Large cities often have serious problems with poverty and New Delhi is no different. People often hear the word slums and picture complete squalor, garbage and overcrowding; yet while these problems are true in part, they also leave out how complex and varied slums can be. Today we’ll be talking about Kathputli colony, one of the largest slums in New Delhi with around 40,000 people.
I worked at a small school run by a non-profit during my time in India called the Nirvan school; its aim being to provide some education to children who live in the slums that cannot afford to go to schools outside of their home. At the school student ages ranged from 4 to 13, many of the children were related though because sometimes they had to work, they would not always come to classes. To be sure the small size of the school, little bigger than a room and consisting only of a blackboard and one teacher handling up to 40 children. The situation was and still is a difficult one but it is a step up from having no education at all.
For the population of 40,000 people living in the slum, there are only 4 public toilets but many people go to the restroom in the open due to being charged for use of the toilets (some people also have private toilets but most do not). Of course this in turn creates serious sanitary issues with streets and water runoff being contaminated with excrement. To add to this water is difficult to come by, not all people have access in their houses so many have to walk to other areas to collect water and take it back to their house in large buckets or containers. Electricity is provided by the central government but not everyone pays; some people have gotten access to electricity illegally and large black wires crisscross overhead, with some areas almost being completely devoid of sunlight due to the concentration of wires. Monsoon season adds another layer of danger for the slum as there is a lack of drainage systems so flooding is severe, leading to unsanitary conditions since there is so much trash and excrement in the water.
Yet despite these issues there is reason to have hope. During my time walking around Kathputli I came to realize how generous people could be, offering me chai (tea) or some curry despite themselves having little in terms of money or possessions. Children would walk up to me and ask me to take a picture of them, something that they absolutely loved. Clinging to one another, hugging each other and smiling these children struck me with a sense of happiness and wonder due to their enjoyment of life and the simple act of spending some time with them.
In these slums there’s a sense of camaraderie despite there being 11 distinct ethnic groups from all over India, each with their own beliefs and languages. This sort of situation breeds excellence, with extraordinary people like my friend Laxmi using her adaptability to learn 5 languages fluently and become a well-known icon in the area, helping to educate outsiders about the issues faced by the slum. You have street performers, artists, musicians and puppeteers performing to represent their people not just within their city or country but many having achieved international recognition for their talents. In effect Kathputli is the largest community of street performers in the world but lack of government aid and the seasonal nature of performing means that for long periods of the year, there is simply no reliable or steady income.
Homes in the area vary widely with some being well-endowed government built multi-level tenement buildings with electricity and running water; others however are little more than an amalgamation of plywood, canvas and tin roofs. The government has consistently tried to push out residents in order to develop the are by building more tenements but allegations of corruption and bribery of authorities by real estate development companies such as Raheja Builders leaves many questioning who the beneficiaries of development will really be. For many residents, despite their modest accommodations, Kathputli has been their home for generations since the 1950s and they are unwilling to leave. Despite intimidation residents remain firm in standing their ground, smiling and using their art as a way of expressing their struggle.
*As of October 30th, 2017 the Delhi Development Authority along with the Delhi police forces began a demolition drive, bulldozing countless homes and brutally clearing protestors through use of tear gas, water cannons and physical force despite opposition from residents and the National Federation of Indian Women. What the future holds for the countless displaced residents, most of which are children, remains uncertain.