Yesterday evening was when our efforts to help the residents of the burnt down slum (Jalti Jhopdi project) culminated into the physical distribution of material. Each kit we gave consisted of a bedsheet, a medicinal mosquito net and a utensils kit that included everything a family would need to cook a basic meal and eat it. One matka per house were distributed later in the night.
With the help of Riyaz from the local masjid, we were able to organize the residents well. They formed a line and came one by one to receive the things, each carrying a card the masjid had distributed with details of the family and a list of what they had already got before.
When you go in to do charity, you may hold off from expecting gratitude, but you do not anticipate criticism. It was disturbing for us when the very first recipient in line wanted to exchange her sheet because she didn’t like it! It brought us to reality a bit and we carried on. The real test, however (and a lot of fun) was the distribution of slippers to the kids. Getting a hundred kids into single file height-wise line was the most challenging thing I had attempted to do in a long, long time! Much squealing and squabbling later, we succeeded in giving away chappals in multiple sizes to all the kids in the jhuggi.
After we pulled it off, we saw some of the older kids coming back saying they hadn’t got a pair. Sure enough, the mother was wearing new slippers and had sent the kid asking for another one!
Don’t get me wrong; these are simple people. But somehow their circumstances train them to be greedy. We were clear that the kids would be bought chappals because we knew most of the adults were out working when the fire happened. Presumably, they were wearing chappals. These are all domestic workers; we asked them to request their employers to give them an extra pair of chappals.
The psychology that if you get anything free, you ask for more is ingrained into the poor because they are desperately poor and because they perceive themselves as temporary migrants at the bottom of society’s long heirarchy of socio-economic status. They acknowledge their kids should go to school, but do not send them to the free school the mosque runs down the road! They say only individual toilets will work because there is so much infighting, no one would maintain them! They say they are here only temporaily, so why invest (even just their time) in improving their homes. Offers to provide insulation material that they can install themselves were met with lukewarm response.
It is impossible to help communities that refuse to put in some effort to get organized. It is a huge challenge to help people who do not seem to have a desire to really improve their condition. Is it possible, however, that these people genuinely have no hope for better lives? That they are as impoverished in imagination and aspiration as they are in their economical condition? And that is the real Catch-22 situation- Is it ethical for us to invest efforts into building hopes if we do not have a sustained program to help them truly integrate into a society that is happy to have migrants at the fringes?
I do not have ready answers, but I hesitate to promise what I cannot deliver. Clearly, offering some opportunity for education to children at these temporary shanties is the single-most impactful contribution we can make. Followed by shelter, health, hygiene and political empowerment. If we are able to find 5 motivated jhuggi dwellers who can dream of a better future, something might be possible!