Friday, 29 August 2008

Life in the Slums

There are two types of slum in Bangalore city; those that are temporary and those that are not. The distinction is instantly recognisable by the materials used to make these tent-like abodes. The city’s short term economic migrants use plastic advertisements and carrier bags to shelter from the elements whereas the generations old shanty towns are made from leaf thatch roof, mud bricks and occasionally corrugated iron.

Much of Ruthlina’s time is spent undertaking social work, as she provides non-formal education and counselling for Bangalore’s poor and has established women’s saving groups in four of the city’s largest slums. We accompanied her on several of her visits to Bande slum to help her collect profiles on vulnerable children who are candidates for places at Brinn’s Nest. Bande slum exists because of its near proximity to a granite quarry. Nearly all the occupants of the slum, including women and children, are employed in backbreaking and dangerous quarry work. Accidents are frequent and there is little opportunity to break free from the cycle of poverty. Tuberculosis, worms and water-borne diseases are highly prevalent here. Only last month eight children died of something as common as chickenpox because they didn’t have adequate access to basic healthcare.

Despite their desperation, everyone we met welcomed us joyously into their homes. All were eager to share their stories as well as the little food they have. One woman, a widow, who thorough Ruthlina’s saving group had managed to acquire a few goats, made us sweet chai, using milk straight from a buffalo. Even success stories like hers were tainted with sadness. One of her goats was stolen by a much richer woman from the neighbouring village, and despite her appeals to the police, nothing has been done.

Castism plays a major role in much of the poverty we witnessed. The system means that it is incredibly difficult to better your situation, as well-paid jobs, education and even necessities like clean water and healthcare are denied to the low castes. The dalits or untouchables have little hope of improving their lives and are often forced to sell themselves and their children into bonded labour. They are seen as polluted, and are not allowed to even enter high caste villages, let alone use the same streams or wells. We too were accused of polluting high caste houses, just by walking through the village on our return from the slums. It is hard to imagine how the poverty like this will ever disappear whilst there is such mentality. This is not just social stigmatism; the system is both politically and religiously sanctified.

It would be unfair to say that the only problems that dalits face come from members of other castes. In India widows are regarded as social outcastes and are often particularly vulnerable. Most are sexually harassed by men with their own community (who are often themselves married) and problems with abandoned children and botched abortions are rife. One of the most disturbing points of our visit was when we met a young widow who was being continually raped by several men in her community. One of the men was there as she told us of her traumatic experience. He even had the nerve to philosophise that it ‘wasn’t natural’ for a woman to be alone and could ‘see it in her eyes’ that she wanted his company. I couldn’t look at him I was so furious.

Many of our visits have been more light-hearted. We taught ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ to the kids at the slum near Christina’s house, as their parents looked on horrified (as the photographs later showed). One of the boys from Bande slum delightedly entertained us with his pet parrot, some escapades on buffalo-back and by climbing a tree at the speed of light. Visiting the slums, sitting in peoples houses and listening to their problems is the first move towards breaking down castism. I just wish that it weren’t down to renegades like Ackhar to make these baby steps and that religious and political leaders supported rather than opposed her.

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