People tried to warn me that the poverty that I would see in India would be unimagineable and they were right. I grew up in extreme poverty and even spent several months on the streets of California as a nine-year-old with my mother and younger brother. I have lived through some very difficult things so I felt more than prepared to handle the slums of India. Well I was wrong, because nothing could prepare me for the things that I saw. To give you some context, about 54 percent of the population of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) lives in slums. The total population of Mumbai is about 12 million people. That means that the majority of people in this bustling and cosmopolitan city live in unimaginable poverty.
The hills were high but upon further inspection they were hills of garbage that children climbed upon or searched for items that they could sell for extra money for their family. I was being shown the area by an organization, "Prathem," that provides programing and school programs for these children and is doing an amazing job, but the need is great. My guide Prem Yadav is an Eisenhower Fellow from 2010 and grew up in a nearby slum. He is educated and has made it out but gives back by providing opportunities to others. I entered into a make shift school that was really a converted storage space that houses children of various ages who are singing songs and learning to socially interact with other children. These are children who have not previously attended school because they were working or because of the objection of their parents who do not see the value of education especially for some of the female students. Mostly they are the children of illiterate villagers who have moved to the city for work opportunities but do not make enough money to provide for the high cost of life in a major city. This class is a way to help these children transition to a basic level so that they can begin attending school. The teacher was serious about learning and the children were very neat and attentive and had lovely open smiles that only children seem truly capable of. They were interested in hearing that I was an attorney from the United States and many of them said they hoped to be able to attend college in the U.S. one day. The dream of attending university in the United States is very common in India and almost all of the middle class Indians I met had children in school in the U.S. or they were living and working at good jobs in the U.S.
After the class we went deeper into the slum to visit the pre-school program that was held in the one-room home of one of the teachers. I saw children playing barefoot on the rusted frame of a ferris wheel car that someone had gotten out of the dump. It was hot and humid and the stench was overwhelming. I was not sure whether the smell was coming from the hills of garbage or the open pits of human waste that were on either side of the partially paved roads that we had to walk through. There were giant flying bugs and dark one room shells that were people's homes that sometimes had one light and no indoor plumbing. There were pay toilets but they were shared by the 500,000 people that lived within that slum. In the slums of Delhi there was 800 people for each tiolet and that apparently is a luxury because of the work of the Aga Khan Foundation.
The thing that struck me was that when you looked in the homes they were clean and neat. People obviously took pride in their personal space, the children going to school were neat and clean, and they walked with their heads held high and with purpose. Most of the people in these slums have jobs and work hard, sometimes 12 hours a day or more and seven days a week. The problem is that they do not make a living wage. A domestic that works in a home may only make 2,500 rupees a month which is about 50 U.S. dollars. My driver in Delhi made only 3,500 rupees a month or the equivalent of $70. Yes, the cost of living is less but not that different. A meal at one of the fabulous restaurants in Mumbai can cost what an Indian makes in a month. There is a huge gulf between the haves and have nots.
I was overwhelmed by the circumstances that these children were living in but have great hopes for their future as I realized how smart and focused they were. I was impressed that even in the poorest slums that people understood that education was the way for them to better their circumstances and be able to achieve their full potential. A way for them to care for themselves and their families. The slums are full of talented and hardworking people who want an opportunity to be educated -- the question is, can India help them to fulfill those dreams?