Bay of Plenty Times journalist Juliet Rowan visits a slum in Delhi during an Asia New Zealand Foundation media trip to India.

Ten thousand people live in the Kusumpur Pahari slum in Delhi.

The group we meet say there is no such thing as privacy or secrets.

We are taken to Kusumpur Pahari with representatives of the Asha Society, a charity working to empower people through education and financial literacy in 70 slum colonies in the Indian capital.

Kusumpur Pahari also has a New Zealand connection - the High Commission in Delhi offers internships to talented youngsters from the slum identified by Asha.

The colony is within a stone's throw of the city's lavish diplomatic quarter and at the High Commission, we meet Jeetu Chawla, a 22-year-old from Kusumpur Pahari who now works for the New Zealand Government.

Kusumpur Pahari is squalid by New Zealand standards, animals grazing in waste and murky water flowing in open drains lining narrow streets.

But Asha representative Ishita Rumpal says in the past, there were no drains and the slum children frequently got sick from playing in pools of filthy, stagnant water.

Conditions in the 40-year-old slum have greatly improved in the last decade, she says, thanks in part to an association formed by women from the colony in 2003.

New Zealand journalists meet women, students and children at the Kusumpur Pahari slum in Delhi. Photo/Chris Change
New Zealand journalists meet women, students and children at the Kusumpur Pahari slum in Delhi. Photo/Chris Change

There is still no running water in Kusumpur Pahari but thanks to campaigning by the association, a tanker now delivers a supply to the slum every few days.

We meet several of the women at Kusumpur Pahari's community centre and hear inspiring stories of slum dwellers defying the odds and gaining university educations with Asha's help.

There is a group of young people pursuing degrees in commerce and arts, and we hear stories of others who have begun careers in banking and diplomacy.

When I ask a group of girls aged 7 to 13 what they want to do when they grow up, they are resolute in their answers: "A teacher", "a doctor", "an engineer", "a policewoman". There is no ambivalence in their replies and I feel moved to tears.

The girls' ambitions are all the more remarkable when seeing firsthand the difficult conditions in which the slum kids live. Everywhere in India - and Kusumpur Pahari is no exception - people are crammed into spaces that seem barely habitable to the Kiwi eye. It seems a stretch to call the ramshackle one- and two-room shanties "houses", but for these people, they are all the home they know.

The students tell us noise is a constant factor and the community centre is the only semi-quiet place they can study, while the women say the toughest thing about slum life is the
constant work involved in collecting and storing water. "They spend most of their time just filling water containers," says Ishita, who is translating for the group.

Water containers sit outside dwellings in the Kusumpur Pahari slum. Women who live there say water collection and storage is the biggest battle they face each day. Photo/supplied
Water containers sit outside dwellings in the Kusumpur Pahari slum. Women who live there say water collection and storage is the biggest battle they face each day. Photo/supplied

But even without the freedom of running water to bathe and cook with, the women's association is heartened by its successes so far. With help from Asha, the women have learned how to lobby authorities and navigate their way around government departments.

Their success in getting the water tanker was the result of a campaign of sustained letter writing and seeking audiences with officials, and the women say they will continue lobbying the Government for a pipeline.

They say their association is also a vehicle to provide community support, each woman saving 5 rupees (10 cents) a month for an emergency fund donated if one of their own is struggling.

At Asha's headquarters, we meet the gorgeous Dr Kiran Martin, founder of the society and a beacon of hope, warmth and bravery. Dressed in bright pink and green, Dr Kiran, as everyone calls her, is all hugs and smiles to our group of New Zealand journalists.

"I am inspired by New Zealand's egalitarian society," she says, "because India is a very hierarchical place."

A paediatrician and philanthropist, Dr Kiran has spent her entire working life helping to improve conditions for slum dwellers, saying she could not sit back and do nothing after seeing children succumbing to preventable diseases.

"I never imagined these children would one day go to university," she says. "That's the final passport out of poverty."

At times, her work has involved threats from slum overlords eager to retain financial and physical control of colony inhabitants, but Dr Kiran takes a peaceful approach to dealing with obstacles, whether from mafia or government officials. "Here it takes a long time to overtake the feudal structures."

As well as advocating on slum dwellers' behalf, Dr Kiran has encouraged those who live in Kusumpur Pahari to take a greater role in improving their community's health.

Each women's association member now acts as a health volunteer responsible for 25 slum houses, checking on the well-being of residents and imparting information about vaccines and other health initiatives.

Asha also helps slum dwellers get their own bank accounts, giving them a safe place to keep money and allowing them to get loans to start small businesses such as the tailoring and barber shops we see on our walk through Kusumpur Pahari.

"That means they've established their financial identity," says Dr Kiran, whose offices are filled with photographs of her with various world leaders, including our own Prime Minister John Key.

Dr Kiran says she was heartened to see him playing cricket with slum kids last time he was in India and she praises New Zealand for playing a vital role in piloting the internship programme at the High Commission, with other embassies in Delhi now on board.

She says the spouses of New Zealand diplomats have also helped better slum children's lives by visiting Kusumpur Pahari to teach English voluntarily. The New Zealand diplomatic community in Delhi is, Dr Kiran says, filled with "great human beings".

For me, as a New Zealander, visiting Kusumpur Pahari is a highlight of my 10-day trip to India and one that leaves me feeling full of hope for the children and young adults we meet.

It is also wonderful hearing about New Zealanders doing their bit to help children born into lives every bit the opposite of our mostly privileged existences.