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The anatomy of the poor

2016-12-26         Shukla Bose


I have been working closely with people in the slums for around 18 years. The people I work with from around 72 slums in Bangalore are the parents of the children that come to the schools run by Parikrma Humanity Foundation. While this is my most recent and longest experience, I have had some exposure to slums in Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Nepal, Bangladesh, New York and Mexico City. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the slums, I do have data that has been time tested about how desperately poor people in the slums look at themselves in the role of parents.

When you talk of slums it conjures up images of squalid hutments, over flowing drains and cows and children feeding together on garbage. These are the images that we are familiar with. Books like Shantaram and movies like City of Joy, Salam Bombay and the recent Slumdog Millionaire have done their bit to reinforce those visuals. And, these visuals are very real albeit a little difficult to digest.

Bangalore, known for its salubrious climate, has emerged as the Silicon Valley of India in the past two decades. It is the home for many multinational IT companies and people from all over the world come here for employment and career growth. This has resulted in ever growing real estate development and the steady migration of unskilled labour from rural India. These nameless people have made the streets of Bangalore their home with the hope of bettering their lives in the near future. According to an official report, at least 1.4 million people sleep in slums every night in Bangalore. But most of us think that the number is way higher. According to the Karnataka Slum Development Board, the city has at least 600 slums. However, the Association for Promoting Social Action (APSA) has said that the city has over 1,500 non-notified slums which are not counted by the government and that at least 25% to 35% of the population resides in slums all over Bangalore.

Without getting caught in the quagmire of numbers, I would like to state that considering Bangalore claims to be a modern new age city, it is surprising that such filth and squalor co exist with luxurious gated communities. But then, it has always been true that there is a symbiotic relationship between the rich and the poor, for where there is the rich you will also need the poor to serve them. The spirit of the city depends on how invisible is the poor made out to be.

Slum infrastructure is also not what I had set out to write about today. I want to talk about the mind of the slums. We started our NGO nearly 14 years ago with two things in mind. We want to provide equality and opportunity to the children living in slums through the vehicle of quality education. Towards that end we have 4 schools and a college that provide totally free but high quality education to 1700 children from several slums and orphanages. Most of my highly dedicated and committed team is familiar with my oft-repeated phrase  “Parikrma’s mission is not just to take the child away from the slums but to take the slum away from the child”. If we ponder on this for a while, we will realize the enormity of this task. We are no longer talking about an education that will equip a child with the knowledge and skills to acquire a good job however cherished it may be. We are now talking of a sea change of mindset, thinking and approach to living.

“Nothing has a stronger influence on their children than the universal lives of their parents,” said Carl Jung (1875-1961)

If we were to go by these words alone, however true it may be, we would not have got started. Changing mindset that has evolved out of generations of the collective unconscious what Jung calls “the universal lives” is a daunting task. And, the overwhelming numbers on top of it makes it no easier. However, we know that Passion, Perseverance and Patience can create miracles. And, we are seeing small miracles slowly emerge.

What does “taking the slum away from the child” mean? 92% of our students have someone close in their family having gone to jail. 98% of our fathers are alcoholics. 75% of our fathers have multiple marriages and 80% of our mothers are victims of domestic abuse. And statistics that are not openly talked about are even more distressing like that of rape, sexual abuse, child labour and contiguous marriages. This is the universe that impacts the child’s experience and exposure. This universe shapes the child’s expectations from life which defines his or her aspirations.  It abridges life plans to short-term goals and reduces the glitter of the future ahead.

In schools for slum children, attendance, continuation of studies, homework, following instructions, preparation for exams, gender stereotypes are very challenging issues. In Parikrma we have managed to bring attendance, drop out rate under control but continue to be challenged with discipline issues, peer pressure, foul language, and resolving conflicts with aggression. I tell our teachers that it is important to take our life perspectives away from this equation and begin to really see what is in our children’s lives and minds. They will most naturally respond to situations with what they are familiar with. It will take them several years to respond the way they have been taught in school. But it will happen one day and that is when the true potential of the child will get unlocked.

Most NGOs are challenged with the reality of being either taken for a ride or being taken for granted by their beneficiaries. And it is this fear that often inhibits them from giving their hundred percent. The question I ask here is, is giving the minimum enough? If we are to be true to our philosophy of helping our students live life on equal terms then should we not give them equal opportunities?  Then how is the basic, enough? Is sustainability of the program more important than living out the true philosophy of the mission? I pose these questions because many a times NGOs have to dovetail their program to meet the guidelines set by donors who don’t really know the mind of the slums.

I have often been told by well meaning donors who are successful self-made people, that our students must rough it out so that they can cope with challenges ahead. When I rue that we cant give a bus to our college students who have to travel 18 km one way to college by public transport, I am often told that the interested students should not have a problem. Here the question I ask is, would we not consider the distance to school and college an important parameter for choice as is quality and expense? How many know that most of our students have had to stay up the night resolving a father’s drunken brawl, or an elder brother’s anti social activities? Would not that also influence a student’s mind to just give up the grind of getting up at 5.30am, change three public buses and be in college on time? When a student sees constant fights in the household for money to buy rations, how many can grit one’s teeth and do their homework rather than quitting everything and start earning themselves? How many girls can resist the temptation to run away with a rowdy who is attentive and flattering and apparently promises a better life financially?

It is also these experiences that are not extraordinary but the usual, that shape the mind of the children from slums. They feel no shame to use foul language because for them it is just common parlance. They feel no despair in failing the exams because they are anyway the only ones that have even gone to school. The only entertainment they have exposure to at home, is the sitcoms where the hero teases the girl in the beginning of the song and the heroine falls in love with the him by the time the song ends. How can well-wishers like us, encourage our students not to get sucked into the usual but become the unusual? How can we teach our students not to just escape away from the slums but find something to escape into?

So, next time anyone says that they too have come from poor homes and yet have made something of themselves, we should ask them very directly if they have come from the slums. It is very important for us to acknowledge that there is a difference between living in a poor home and living in the slums. Living in slums is spun with a sense of oppressive despair, greater fragility because loved ones die quickly because of negligence. Girls in the slums are the most vulnerable because of lack of attached toilets, which expose them to licentious scrutiny of unruly youth. Here the act of suicide is a powerful weapon used against failed love, as a piece of blackmail, as revenge for years of torture and domestic violence .We encounter at least 2 to 3 suicides every year in the communities we work with.  Financial deprivation and poverty exaggerates the issues but it is again years of living and experiencing that shapes the mindset.

In Parikrma, we have tried to reverse the tide and trend by complimenting the harsh reality with love and nurturing, to create a slow shift of allegiance. We have tried to bust the myths about slums that exist in the outer world and the myths about the world that exists in the slums. It is undoubtedly a long journey but it is a journey that has to be taken. And, we hope that in the process we can create a generation of new world citizens who may live in the slums but don’t think like the slums.


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