Visiting Mumbai’s Slums

India 2013

By Lindsey Mastis

February 20, 2013

Also published at Lindsey Mastis' Blog

I tried to observe as much as I could on the bus ride to a large slum in Mumbai. The streets along the way were crowded with rickshaws, motorcycles, and people. The rules of the road I’m so used to in America, seemed ignored or nonexistent here.

As our air-conditioned bus slowed, I noticed cows and goats. None of these animals looked particularly healthy. The cows, which are sacred to Hindus, looked skinny and weak. Most were laying on the ground, perhaps too tired to stand. The few that were standing, were in middle of trash piles.

Squatting next to a parked bus, was a little girl. She appeared to be less than five years of age, and there was no sign of anyone watching over her. I soon realized young children squat and relieve themselves almost anywhere.

They also play in streets, their hands filthy with dirt. It occurred to me that this is ideal for children and many seemed extremely happy to be getting dirty, having fun. It’s the same in the US, except American children are often scolded and taught not to get dirty or play in filth.

When our bus stopped, I looked out the window at the slum and noticed swarms of mosquitos. I had sprayed my clothes, arms, and hair with Deet in the morning, but I wasn’t sure if it would be enough. Our group got off the bus and began walking.

I expected it to smell, but didn’t notice any foul odor. My eyes were too occupied with what they were seeing.

I’m traveling with the International Reporting Project, and were advised not to take pictures right away because of sensitivities. I was told many foreign media was not trusted over concerns about how India would be portrayed. And that the movie Slumdog Millionaire was considered highly offensive and because of it, Americans are trusted even less.

What I noticed first was stagnant water along the narrow dirt streets. Goats and dogs were laying next to the walls of shacks. Women that weren’t working outside, peered out of doorways and windows as we walked by. Rickshaws and motorcycles honked to get through, but their persistence didn’t seem to affect the general flow.

I visited with one of the families living here. Inside their home, it was cozy and warm. Generally, inviting. I talked to the head of the household, a skinny man holding a baby boy in his lap. He talked about life in the slum, and some of the issues he has with health.When I asked for his name, he pointed to the door where it was painted. He seemed proud of his community, saying it was his choice to move here because it provided more opportunity. He can make money here, although it is a tough life. Surprising, yes, because it’s not what anyone in America would consider a positive situation.

This particular slum is located on a giant trash heap. It’s the dump. People here make their living off what they find in the trash. They find goods, food, and recyclables. These people are called “Rag Pickers.” But it seems a lot of what they intend to do is sort recyclable materials from the rubbish and sell it to people within the community that collect it and take it to recycling centers for an even larger profit.

I saw two little boys helping sort a huge collection of plastic bottles. They appeared to be working hard, and without supervision.

I walked to the edge of the slum, where the trash heap hovered over the community. A yellow excavator sat at the very tip top. The entire pile looked more mud than trash. Everything was brown and gray.

We visited two slums. This one along the dump was an illegal slum. In both, we visited health offices, which are generally one room facilities with little privacy from the outside.

At a day-care, there was a small group of children sitting on the floor. Health workers find it best to treat kids at these places, versus relying on their parents to bring them in for check-ups.

I also visited an office with an outreach program where I met a 16-year-old girl, who looked much younger for her age. She beamed with pride. She told us her parents supported and encouraged her to become educated on topics of health and to share that knowledge with her community.

She’s been doing this for months and says it took a while before people would listen to her.

It can be extremely difficult for girls and women in Indian society living in the slums, because of tradition. It seems to partly explain why there’s an epidemic of child and mother deaths. It all has to do with nutrition. Here’s a surprising fact: In Indian culture, women are taught to eat last and the least. The head of the household, the man, eats first and the most, and then the children, and then the mother. Changing this idea won’t fix the problem, but it could help.

HIV and AIDS is also a big problem in India. In one of the slums I visited, I was told the disease is often spread by migrant workers employed to stitch details onto fabric. These men are away from their families and may visit a sex worker and contract the virus.

We learned a lot about the problems facing people in the slums. Being there gave me a greater understanding of the issue. I realized the importance of having medical programs at the grassroots level. These communities aren’t organized the way anyone in the US would expect, and probably not the way most Western countries would expect.

The way to help solve the problem of child and maternal mortality has to be done with the help from people within these communities. The people themselves need to be empowered and educated. And there has to be persistence, resilience, and patience. This is not a problem that can be easily or rapidly solved.

As for me, I got to get back on a bus and spend my evening with an abundance of food. I received vaccinations before I left the US, so I know I’m safe against many of the diseases suffered by the people I met. And, I didn’t notice one bug bite. It seems the most well-fed being in the slums are mosquitos.

Lindsey Mastis is a video correspondent in Los Angeles for Feature Story News. Lindsey is traveling to India in 2013 with the International Reporting Project. This story originally appeared on Lindsey's blog.