Poverty in India

Before travelling to India, I expected to be confronted by extreme poverty and wondered whether I would be able to ‘hack it’ or if I’d feel a sense of helplessness. In the first week of placement we visited an urban slum in Bhubaneshwar. This was a fairly new slum community that had developed over the last 10 years. Like most slums, it was established on government owned land along a railway line.

The people living here migrated from rural areas to this urban region to join their families, earn a livelihood and access education for their children. This slum was home to 1,400 households of approximately 10,000 people and was an organised community of families, schools and businesses including a kiosk, tailor, sari shop and a magician! The caste system still operates within the slum and our guide (a community member living within the slum) walked us down a ‘street’ within the slum where the ‘untouchables’ or Dalits live. She also pointed out the house on the edge of the slum owned by a person identifying as transgender. The way she spoke suggested that this person was most likely ostracised by the community.

Despite the slums being viewed as ‘problem areas’, field workers we spoke to acknowledged that the people living in the slums provide essential domestic services and support for the urban population outside of the slum such as the auto (rickshaw) drivers and labourers including carpenters, electricians and plumbers.

Villages in India that have become absorbed by city expansion may also come to be viewed as slum areas.  This slum was described as ‘politically powerful’ and we learnt how the community has lobbied government ministers for access to water and electricity. The government has also built an overnight homeless shelter in the slum and ministers will campaign strongly in the slum areas and make promises that will secure a large number of voters.

This experience really challenged my ideas of poverty as I came to understand that people living within the slums are not necessarily poor, they are just investing in different assets. And whilst they may be experiencing different types of hardship, the Urban Micro Business Centre (UMBC) across the road is an NGO aiming to empower the slum community via skills and enterprise training that leads to business ownership – a pretty innovative project!

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In the second week of placement, we went to the local mela (fair) after dinner. As we stood around eating our ice creams a little boy, aged maybe 4 or 5, approached us and started to beg. This was different to other times I’d seen child beggars in India. This little boy looked hungry. And he was dirty. His little lips were cracked and dry and he was only wearing a pair of dirty shorts. He walked around the circle we stood in tapping each one of us and signally to his mouth for food. The Indian lecturer we were with became frustrated and yelled at him to leave. The little boy kept moving from one person to the next until a young adult male walking past hit him on the back and seemed to tell him to leave us alone. So the little boy left. And although I knew all the reasons not to give to child beggars there were so many things running through my head. Where were his parents? When did he last eat? Why was out so late by himself? Did anyone care about this little boy?

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My social work placement in India is being completed with the support of a grant from the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation

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