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India: Living a hand to mouth existence

Really difficult day today. We visited one of the slums of Mumbai, Shivaji Nagar. It is built on a rubbish tip. And as the rubbish settles, so people build homes on it, very higgledy piggly with no planning, and so it grows, and the waste of Mumbai is dumped further out.

The whole slum is home to 600,000 people, that’s 40 times as many people as my home town of Carterton. Some of the site has been legalised as its been there for more than 10 years, but the part where we were is illegal, so the government refuses to provide any services, even the ones that everyone are entitled to, water, free educaton, free healthcare.

These people have nothing and live a very hand to mouth existence. The main employment is of course sifting the rubbish for recyclable materials and even quite young children seemed to be involved in that.

Also it means the bigger your family, the more hands there are to help. A family may earn 200 – 250 rupees a day (£3). There were large water butts as we went in and I thought that was at least something, and it wasn’t until we were leaving that we were told you have to pay for that water from a private company, perhaps 30 rupees for a large pot full.

And it was hot again today, 35 degrees, and you need water to drink, but also to cook, wash, clean etc. What must this place be like in the rainy season?

When you compare our life to that of the people here, I had a few tears. It seems such a desperate situation. But there are positives. Save the Children run a crèche here where the children are safe. The parents are free to go and work and earn a living for the family.

It was so simple, a small hut, some food and a health worker to give very basic education. But what a huge impact that has on the lives of these children. 

We visited the health facility, which covers 644 households (about 34,000 people in all), and from here they can access the services they are entitled to such as free medicine, food supplements, ante and post natal care, and baby monitering.

It was interesting, that elsewhere, we are encouraging women to have hospitalised births, (and they receive a small reimbursement for doing that) as it is so much safer for the mother and child. However, when they asked the women here why they weren’t doing that, they told us,”it’s because we have no doors.”

Its so obvious really. Of course you can’t leave your home for a couple of days, if your house is a lean-to shack, which could be stripped in your absence.

There are 9 health workers. They know the families, who should be going to school, who is pregnant, or with a small baby, the health of the children etc. Where possible given the conditions they can educate about health, sanitation, encourage the use of the health centre.

They are incredibly dedicated women, who are making such a difference to these people who have so little, and no one to be in their corner.

It’s not really a community here, 30% of the population is mobile, with a lot of migration. Because of the transience and continual threat of demolition by the government it makes people very insecure. They are also ostracised by the people of Bombay, because they are immigrants, because they appear to be taking resources that would otherwise go to the town, because they don’t pay taxes.

So even hospitals are reluctant to treat them, and make them uncomfortable enough that they are unlikely to visit again. We have tried to motivate people to demand what is rightfully theirs, bringing local leaders together, helping them write letters and petition for permanent status.

Trying to unite them on common issues of access to water, health care, land rights also means avoidijng divisions on religious grounds which in the past have led to riots here.

We are a facilitator not a provider – reminding the government what they should already be doing, and improving existing facilities. This was a special case where , because the site is illegal the government refuse to do anything, and even deny there is a problem.

The government survey found only 398 children were malnourished in Mombai, but only a few months later, the WHO survey found it to be 18,000. But if we could get water and sanitation, then 60 – 70% of diseases would go away.

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