Monday, January 22, 2007

An Encounter with Extreme Poverty

On December 5th afternoon a severe fire broke out in the slum colony of Bawana (a village on the outskirts of Delhi ) razing over 350 jhuggies and completely devastating the lives of more than 2500 odd inhabitants including several hundred small children and women. The tragedy had severely hit these families who lost everything, leaving them merely with 10X10 sq. feet of land to rebuild their plastic made jhuggies, or rather, rebuild their lives yet again. Fortunately no causality was caused due to the fire but what could be more tragic than an unending series of extreme mental and emotional turbulences for these poor resettled slum dwellers from Yamuna Pushta, who have lived unsettled lives for several decades.

That same week I got the opportunity to make a visit to the fire-affected colony to assess the situation there and assist in the relief work. Though I had seen and heard a lot about the slums and like most of urban youth I was also pretty confident of my media based knowledge of slums but this was my first ever ACTUAL visit to any such place. The real picture was entirely different and far more disturbing than what I had heard or seen on television. The visit gave me one of the biggest jolts of my life and exposed to me the other face of Delhi , which is seldom discussed in the midst of much trumpeted 8% GDP growth rate of this country. This face is rather well concealed while adeptly showcasing the cosmetically or rather inhumanly developed ultra modern face of Delhi .

We started the relief work early in the morning. We walked down the intricate four feet wide lane, which gradually widened into a few hundred square meters of land housing 500 odd jhuggies inhabiting more than four thousand people. I was totally appalled by the gigantic cluster of human beings in such an extremely small space, perhaps one of the densest human inhabitation existing on earth. This whole place was indeed smaller than the courtyards of many rich and famous of this metropolis. The size of each jhuggi was even smaller than the size of a standard double bed with eight people struggling to somehow accommodate themselves and spend their whole life in it. This scene reminded me of my recent visit to a concentration camp in Poland called Maidanek where during World War II several hundred prisoners were stuffed together in small wooden huts without even basic sanitation facility. In those camps many used to die of severe suffocation, extreme stench and various microorganism diseases. At Maidanek I had to make some effort to visualize that sixty year old tragedy but certainly not here at Bawana.

After reaching that place I spoke to some of the local residents there and could easily sense the feeling of somberness and helplessness prevailing there. Though most of the male members were out to work for daily bread, the women came up and spoke of their sordid tale and the extreme poverty they are living with. It was quite sad to know that with an average family income of Rs. 2000, more than a quarter goes in commuting for work as these people are thrown to the outskirts of Delhi approximately 50 km from the City Centrum. It was poignant to look into the eyes of several old women, widows, handicapped and small children standing in a queue waiting eagerly for their turn to collect their Rs. 300 ( U.S. $ 7) worth of relief packet that meant so much for their whole family.

After spending a whole day there and making a small contribution in the relief work, I got into the car to begin my return trip. I was so much dismayed to see the living condition in those jhuggies that it was very difficult to come out of that feeling so soon. The car seemed much bigger than those dingy jhuggies each housing 8 people for their whole life. Driving down the 15 km long stretch of the smooth road connecting to the main city and surrounded by beautiful lush greenery on both sides evoked the philosophical person hidden in me.

On the way back home several questions came across my mind viz. What was the mistake of those small children who were born in that ill-fated E- Block of Bawana? Whose fault is it if any? Parents, Government or was it in their Destiny? Will they be able to extricate themselves from this vicious circle of extreme poverty and hence out of that E- Block of Bawana, ever in their lives? What is the certainty that these hapless slum dwellers won't be displaced yet again if in case Delhi hosts another mega sporting event? What I had seen was may be just the tip of the iceberg? Is there more to see? Is the uncontrolled and ever-growing population of this country the root cause for all problems? Is it due to the systematic failure of the Government policies? Is it the newly imposed capitalism responsible for it? But what will happen to the progress of the nation under extreme socialism? Can there be a trade off between the two? If yes then how? And many moreā€¦.Finding myself too small to think of any answer to these difficult questions, I rather chose to sleep quietly and comfortably in my warm and spacious car.

By the time I woke up we had reached Connaught Place . I was wondering why this place, which is so famous for its bustling life, glittering neon lights and sky rocketing buildings, was suddenly lacking in its sheen. Perhaps now my illusion WAS, shattered as I had incidentally just seen a contrasting face of Delhi with my naked eyes, which had never been this real to me till now.

Written by Harsh Agarwal



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