“Blessed are the Children” in India
While reading the English speaking paper over breakfast in Bangkok some days ago, I spied an unusual but familiar photo. It was a striking image of young girl walking on a tightrope in the streets of Mumbai, India. We had photographed that very same girl ourselves the week before.
We were on our way to visit a museum and art gallery in the Fort district of South Mumbai, when we heard a drum rapidly beating. We looked to see what was happening and that’s when we spotted her. A girl about 9 years old was traversing a rope some 5 feet above the street. She balanced a brass pot on her head of curly dark hair. Her bare feet were inside a metal wheel and her outstretched arms held a long multicolored pole. A young boy with a painted mustache, her brother we learned from the newspaper article, stood below near the collection bowl into which passerby’s dropped rupees in appreciation.
The young girl’s name is Barsati. She performs this tightrope act every day in Mumbai. It is her aunt who is thumping the drum to attract attention to her, while her uncle oversees the act and encourages donations into the collection bowl. After we snapped a few photos the uncle followed us for some steps down the street, tapping Phil on the shoulder and asking for more money. Apparently, photo-taking requires a bigger donation.
“She never falls,” the young uncle of about 20 said. Barsati has been doing this since she was 5 years old. His mom and grandmother had been tightrope walkers before the girl, so the talent is “in the family”. When Barsati and her brother finish their working day in Mumbai, they board the train for a two-and-a-half hour ride to their home in a slum outside the city.
no school for these children
Barsati and her brother do not go to school, except for a few weeks during the rainy season. Their parents are menial workers and the income the girl earns from her tightrope act is vital for the family’s survival.
We met another child who was also working for a living at a tourist restaurant where we stopped for lunch. The young entertainer wore a beautiful red costume and multicolored turban. His outfit matched the one worn by the music maker sitting on the floor in the corner, most likely the boy’s relative. The young man performed at every table and bowed after each tip he received from the diners. My question to Phil after the boy performed for us was, “Why isn’t this child in school?”
28 MILLION working kids
These working children are not alone. According to a report by UNICEF, there are 28 million Indian children who work for a living. It is expected in India that everyone in the family pulls their weight, including children, according to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).
Like Barsati, her brother, and the child dancer, these working children do not go to school. India mandated compulsory schooling for children aged six to 14 five years ago, and school is free for boys and for girls. But the compulsory law is not enforced and the fees associated with attending school make it impossible for some children to attend even if they aren’t working. Kids need books and materials and often uniforms. I was making some notes while sitting in our car one day when a man asked me through the open window to please give him my pencil for his child. We wished then that we had thought to bring school supplies to give as gifts to the children and families we met.
The country currently has no outright ban on child labor. The law does prohibit kids under 14 from working in hazardous conditions but even that is not enforced. A major part of the problem is that so many Indian families are very poor so the kids are needed to work.
A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that more than half of the people in India do not have enough money to meet their essential needs. Their spending is less than 1,336 Indian rupees, or $22 USD, a month. So kids are put to work to help. UNICEF says that 8,000,000 young Indians are out of school and more than 80 million drop out before completing their eighth year.
Living on the street or in slums
Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is India’s financial capital and home to over 12 million people, 20 million in the metropolitan area. It is so densely populated that it is often called the “Maximum City”. An estimated 37,000 children are living or working on the streets, some of whom are trafficked into forced labor. Phil and I watched each morning from our hotel window as a family of 4, and sometimes 5 when the teenage girl appeared, awoke from their palette on the street and began their morning activities. The woman rewound her sari on her body, changed the baby and fed the young boy. Sometimes it was they who woke us, as they rummaged through trash finding bottles and things to recycle – or to eat.
Over 50%, and some say 70%, of Mumbai’s residents live in slums. The slum called Dharavi is one of the most well known. Many people learned about it in the 2008 award-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire. My book club on Kauai read the book Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, about an Austrailian on the lam who hid out in the slum and wrote extensively and eloquently about it. I wanted to see it for myself. This slum covers 535 acres and crowds in up to a million residents in its .67 square miles. Four other slums now claim to have surpassed Dharavi in numbers of people, one said to be 3 times as large.
from “polluting” businesses to sustainable ones
Slums developed in Mumbai in the 1880’s during British colonial rule. The Europeans segregated themselves from the “natives”, and then expelled “polluting” industries from their neighborhoods. Tanneries and leather working were considered very polluting. Since they involved animal hides – see my previous post where I wrote about the Holy Cow and that Hindus are vegetarians – only the lowest caste Indian people and Muslims did this kind of work. So off to the slums they went, along with those who did pottery, another “polluting” industry.
When we visited Dharavi we were careful to not go as “gawkers”, but rather to learn about life and changes taking place there. It is indeed crowded and dark as my photo below shows. We saw lots of garbage, and I had to watch my step as kitchen water was being thrown into the alley outside the doors. Sanitation is an issue and toilets are at premium – only 1% of the homes have a private toilet, and some communal toilets are used by as many as 1400 people a day. The lack of clean drinking water is a serious problem. But we also saw curtains on kitchen windows, and we heard children laughing and playing. We saw life being lived – it was just taking place in a crowded slum.
Some good things are going on in the slums as well. CNN recently published a headline that said Dharavi may be a “model of sustainability”, referring to it’s growing businesses. It has over 5000 businesses within its confines, and over 15,000 single room factories. It exports goods around the world and generates between $650 million – $1 billion in revenues a year. One area where Dharavi is doing amazing work is in its metal, glass and plastic recycling enterprises. Thirty percent of Mumbai’s wastes are deposited at Dharavi where “ragpickers” scour and sort through it, clean it, crush it or otherwise make it fit, and resell the usable material to scrap dealers and others to repurpose. Many people in Dharavi are not just sitting back waiting for hand-outs or begging in the street. They are creating change in India.
“from street to school”
An encouraging sight at the slum was seeing children in their school uniforms. Fortunately there seems to be some awareness that to break the cycle of poverty, children need to be educated. More encouragement for all of Mumbai’s children comes from the recent campaign launched by NCPCR called “From Street to School”. Attitude shifts, protective policies and changing economic conditions are things that likely will help India’s kids get educated.
Below I have provided a link to an enlightening video presentation on the Dharavi slum that you may enjoy watching. A group of enterprising college students who take pride in Dharavi started a guided tour business to showcase aspects of the slum. The tours are a way for them to help fund their college costs. Kids like these are the hope for the future for breaking the cycle of poverty and lack of education in India.
Please leave me your comments as I would love to hear what you think about my story on India’s children. To view the video of Dharavi slum go here:Tweet