As a foreigner, the urban poverty of India is noticeable on many of Delhi’s vibrant main streets, and even more on the quieter side streets where street vendors sell food, drink and all manner of other products, and live among slum dwellers and homeless people.
I drive out of central Delhi with members of the ActionAid India team. The urban hustle bustle starts to give way to suburban scenes, and then eventually country roads. The sound and smell of the city (cars, hot tarmac and drains) also fades, and soon we arrive at a sprawling slum town on the outskirts of Delhi called Bawana.
The residents of Bawana mostly used to live in central Delhi with ‘informal sector’ jobs such as domestic workers (cleaners, etc), street vendors and similar jobs, while others lived in central slums or were homeless. Together they comprised part of Delhi’s urban poor.
The reason they find themselves a 3 hour drive out of central Delhi is because they were ‘cleared out’ of the town as part of efforts to clean up the city before the Commonwealth Games of 2008. I’m keenly aware of the impact of international sporting events coming to town, as the Olympic Games wrap up in East London where I live. However, the residents of Bawana were not inconvenienced by heavy traffic as concerned many Londoners, they were forcibly removed from the streets where they worked and lived their daily lives.
Being 3 hours away from the bulk of Delhi’s population means many residents are unable to do the jobs they were doing. There are more than 100,000 people in this settlement most in similar circumstances.
Many navigate the 13 blocks of about 20 streets, barefoot, trying to avoid the slicks of dirty water, and the open sewage that stagnates at the side of most streets. The streets made mostly from packed down mud are far less hygienic since the first rains of the monsoon season arrived a few days before our visit.
I watch as one toddler crawls over a channel of open sewage, desperately hoping he doesn’t wobble or lose his balance, but also aware that this same scene probably happens every day in these streets.
A representative from the local ActionAid India team, Shashi, guides us to a second floor room where a group of residents have gathered to talk to us.
I’m introduced to this group of community organisers in Hindi, and they introduce themselves one by one, giving both their names and the block they live on. It’s the first of many indications of how strongly they feel connected to this piece of land that they now have, some having lived here since 2007.
The community groups they organise represent women, youth and children, and the organisers are women, teenagers and children themselves. Working in these groups and with support from ActionAid, they have managed to overcome the bureaucracy that was preventing them using the schools, and accessing education resources.
Lakshmi, one of the youth community organisers, explains that she had to take a 2 year break from school simply because it wasn’t safe to leave the slum.
Girls would just disappear as they tried to go to school.
It’s assumed they were kidnapped and trafficked, to be repeatedly sold as part of an underground slave trade.
Representing our local partner organisation, a small group focused on working with the Bawana community, is Tariq, a studious looking young man in his mid-twenties. He explains how we worked with the community members so they could acquire official identity papers.
Once people have identity papers, they are able to claim access to state services. The ActionAid project is been training them in what rights and entitlements they have, and how they can claim them. One result is there are now five schools in Bawana, with a sixth opening soon, and young people like Lakshmi are able to study again.
There are still big gaps in services though, with no formal medical provision, and only 6 police who are based 8km away, so are of little support to the more than 100,000 residents.
Before we leave the group meeting, they ask me if I’m part of similar groups where I come from, or know of similar groups in other places. I tell them about the Activista youth groups, and also the community organising that happens in the UK from transition towns to the Occupy movement.
I struggle to think of other groups as inspiring as these community groups though. Made up of young and old, Hindus, Christians and Muslims, male and female, working together so closely for the benefit of the wider community and in the face of such extraordinary challenges.