What would happen without Save the Children?
Written by Michael Dugher, MP for Barnsley East, Vice-Chair of the Labour Party and a Parliamentary Champion for Save the Children.
On our second day in India, we visited the Okhla slums in the industrial area of south Delhi.
Our guide was the brilliant Neha Sabharwal from Save the Children.
Here, we were informed, as many as 200,000 people live in slums in the most wretched squalor imaginable.
Most of the people living in the slums are economic migrants who have moved from the outlying villages of south Delhi to work in nearby factories.
Others have set up small businesses, shops and the like, to serve the community in one of the shantytowns we visited.
Bringing doctors to doorsteps
One person we met was Mohd Hafeez, who runs a milk dairy in a small, rented room.
His wife, Nazrana, stays at home and looks after their two children, including their 20-month-old daughter, Tasarrun, and their two-year-old son, Mohd Ali.
For many families, paying to travel some 16 km to the nearest hospital is just not possible. So Save the Children is bringing the doctors to the patients.
The mobile health van combines a doctor in a treatment room, a pharmacist able to dispense vital medicines directly to the patients, and even a makeshift laboratory with staff able to conduct the most straightforward tests and give pretty much instant results.
Mainly mothers and children
Most of the patients are pregnant women or young mothers carrying their infant children. I met one mother carrying her baby, a girl.
I asked her how old her baby was as I have three young children and guessed she was probably a petite nine-month-old. In fact she was some 20 months, her growth having been stunted by the abject poverty in which she lived.
We also met a family who lived in a small room that was about the third of the size of my garage back home in England.
Prashuram runs a small shop outside their home and lives in the small room with his wife, their son, Rajkumar, their daughter-in-law, Shalini, and their two grandchildren. The children in particular rely on the mobile health van.
Their job is to be amongst the community, providing basic care and advice, as well as to monitor the huge array of health problems that affect people living in the slums. They know many of the patients and their extended families personally, providing vital insight and liaison.
As we walked round the slums there were, surprisingly, some lighter moments.
There was one guy being given a wet shave with a cut-throat razor in the street. Next to him was an elderly gentleman, also in the street, working his way through a pile of ironing.
I looked at the old chap and he gave me a look that said: “What are you looking at? Have you never seen someone ironing his clothes in the middle of the road before?”
During the visit, I walked round with Jonathan Ashworth MP and we were greeted with a combination of curiosity and, in some cases, like a couple of visiting dignitaries with people crowding around us wanting to have their photograph taken. It’s fair to say that this rarely happens in my constituency.
Contrast to home
Before we left, we also visited an early childhood care and development centre – a sort of Sure Start children’s centre, but a place that also provides a much-needed daily meal for the malnourished children.
The room was beautifully decorated with drawings and colourings by the local children, who normally attend until the age of six.
Children like Akshara, a little six-year-old girl we met. Having joined in with the songs and poetry, led by the fantastic women who staff the centre, Akshara tucked into her porridge and chickpeas.
As we left the slums, leaving behind us the open sewers and the filth that runs alongside where those poor young children play, I couldn’t help but think of my own children and the contrast.
But amidst all that awfulness, I also thought: what on earth would things be like for the people we’d just met without the unbelievable work that Save the Children do. Makes you think.