Stories untold: Highlighting the harsh realities of India’s slum dwellers

“I want to go to school,’’ a young girl in a determined voice pleaded to her mother, which caught my attention, and I could not resist silently eavesdropping on their conversation.
Stories untold: Highlighting the harsh realities of India’s slum dwellers

Archita Agarwal

“I want to go to school,’’ a young girl in a determined voice pleaded to her mother, which caught my attention, and I could not resist silently eavesdropping on their conversation. It was the summer of 2015, and like an old ritual, I decided to pay a visit to my grandmother’s place—Tezpur, a town for eternal love located in the breathtaking state of Assam. Just nearby stood an age-old society, a slum, and one morning while passing through the lanes, I heard a child expressing to her mother her determination to join school.

Her parents stood quiet as if caged by the bonds of helplessness and stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Stories like these can be derived from every corner of India, where a quiet revolution unravels every morning in the hearts of the parents, fighting for a brighter fate for their children and being victims in the hands of marginalization and disparity. It is in these weathered buildings that the country will find its brightest stars, the ones who have never been acknowledged and yet have the resilience to fight against all odds. Their dreams are not confined to the fragile foundations and broken cemented walls where they reside; instead, as they grow up, they dare to dream.

Slums grew in number in tandem with the 20th century’s growing urbanization. Around one-third of all people on earth and nearly 60% of urban populations in the least developed countries are found in slums, home to hundreds and millions of children. It is unclear how living in a slum may impact the lives of kids and teenagers, notwithstanding the seriousness of the problem. Behind the cracked walls and roofs, there lies an entire universe of children waiting to be acknowledged and understood. Navdha is one of the youngest residents of the area. While I was having a conversation with her, one of her statements left an indelible mark on my heart: “Main badi hokar rajneeti mein jaungi aur dekhungi ki koi bhi bhukha nahi soye (I will grow up to be a political leader and make sure no soul goes to sleep hungry)”.

From the depths of adversity, the dream of Navdha surfaced. She observed the struggles her area faced due to a lack of access to high-quality healthcare, an unending cycle of poverty, and inadequate education.

Navdha was inspired to never give up by the tales of leaders who overcame adversity to effect great change in the world. Navdha believed that she could be a force for good, a voice for the marginalized, and a glimmer of light for those who were living in the dark by entering politics. Another young resident of the slum, Ranvijay, said, “Main dekhta hoon ki woh log saaf-suthre school ki uniform mein ja rahe hain, aur main khud ko rok nahi sakta sochne se ki meri zindagi kitni alag hoti agar main unke jagah hota” (I see the privileged going to school wearing tidy and clean uniforms and cannot help but wonder how different life would be if I were in their shoes). These youths, who reside far from the bustling markets and gleaming skyscrapers, persevere in the face of hardship.

Slums in India are characterised by trash heaps everywhere. The disposed-of waste not only smells awful but also acts as a haven for flies and mosquitoes, which can carry a variety of ailments. The state of the public restrooms is appalling. Only a few of them have doors, and the majority of them have latchless doors. Shower enclosures with no doors or tap connections are available. The living conditions in the houses there are difficult to even begin to understand until you go through this frightening experience.

Since six to seven people share a small room, only they know how many people can fit in such a small space. The exposed surface drains allow the sewage water to stagnate, giving the little streets an awful stink. Accessing sanitary facilities and clean water is still a major challenge in many slums. Open defecation and inappropriate waste management increase health concerns. The general quality of life deteriorates in slum neighbourhoods because they usually lack basic services like power, decent roads, and drainage systems. A series of questions were running through my head as I sat in front of my desktop, learning more about the circumstances of different Indian slums. In a world full of advancement and prosperity, how could such suffering continue?

Across the country, the Indian government has implemented several programmes and projects aimed at improving living conditions in slums, but are they really being implemented at the grassroots level?

While we as a nation talk about the Clean India Mission (Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan), how can it be accomplished when a major segment of our country still lives in such appalling conditions? Or are we merely attempting to hide the fact that the worst side does exist? On the flip side of the coin, the authorities have launched initiatives that have brought smiles to lakhs of such households.

Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojana (SJSRY) seeks to create jobs in order to ameliorate the living conditions of urban poor people, including slum dwellers. It is encouraged to improve slum inhabitants’ economic well-being through empowerment, self-employment, and skill-building initiatives.

The mission of National Urban Livelihoods (NULM) NULM, formerly the Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojana, aims to lessen urban impoverished households’ vulnerability and poverty. Slum dwellers profited from its provisions for social mobilisation, skill development, and the creation of sustainable livelihood prospects. The goal of the flagship Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) housing initiative, which was introduced in 2015, is to give all urban and rural people access to affordable housing by the year 2022. Financial support is given to qualified recipients under this program so they can build new homes or renovate existing ones. For the purpose of preventing relocation, special arrangements are made for slum dwellers, with an emphasis on in-situ reconstruction.

Despite these initiatives, challenges remain, including the scope of the issue, bureaucracy, and the need for community participation. In India, efforts to ameliorate the condition of slums are ongoing and involve a combination of governmental reforms, financial support, and community involvement.

I struggled with a deep sense of dissonance as a result of the sharp contrast between my own reality and the suffering of the slum. I felt as though the lines separating the brutal reality of the slum and the world I lived in were becoming increasingly hazy. The slum’s tales of perseverance and adversity acted as a strong lens through which I was able to examine the limitations of my own perspectives, giving me an enduring sense of empathy and a strong desire for a more equitable society.

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