Earlier this year I went to India for 10 days as part of my work with the Justice and International Mission unit. The purpose was to meet with NGOs working on the ground and build relationships for possible future collaboration.
I was last in India 11 years ago. On that first trip the younger me journeyed with a different sense of self. I was searching for an answer to the world’s problems and I did not find it. Leaving from Melbourne in 2015, I psyched myself up for a challenging yet rewarding trip.
Delhi has changed a lot over the last 11 years; less beggars, a clean and frequent metro rail system, less animals in the streets. It wasn’t as exciting as I remembered, but it’s still confronting to a Westerner. Fortunately after four days there, I went to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, where I was quickly reminded of the India I had met over a decade ago.
On my first day there, I met the good folks from Prayas, a local NGO which advocates on behalf of migrant workers, Dalit and Adivasi people. The director, Preeti, asked if I would like to come along to a meeting in a slum where housing would be discussed. I agreed and off we went to what would be the most hard-hitting experience of my 10 days in the great sub-continent.
The four of us rode on motorcycles going against traffic. I was soon praying for my life as the driver dodged oncoming cars, cows, and a bus. Red lights didn’t mean much that day. There was a police checkpoint attempting to hand out tickets, but this was laughable on a street where people break the traffic law every day.
We arrived at our destination. This slum is just off the highway, in the wedge between the off ramp and the train tracks.
A one room school (built by Indian corporation L&T as part of their corporate social responsibility) caught my eye, as it was the only solid concrete structure there. The sacks where people lived were hitched up with branches, making square tents on the bare hard dirt ground. The communal toilet looked like a tall rectangle with a hodgepodge of sacks hanging from it.
Some wire cots were dragged out of tents as we gathered around. Soon I was ushered to sit next to Preeti on a cot, with the other NGO workers next to me.
We waited while more people gathered and skinny dogs milled around sniffing us. Children played on the train tracks above; I kept turning to observe for fear of an accident. The smell wasn’t so bad, even though we were right near next to the toilet sack tent.
The meeting was underway when I noticed a very smiley woman sitting down in front of me. At first I thought she was just sitting in a peculiar way – only when she moved did I realise she had no legs. To move about, she had to shuffle forward, then turn around, grab the sack from underneath her, place it in front of her, and shuffle again. She was smiling directly at me, and since I speak no Gujarati, this is what I focused my attention on.
Other things I noticed were two women sharing a pair of flip flops, taking turns with them at the toilet tent. The children played barefoot with large square plastic dice. As it got darker one woman was busy building a fire with twigs inside her tent. Everyone looked clean as if they had recently showered, and one lady came to the meeting with freshly wet hair. Their saris were a bit tattered, and the women wore jewellery on their wrists and ankles, either plastic bangles or dark looking sliver. They would shoo the dogs away with a large stick when they came near us.
Preeti was preparing them for an upcoming housing rights rally, when I overhead the name ‘Obama’. Later I found out she was asking them “who should we tell our problems to, Obama? No! We should demand housing. Do you want to move yet again?… No!”
Hundreds of people live along these train tracks, and they are all being threatened with eviction in order for the metro to be built. They are Adivasi people who have lived here for more than 20 years. They had lived in a different slum before but were forced to move because a road was built right on their slum.
The woman with no legs, Hasumita, has a family that work as vegetable sellers, pushing around a large rented cart. I later found out that they all went to the housing rights rally, and pushed Hasumita along in the vegetable cart. She lost her legs in a train accident.
The next step is for the local municipality to guarantee in writing that the people living along the tracks will receive a fair relocation package. This is not easy, as it was explained to me by the NGO workers, and each step requires a fight. I will not soon forget Hasumita, nor the inspiration I felt as I left Ahmedabad.