Saturday, 23 February 2013

Shiv Nagar - Caroline

I think it is fair to say that we all started today with trepidation, as today is the day we visit the slums of Bhopal. And all the reassurance in the world did little to alleviate the sights we could see in our own imaginations. The concerns were a mixture of how we would contain our emotions but keep the respect for the families we were visiting at all times, but at no point could the fact that we were rich, white, British people have been in starker contrast to the families which we were about to go and meet.

But what I have to say is that whole heartedly the whole group embraced the opportunity that we had been given and understood that the work of WaterAid is so vital in these areas that our visit would have been poorer for not making the time to go there, no matter how hard it was.

Shiv Nagar is an unauthorised slum so it has not been sanctioned by the local government and therefore faces demolition at any point. However it has been in existence for 40 years so it is well established, and huge - I mean 15,000 people live here - that isn't even on the same scale of the other settlements we have visited this week - it stretches as far as the eye can see as we drive across the scrub land towards it. What also draws our attention are the drainage ditches that criss cross the scrub land that carry the waste from the slum - these are massive open sewers that reek with the scepticity of their contents.

Walking into the slums I am once again hit by the gracious, honest faces that meet me - these are people who are simply trying to do their best for themselves and their families with their meagre resources and immediately my fear disintegrates.

We meet Rajkurami and Bhagwan who have raised three sons here in the slums and they tell us about their day to day life. It is hard - there is no other way to describe it. Rajkurami works as a maid at various houses which could be up to 10km away - she cleans three house twice a day and she will earn approximately 1500 rupees per month for her trouble. That's about £18. To put it into context she will have to spend 1200 rupees a month on firewood alone before thinking about food. This means she can't afford medicine when her or her children get sick, and the medical care they can get is very elitist - they wonder whether they aren't actually given the right medicine anyway.

The whole group are very mistrustful of the authorities - for which I cannot blame them as they come every 4 months or so and clear all of their possessions out of the houses and leave them with nothing. This is just to reassert the fact that the slum is unauthorised.

In terms of water supply, there is some but the tap only works for one hour per day and the pressure isn't high enough often to be able to fill their containers. We later met a lady who had half a container of water - she needs six for her family but the tap has been turned off for the day - she will now have to walk 2 km to the nearest settlement to get water. This happens on about 50% of days.

The most shocking thing though that I saw in the slums was the water pipe running directly through the open sewer - it runs in the same ditch. The pipe leaks so the raw sewage is getting into the water. The families however have no alternative source and have to drink it. The reality of this is really brought home when I meet Kurylinjl and his beautiful granddaughter Pari - his son, her Dad died of a water bourne illness last year. She is fatherless because of the conditions that they live in. That breaks my heart as it is preventable.

The people of the slums are honest, dignified and simply thoroughly downtrodden by the society in which they live - they see no route out of this level of poverty and shocking things to you or I are simply everyday life to them. People shouldn't live like this - it is that simple, or at least it is in my head.

I am however thrown a curved ball when we return back to the group. Whilst we had been meeting our families (and in our case learning to make roti!) the Corporater (local councillor) had learned of our visit and had arrived herself but not only that had brought diggers and wagons to clean out the drainage ditches. We wonder how long they will stay after we have gone and whether they really are committed to the change that they say. The thing about WaterAid though is that they will use their skills to leverage local councillors to make change - at present the situation looks bleak but they are only at the very beginning of this process - to a group of frustrated and angry WaterAid supporters they make the point that they cannot do anything without the Corporater's permission - they have to educate the people to organise themselves and understand the importance of water and sanitation and also work from the top down to change the rhetoric within local government. It leaves me feeling angry that people in positions of power are not taking responsibility but I understand that it is an iterative process that will take time - WaterAid though is so vital in ensuring this process happens and stays on track.

Caroline x

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