Our 34th day in India takes us to Bombay, and my mind adjusts to the flagrant poverty people had warned me about. Even before my feet hit the tarmac my window seat shows me a sea of shanties that seemed to go on forever.
We spend Diwali in Ambedkar Nagar slum (our friends at OSCAR India live and work there). It’s an eye-opener; the smell, the dirt, the narrow alleyways. I’m told most homes don’t have a toilet (or running water), and people sleep on the roofs in the dry season. Apparently there are only 40 toilets for 150,000 people… That’s a morning queue I don’t wanna be in.
Despite these living conditions people seem pleased to see me, and I lose count of the number handshakes, greetings and inquisitive questions. Diwali makes for a joyous but slightly intimidating atmosphere – the noise from the firecrackers made it feel more like Syria.
In my naivety I’d assumed slum dwellers were the bottom of the food chain… Not so. In some ways they’re the lucky ones, they seem resourceful and positive, and the communities are close-knit and fully functional. People flee rural villages (and potential starvation) to live there.
On the streets it’s another story; whole families live on the pavements, some with not much more than a blanket, others with tarpaulin shacks. They call these people the untouchables (or Dalits), and India has 166 million of them (78 million of which are homeless). The footpath to Haji Ali Mosque was even worse; amputees and children baking in the midday sun. There’s not much welfare here, so it’s beg or be gone.
How India can justify a space programme and a Mars mission is beyond me…
However, my heightened sense of compassion was tempered by some realism. In a globalised world where companies scour the planet for cheap labour, and that saving is passed on to us – the consumer. The sad reality is – we all need poverty to keep our costs down.
Where you’re born counts for a lot, and in the lottery of life I feel lucky… I used to think the phrase, “how the other half lives”, referred to toffs and aristocrats… Not anymore – it’s about me!
Words that spring to mind:
Oh think twice, it’s another day for you and me in paradise.
– Phil Collins
So why izit called the welfare state, izit because it iz well fair?
– Ali G (in an interview with Tony Benn)
Give us your fucking money!
– Bob Geldof
(…ok so it might be a myth but I bet he thought it)
Something for Statto:
According to the World Bank (via infochangeindia.org), almost 54% of the Mumbai’s 20 million inhabitants live in shanties (or slums), another 25-30% live in chawls and on footpaths, while just 10-15% living in apartment buildings, bungalows or high-rises. However, with a literacy rate of 69%, the slums in Mumbai are the most literate in India.