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Overcoming poverty in India

Wednesday December 20, 2006

Ken Burnett

Though we?d only arrived in the country at 2.30 that morning, we were out on the streets late the same Saturday evening to see and meet the homeless of Delhi. It was my wife Marie?s first visit to India and I couldn?t resist showing her the real Delhi underbelly. So I arranged with friends from a tiny local NGO called Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA) to visit their work among the 168,000 homeless people who each night live rough on the streets of India?s teeming, chaotic capital. Young and old, men, women, children and even babies all coexist in this bizarre underworld alongside stray dogs, rats, donkeys and the occasional sacred cow.

The numbers seem no exaggeration, though how anyone counts them is beyond comprehension. There are so, so many. It may be the largest population of the dispossessed on our planet, each snatching at sleep when they can as they crowd and cram together in rubbish dumps, graveyards, on pavements, at the road?s edge, on traffic islands, under flyovers, anywhere a fly could land. Here the frail, the sick, the lame and the mentally ill rub shoulders with the barely fit; beggars and thieves sleep alongside sex workers and pimps, while predators and exploiters share their limited space beside the vulnerable and exploited. All appear thin as rakes, all united in poverty, discomfort and indignity, all clutching for dear life to what little they?ve got; just clinging on. In the daylight it looks bad enough. As night falls it quickly becomes a living hell beyond the imagination of Dante.

Shelter from the storm

Just before midnight we stopped by some rickety huts, AAA?s night shelter for the lucky few it has rescued from the dangers of the street. Here we met young Samina whose mother abandoned her on the street as a baby when her employer had insisted ?no children?. And 14-year-old Priya, whose stepfather had abused her and tried to sell her body on the street, this same street that she had run to, preferring its tender mercies to the certain risks at home.

Safe and dry inside, the children danced for us to show their pleasure at not being on the street, while outside the monsoon rains thundered down, beating the fragile tin roofs like they were drums, flooding the potholed streets. The children danced on regardless of the deafening din, happy to show their talents while at the hut?s window lines of men hung like watchers at a zoo, separated from the vulnerable youngsters only by the presence of our guides, the charity workers. Rain doesn?t just fall here: it plummets. The shelter seemed fragile; at best, secure, but on a knife-edge.

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