting around in various moods. Despondent, sad, industrious, belligerent, curious, resigned and even indifferent. We gathered within minutes that this is a community of migrants, predominantly Muslim, coming from West Bengal. A few families from Bihar, MP and UP live here as well, but relations are strained between the various linguistic groups.

Nobody is aggressive towards us though and they are more than willing to share information, talk about their lives, what they need, how things work or don’t work in their jhuggi, etc. In fact, some of the conversations are so normal to almost be surreal if you consider these people, who are already living on so little, just lost everything they have! They don’t focus on what they lost, they want to talk about how to rebuild their lives.

The realities of their lives hit me over and over, walking through the charred remains of their homes. Kids don’t go to school. Most residents are cleaners, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers, etc. Cellphones are common. The homes are tiny, most able to accomodate only about three adults sleeping side by side. Yet there were no tears, kids played around cheerfully, I saw little anguish and no greed for what we would possibley give them. Only an expression of genuine need.

Jhuggi dwellers told us that the first response was by the local mosque, which distributed clothes and provided food. The maulvi assured us when we spoke to him later, that the mosque would continue to supply food. Some government departments have reportedly provided some bits of help- a water tanker, some clothes, food. Our team that has had experience with disaster relief before (they ran the super successful Mission Julley in the aftermath of the Ladakh flash flood), felt immediate and sustained and above all, organized efforts are required to really meet the needs of these families.

A positive experience came in the form of a couple of contractors who were building on plots nearby. They had seen the jhuggi burn down yesterday and they were shaken. They promised to get together a group of their friends working in the vicinity to support our work monetarily or in whatever way possible, promptly sharing their contact information and standing with us till the end of the visit.

There’s a lot to be done and fast! We’re chalking out a plan to move ahead and help these families. I will convey the details soon via facebook and twitter.

My blog will continue to follow the story of this jhuggi for the next few days. I have in mind to write about the condition of housing and the system of administration in such communities, the unique systems they develop for survival in a harsh urban environment, the lack of initiative I observed in then to form a community and analysis of why, and of course, how we are able to help and our experiences whole doing so…..Keep reading!

Encounters with street children in Gurgaon- Mar 5, 2012

So this is how the conversation went between this little street girl outside a Gurgaon market and me.

Child: Didi, paise de do, pen khareed lo [Sister, give me money, buy these pens]

Me: Pen to bacche ye acchhe nahi hote, par batao paise ka kya karogi? [Child, these pens are useless; tell me what you will do with the money?]

Child, instantly: Pichkari loongi! [I will buy a water pistol]

Me, having just done the rounds in the market: Pichkari to bahut paise ki aati hai. Wo to jut nahi paaenge. Kahin aur kharch ho jaayenge, hai na? [The water pistol would be too expensive. You will have to save money for it and that will get spent elsewhere, no?]

Child: To phir kuchh khila do! [Then give me something to eat!]

She smiled her lovely smile as the wonderful aroma of frying eggs filled her nostrils; the boy with her simply looked dazed!

Eventually, Rahul walked across to the little streetside shop and bought her and her tinier companion bread and double egg omelettes. We were struck by their spontaneity, honesty and complete lack of self-consciousness. They knew the best chance they had was to ask for what they really wanted and hope we were in a benevolent mood! We were rewarded with lovely smiles at the end of this, but I cannot stop thinking about what their lives must be like. I have seen this same girl child the past few years, from when she was rather little to now, when she is much more grown up and very confident. Denied of any form of security, with no access to education or opportunity, these kids stare into a future that is bleak. Yet, because they are kids, they can smile, be witty and spontaneous; you may argue that these are only survival skills, but I find it hard to believe all of it is put on.

The recently releases ‘The state of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’ brought out by the United Nation’s Children’s Fund underlines the need to pay attention to children amongst the urban poor. What future are we talking about for our nation and our people if we let our children go hungry, get raped, remain illiterate and ensure their innocent smiling faces turn into those lined with bitterness, misery and hatred? I think this everyday and I wonder what more I can do to change things around me.

A few days ago, I watched this street kid painstakingly wash his muddy feet with less than a glass of water left in that plastic bottle. I have thought of that every time I ran the tap since! How little we value the resources we have!


Cannot wish the urban poor away; can we try new housing solutions like rental housing to accomodate them? Feb 20, 2012

Today’s newspaper carried two stories that highlight how completely clueless we (citizens, governments, bureaucrats and planners alike) are about how to address the issue of housing the poor.

The first piece of news narrates a conflict in the numbers of homeless people in Delhi. The government figure is 55,955 while NGOs in the sector claim 150,000! A 2008 survey by IGSSS, an NGO prominent in working for the homeless, put the figure at 88,410. Apparently the government survey was done in the wake of the Commonwealth Games, when many of the homeless were evicted from the city as part of a ‘cleanliness’ drive! This is a typical example of the kind of data scenario policy makers work with in India. Very often, there is little desire to arrive at authentic, realistic figures; consequently, policies that evolve are unrealistic and do not cater to the present, leave alone plan for the future.

The second story, set in Gurgaon, highlights another typical conflict. Sector 45 residents pressurize the urban development authority (HUDA in this case) to remove slum encroachments in the area, citing poor sanitation and law and order issues. The slum, which occupies government land (apparently disputed and hence not developed), gets water supply and electricity, but has poor sanitation facilities and many residents use open lands for defecation. Whereas private property owners are fully entitled to complain against slums if they see them as threats to their quality of life, clearly governments choose to wait for complaints and fail to check unplanned illegal settlements. Further, there is a spectacular failure to provide low income housing to an urban settlement that is growing as rapidly as Gurgaon is. Conflicts such as these will continue to escalate, while the government mouths buzwords like ‘affordable housing’ and ‘RAY’, which have failed to see the light of the day and provide housing in sufficient numbers to meet even a fraction of the demand.

Poverty in urban India isn’t something we can simply wish away, yet we continue to look for stop gap solutions and refuse to adopt inclusive planing in the present and for the future. I am aware that this is a common refrain and I have no innovative or practical solutions to offer. I do, however, see enterprising landlords in urban villages in Gurgaon creating several affordable housing formats for rent, from dormitories, to single room sets and tenement style housing, there is a range of options for employed migrants who can pay rentals ranging from Rs 500 – 5000 per month. That’s taking a definite step forward. It would be heartening to see the government step in to facilitate the creation of rental housing for the poor in the city, while they continue to evolve greenfield affordable housing projects as well!

Does Oprah’s solution to poverty apply to the urban poor in India? Jan 23, 2012

I kept hearing about Barkha Dutt’s interview with Oprah all day. I just got around to seeing a part of it myself. Her’s is a hugely inspirational story, rags to riches, from a nobody to one of the most influential people in the world, etc etc.

Coming from poverty herself, Oprah pointed out today that very few people who live in poverty (that is without money, running water, 24X7 electricity, etc) know that they are poor, till they are in a position to compare their lives with that of someone else.

I had the opportunity to do some community consultation work in the slums Sundernagari in East Delhi a few months ago and I tried to review Oprah’s statement in the light of my experiences. We (as in mHS) had been engaged to involve the community in the process of developing an in-situ redevelopment scheme in which their families would be allocated housing units in the same location where their slum stands today.

The cheerful youth we met in Sundernagari had no apparent aspirations, seemed strangely secure in their poverty. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

We worked in two slum blocks, one predominantly a community of scheduled caste shoe makers and other a majority-Muslim community engaged in  buffalo-rearing, embroidery and metal work.  Both communities are extremely poor. Our survey shows about 31% of the households in the first community and 32% in the second have a household income of less than Rs 5000 per month (with an average household size of about 5). The highest reported family income in both blocks was about Rs 15,000 a month!

Of course the people we worked with in Sundernagari are acutely aware of their poverty. Its hard for them not be, not to compare themselves with the more fortunate while living in Delhi surrounded by middle income neighborhoods. Many women from these slums work as domestic help in the middle income colony nearby, entering every day more fortunate homes and observing closely a life of relatively much much more. I find it hard to believe that Oprah’s statement can be true of any community of the urban poor anywhere, in fact.

While aware of their poverty, I do not think these slum dwellers live life in a depressed or dejected fashion. They simply live, focusing on finding jobs (mostly in the form of informal labor, skilled or semi-skilled) and spending their money wisely so as to feed their families and educate their children. Their grievances are not with living in a slum, in poverty. They simply ask for basic services and security for their children, no more and no less.

Which brings me to Oprah’s other point about poverty. She sees education as the only way out of poverty, something that opens the door of opportunity. While interacting with young people in the slums, I was struck by their cheerfulness and complete lack of ambition. These were people who attended or had attended school, but did not believe that education would give them the opportunity to progress and find their way out of the poverty they were born into. So they simply lived in a status quo fashion, doing whatever work they could find, if they could find it (sadly, many young people didn’t appear to take on the trades of their parents, finding show making or buffalo rearing to be derogatory work).

Instead of offering them opportunity, the government has made these poor households dependent on subsidies and pro-poor programs. They now believe there is a certain power in their poverty. They believe the government will never throw them off their land and that they will be able to endlessly leverage their poverty to eek out survival for themselves and their future generations.

Of course, many we spoke to did dream of a better life, did see through the falseness of the security these programs offer; but in the collective mentality that is at work here, few offer a dissenting opinion. And life goes on….

Housing the homeless, and beyond- Jan 10, 2012

Almost as I was writing yesterday’s post about beggars, the Supreme Court was rapping state governments on their knuckles for neglecting the needs of the homeless (see news report). Every year when the cold wave strikes, the Supreme Court starts feeling terribly protective about the homeless people, orders reports on homeless shelters, orders governments to rebuild and repair these, etc.

What interested me though, is that this time, the Court specifically pointed out that the government was making no efforts to “encourage homeless persons to stay in shelter homes”, and also directed governments to “ensure that the night shelters were provided with basic facilities such as drinking water, heating, separate toilets for men and women, beds, and medical facilities.”

At micro Home Solutions (mHS), where I now work, we have been involved peripherally with night shelters as part of our larger work on low-income housing. A few years ago, mHS built two bamboo night shelters in Delhi with NGO partners, one of these is still standing on the banks of the Yamuna.

mHS' bamboo night shelter in Delhi; Image courtesy- mHS

Partly because of the court’s seasonal reaction, night shelters wax and wane in this city, increasing in number once the rap comes in wake of the cold wave! The biggest problem is offering a sustained shelter option, though, is that of maintenance. Once the cold season goes, they fall out of repair and the homeless go back to the streets….therefore, these homeless (beggars included) can never really be rehabilitated because they cannot afford to pay rents and there is simply nowhere else to go!

Legally, the poor cannot be charged for these night shelters. We fail to understand why they cannot be charged for services, though. Many of the homeless are daily wage workers, rickshaw pullers, rag pickers, etc who cannot afford to pay rents, but are also not exactly sans income. They would benefit from clean toilets, health facilities, lockers for their belongings, clean bedding, etc. The nutritional needs of the homeless are also critical. The shelters would very much benefit from soup kitchens, so the poor get a healthy square meal a day, saving them from starvation and death.  A holistic approach as opposed to simply putting a roof over the heads of the homeless is certainly warranted.

The other side of this picture is a concerted effort to address the supply of low-income housing, especially rental housing (and dormitories) that has recently re-entered the policy discussion after years of being shunned. Here too, how to and who would maintain and organize these is a barrier that needs to be addressed. If rental housing is created, at least the homeless with income would have an option for shelter. Of course, those without income would need a different approach entirely, something that incentivizes them to enter the workforce as well, and provides some opportunity to do so.

Essentially, it’s not just about solving the problem of housing the homeless. Its also about providing that opportunity to progress to the next level, and then beyond, and so on and so forth. That upward mobility that even the US has been criticized in a recent Time survey for not being able to adequately provide for marginalized populations. In offering a slim chance for upward mobility to these people, we would be building the future of the city and the nation in the best way possible, from the bottom up!

Is it possible to rehabilite beggars? Anecdotes from Delhi- Jan 9, 2012

One of winter’s most heart-wrenching sights is to see under clad children begging on the streets, shivering and asking for money. The reactions of us folks sitting inside the vehicles at traffic lights is a tad more pathetic though. Most studiously ignore, others actively chase away and those whose hearts melt, reach out for a few coins and move on when the light turns green.

A few years ago, on a particularly cold, foggy night, I was driving to a friends place for dinner. Near the Ber Sarai traffic light near JNU there were a few kids doing their begging routine, when I saw a lady pull down her window and talk to them! She sounded quite stern, asking the kids where their parents were!

My first reaction was to laugh out loud. What kind of question is that to begging kids? But soon enough, I shut up and watched intently, for the lady proceeded to pile the kids up in her car and drive away. Consumed with curiosity, I followed….underneath the nearby flyover, we found the street-dwellers family (group may be more appropriate). The lady, who I realized was familiar with these people yelled at the parents of the kids, asking them to give them sweaters! Turns out her NGO works with these kids and they had been given woollies a few days ago. The parents had taken the woollies off and sent the kids begging bare-chested to spark pity and hopefully get some alms out of the rich people in the cars!

I was aghast, first at the cruelty that these parents were inflicting on their own kids, but more at the extreme poverty that drove people to this. Recently, there was a news item that described an attempt the Delhi government has made to rehabilitate beggars into beggar homes (three of these exist at Seemapuri, Jail Road and Lampur). As per the HT article, about 600 beggars currently live in these homes, where they get food and are taught some skills as well. Apparently, those who enrolled got a small stipend per day. The government had increased this daily stipend to Rs 30 this year, but beggars are demanding Rs 80 per day saying its more lucrative for them to beg rather than accept such terms. Beggars claim that Rs 30 isn’t sufficient for them to support themselves anyway to fulfill their needs beyond food and shelter.

The positive strain here is that the authorities are still trying to find a solution to rehabilitate beggars (as opposed to the crazy idea to throw them out before the Commonwealth Games in 2010, only to let them back in post-Games!), but to me the problem appears more complex that offering them shelter and food. What is the guarantee that the skills imparted to them will convert into jobs? Is there some sort of employment guarantee? What other measures can we take to ensure better rehabilitation so that these people don’t go back to begging, which has become a way of life for them? Also, the solutions would need to cater to the over 60,000 beggars in Delhi (number estimated by Action Aid in 2004, which means there are lot more today), which is a huge challenge.

Coming back to my little story. The incident changed my perspective forever. Now I try and carry biscuits or bananas when I am going to areas frequented by beggars and simply distribute food, hoping to in some way alleviate their suffering (Dear reader, do share stuff you do to give me some ideas on how else to help). Money, I know, will find its way into the parents’ pockets and expenditure may not benefit the children directly. Though I don’t think ALL street dwellers are drug junkies or alcoholics, I know its a real problem and why not just give the children something they can use immediately? I also roll down the window and talk to them like they are normal people, smile at the babies and ask about their age, gender, etc. It doesn’t hurt to be human, does it? Yesterday, on Lodi Road, I was rewarded with a huge toothless smile as the little one chewed away on a Monaco biscuit, holding the rest of the packet firmly in her grip!

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