Games don't even feature as life eked out in slums

By Andrew Alderson

Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

It hits your nostrils first - the pungent smell of rotting fruit, mashed dog faeces and mounting rubbish by the roadside.

Welcome to the slums of Delhi, not 15 minutes drive from the posh, carefully-manicured diplomatic quarter and light years from anything connected to the Commonwealth Games.

A short stroll in heightens senses further. Half-naked, emaciated bodies emerge from narrow alleyways, pigs wallow in a pond amid an assortment of polystyrene and plastic; and Hindi music echoes hauntingly in the background.

It is an appalling insight into what many Games journalists, officials and athletes won't see when they travel in their sterile bubble from village to venue.

The pithy Games federation motto of 'Humanity, Equality, Destiny' is barely evident here. There is a level of compassion among the people but it comes from those in the lower castes of Indian society, who have few if any resources.

Their futures will change little, no matter how many gold medals India wins or how many venues might one day be used for future world championships. This is about survival.

It is a humbling, almost embarrassing experience wandering through. As a journalist brought here courtesy of the New Zealand High Commission, you are constantly questioning whether these dreadful circumstances are contrived. Is it part of a Bollywood set? Are we in our own version of The Truman Show where someone will shortly bark "cut"?

It is overwhelming to see children come forth with welcoming smiles full of big, gleaming teeth. They love having their pictures taken and ask for your name. One little chap even shows off on a bike, fresh with fluorescent spokey-dokeys.

A sinister side to this poverty is the toll it takes on human will. The New Zealand High Commission supports an organisation called Asha - a community health and development agency that helps enact change.

It was set up by local paediatrician Dr Kiran Martin after a cholera outbreak in the slums in 1988. She set up the organisation to empower women, who deal with the situation daily, rather than men.

Many of the men work outside the bounds of the slum. They leave early and return late from jobs elsewhere in the city.

Speaking via a Hindi translator, Meena, the president of the women's association, says Dr Martin's efforts have worked.

"I've lived 30 years in this slum but it has improved since Dr Martin came. She helped us avoid cholera by addressing issues like cleanliness and sanitation. We've now extended our efforts to issues like education.

"We can now operate our own bank accounts because many of us run businesses like grocery shops or general stores.

"We used to live in mud houses but now we have a system of lanes. There's not a water supply in every house but we have communal taps along each lane and two proper toilets."

The slum didn't have a regular electricity supply until three years ago. It cuts out a couple of times during the visit but it beats relying on candlelight or hooking up randomly - and somewhat dangerously - to the mains supply as happened in the past.

The original premise for Dr Martin's work was health. Her clinic is now an established part of the wider slum community and is well equipped, thanks to donations by the likes of the high commission.

It caters daily for 50 to 60 patients who come in for anything from an X-ray to getting tests for enlarged thyroid glands, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases and - the most popular one - pregnancy.

Slum dwellers regularly come through with cases of dengue fever post-monsoon season and diarrhoea during summer when food quickly turns rancid.

There is a nominal 10 rupee charge for a card. After that, most visits cost around 50-60 rupees (less than $2).

They cost around 100 rupees elsewhere. Plus, if people go to a government hospital, they have a relatively crowded wait and sacrifice a day's income to do so.

Another platform the slum women focus on is education. There are now 22 university students from this community who have ambitions to be anything from engineers to journalists to professors.

There is still reluctance for families to let children study because it is feared they will go off and work in the mainstream communities. Asha helps subsidise their educations. The students also get loans from the Government which they start paying back after being in a job six months. One engineering student claimed he had borrowed 350,000 rupees ($10,000), which is about seven times the average annual wage.

Systems will be slow to change - it will take generations - but perhaps with these students progressing and coming back to the slums, Dr Martin's work might be more valuable long-term than any Commonwealth Games.

- Herald on Sunday

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