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!


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?


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

Understanding community development work

In the first half of my placement, I wrote about the struggle to incorporate case work experience into social work practice in India. Now that I understand more about the nature of community development work, I can look at social work practice in terms of working with the community, at the pace of the community.

I’ve also recognised that whilst I practice from the dominant Western ideology of individualism, the NGOs I am placed with work from a collective, interdependent community development perspective. This collective view doesn’t see individuals as separate, but as part of a larger group such as an extended family, village or tribe. This larger group has shared values, experiences and needs. Shifting my focus from individual needs to community needs, has been a really critical point in my learning and it’s literally taken me the last 9 weeks to get my head around this concept!

The last NGO we were placed with works with tribal communities in India to increase their awareness of legislation and government schemes, and to empower communities to access land rights. It’s been really inspiring to see this bottom-up approach to community development work, and I have learnt so much from my task supervisor. He is an incredibly hard-working, humble man.

When I was having one of my lowest moments on placement he said ‘don’t stop your tears…we’re all human’. And he just let me sit there and have a good cry. Actually it was an ‘ugly cry’, but after many mixed interactions with Indian men here, I really cherished this moment where he validated my feelings. It also highlighted what social work is all about for me – the human connection. So much of Australian (and probably Western) social work is administrative and that it’s easy to lose focus on the human side of it all.

Over the last month, I’ve been working on a photo essay to share some of the work of this NGO and the tribal communities we’ve been visiting. But after a conversation I had this week, I’ve been rethinking this. A project officer visiting from an overseas NGO told us that we need to be careful about the information we share online when working with tribal communities in India. She told us that her NGO was named in an Indian Government Intelligence report, and as a Christian organisation, the perception is that they are engaging in missionary work or religious conversion.

Although this is not the case, our task supervisor who told us that many people within the government perceive that NGOs working with tribal communities are involved in the ‘destruction of livelihoods’. I could appreciate this concern more if the Indian government was considering the broader context of colonialism, however it’s pretty ironic when you consider the level of corruption within the government and their failure to implement legislation.

Or the way they grant mining leases to their family members in blatant disregard for the people living on the land. But that’s probably all I’ll say about that here because I don’t want to be named in an Indian Government Intelligence report!?

Despite differences in the historical, legal, sociopolitical and cultural contexts between Australia and India, there are significant parallels between the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities of Australia and tribal communities of India, to exercise their human right to self-determination and access land entitlements.

Spending the last month researching and learning the policy frameworks for land rights in India has really highlighted the huge gap in my knowledge when it comes to Indigenous land rights and issues in Australia, and this is an area I want to learn more about.


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

Kolkata to Bhubaneswar

(September 20-21)

On our last full day in Kolkata we returned to Mother Teresa’s house to see the museum and her tomb which were closed on our Friday visit. Petals shaped into words on Mother Teresa’s tomb read – ‘YOU DID IT TO ME’. This seemed a little sinister but one of the nuns explained that it was a bible reference. Any of the work that Mother Teresa did such as feeding the poor and looking after those with leprosy was done in the belief that she was doing it for Jesus. There’s been a lot of controversy around Mother Teresa and a statement in the museum denied allegations that Mother Teresa would only help Christians or converted the people she helped to Christianity.

Mid-morning we visited a colonial cemetery which claimed to have an ‘Architectural Fusion’ of tombs. We’re learning that ‘fusion’ is a popular word in India used to describe everything – food, clothing, architecture. It’s been interesting that despite the number of temples and sites in Kolkata, our guesthouse and driver continued to assume we would be more interested in visiting colonial sites.

We then hit the local shopping complex which was a stark contrast to the streets of Kolkata. We had some amazing food chosen by Jeyaletchmi (letchmi), watched a hindi movie, ‘Kati Bati’, and went clothes shopping at ‘FabIndia’ where we bought some clothes for placement. I picked up some Kurtis (long tunics), churidars (leggings) and a dupatta (scarf/wrap). When I told the shop assistant that I had plenty of pairs of black leggings to wear with my Kurtis he said ‘Madam, you need to be more colourful’. Clearly he’s seen my last 7 years of travel photos! Georgie and I found it hilarious that one of the fabrics was called ‘chicken curry’, only to read the tag later and find out later that he was actually saying ‘chickankari’ – a type of intricate embroidery?! Chikan comes from the Persian word chakeen which means to create delicate patterns on fabric.

Prior to checking out on our last day, we had a quick walk around the streets of Kolkata in search of an ATM and a few interactions with the locals. So far when people try to guess where we’re from they usually ask ‘England? America?’ and then when we tell them they say ‘Ah, Australia. Ricky Ponting’. And we normally respond ‘Yes. Australia. Ricky Ponting’. And that’s as far as the conversation goes because none of us have a clue about cricket!

After saying goodbye to the friendliest, smiliest staff, Suresh and Pablo, we jumped on the train to Bhubaneswar to start our placement. The journey was pretty smooth but I possibly should have experimented with a squat toilet before trying it out for the first time on a moving train!


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

Aim for the Stars Foundation


Photo and image credit

In 2015, I’m returning to blogging to share my journey as a grant recipient of the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation.  I applied for this grant late last year and in January 2015 I received a call from LAYNE BEACHLEY herself to let me know that I was successful. Despite that fact that my phone battery died mid-conversation and I had to wait an agonising 15 minutes for it to recharge and call her back, it was super exciting to have a personal phone call with Layne.

The foundation was established by Layne in 2003 to empower women and girls to achieve their goals though financial support and mentoring. The 2015 scholarship recipients are girls and women from across Australia who are involved in a range of sporting, academic, community and cultural pursuits.This grant will support me as I enter the final year of my Master of Social work (Qualifying) and prepare to complete my student placement in Odisha, India. Initially after applying for this grant and then finding out that the foundation had received over 1000 applications, I ruled out my chances of receiving a grant and accepted the fact that I would not be able to complete my final Social work placement overseas. As Layne has said,

“it’s amazing what you can create if you don’t place limitations on yourself”.

I feel really blessed for this opportunity and excited for what 2015 will bring!