Sunday, April 8, 2012

Divas 220: The more I see, the less I know.

Today is a very important one. Not only is it my last day in Mumbai, it is also the day I finally got to venture into Dharavi, the million-person slum depicted in the recent film Slumdog Millionaire.

Dilip Uncle came to accompany me, along with Sakshi Auntie, who is a Social Development Assistant.

We set foot into the narrow street, and the first thing that dawned upon me was that I wouldn't be able to take photographs (though I'm sure the seven-year-old boy who randomly flipped out his cell phone and took a picture of my face would disagree). This is because the place is a rush of shapes, colors, and movement -- with homes, shops, and a maze of passageways all over. The next best thing I could think to do was take a video, but even this couldn't capture much of the dynamism that is Dharavi.

There is more to say about the lifestyle here than my blog can handle, but I will never forget the picture of two young girls defecating on the street with their shirts pulled completely over their heads so passersby would at least not be able to see who they were.

I was surprised when I peeked into a residence and saw a family watching television! Wouldn't they prefer to spend their money in some other, "better" way? Then I understood -- we always refer to entertainment as and "escape" from our daily lives, and for these people it truly is the only escape from the life they are living.

I could spend a months here (in fact, I would love to) and still be completely ignorant and stunned speechless, but I am glad to have at least received an introduction to the state of life in such slums.

En route to our next stop, we passed by some of the homes constructed to resettle Project-Affected Persons (PAPs) off of land needed for the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP). I especially like the photograph below, as it shows a distinct before and after -- in the foreground find the makeshift homes where these people were living earlier, and in the back see their new residences.

We then drove to the main station of the upcoming Mumbai Monorail. Again, I had imbued some of Gaikwad Uncle's enthusiasm about this project, but was beyond excited to see this futuristic and efficient transit option in person. Our guide, Mr. Shantharama, showed us the projected route, a model of how a typical station will look, and a completed car.

In spite of my always childish questions ("Monolithic? Where? What?"), it was asked if I was a civil engineer. Now this I found highly amusing. What should I have said? "Actually, I'm a pre-college student whose most logical major in school would be English Literature." I just smiled and shook my head. Though to be honest, I could get used to wearing a hardhat.

I can't wait to use the monorail the next time I visit. The trains themselves are the coolest colors -- green, pink, and blue (go Powerpuff Girls!) -- and, having seen the blueprint, I think the stations are going to become iconic of Mumbai.

We next visited a huge resettlement site in Washi Naka, where about 7,000 families have been moved because of MUTP. There, I had the chance to interact with members of the community-based organization (CBO) in charge of the social welfare of its citizens. I asked them all the "usual" questions when it comes to resettlement:

Has your livelihood been affected by moving here?

Have any social issues arisen as a result of bringing people from so many different areas and backgrounds to live here?

What do you see as your new home's greatest advantages? Its disadvantages?

The resounding issue faced by these people was loss of connectivity -- especially to their children's schools. Kids who used to walk just next door to school now have to take a bus, change lines, and take a second bus to arrive at their educational facilities. I asked if this had caused them to reduce their attendance and they assured me that their children were still attending school daily, but find the new commute inconvenient and at times unsafe.

Our last official stop (though just looking outside the window in Mumbai is a lesson in urbanization) was a meeting with the members of a Women's Livelihood Program developed at a similar resettlement site. Through this initiative, former slum-dwellers received employment and training from Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority. At first, MMRDA commissioned smaller projects -- making folders, decorations, greetings cards, etc. by hand.

MMRDA then before employed this group of women to run their entire office's cafeteria! I asked their Secretary what she saw as the strongest part of the training, and she said that even more than the training program, real-world experience in manufacturing, marketing, and communicating is what has given her the confidence to face whatever challenge should arise in the future. (In my head, this response was basically a eulogy of the "gap year philosophy" -- and this is exactly what I want for my students!)

Back home, I bid Dilip Uncle farewell -- I am truly thankful for his enthusiasm, dedication, and knowledge. I learned so much today! We then had a lunch which just happened to be comprised of all of my favorite foods in the world. But I'm sure Gaikwad Auntie had nothing to do with that! :)

I took some rest after our meal and awoke to realize that I wouldn't be able to see Dr. Nitz again before leaving. So I was already having some trouble keeping it together, but the reminder of having to start packing was the last straw. The things I have learned here and the conversations I have had have just been deeply, profoundly great. I have not sobbed due to separation (as I have been for the last two hours) since I was seven.

It's also very difficult thinking of leaving this home -- the Gaikwads are at peace with themselves and one another in a way I have never witnessed before. Their entire family just lives to do good. Take today, for example. The transport project I toured in the morning was envisioned by Uncle. The afternoon's empowerment program was designed by Shivanjali Didi. The unquestioning warmth I received when I returned home was from Auntie. Where else does this exist? This is not a rhetorical question; tell me if you have an answer.

I won't say, "Goodbye, Mumbai!" until tomorrow morning, but for now, I'm preparing to enjoy my last evening here to the fullest.

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