What I learnt from conversations with the youth in urban slums: They crave opportunity and deserve support- April 9, 2012

A few of us friends met up for lunch yesterday. Randomly, someone observed that one can experience kindness from the most obscure sources, describing an incident when an auto driver was sympathetic and understanding, willing to forego his payment when she misplaced her wallet (he needed to wait a while and eventually got paid). Another friend remarked that kindness and understanding often came most spontaneously from those who themselves have so little to lose.

In my work with slum dwellers in the past year or so, I have often noticed the warmth with which we (who go in to research and sometimes help them) are treated, despite the fact that it is hard for them to trust people who come with promises to help, having experienced disappointments before. I am specially touched by my interactions with children and young people. These kids are usually bright, cheerful and enthusiastic, despite the harsh conditions of their life. In the urban slums I am referring to (specifically in Sundernagari in East Delhi and in the slums in Gurgaon), food may not be available to kids in plenty, but they show no signs of serious malnutrition.

Education is another story, however. In the slums of Delhi, kids do attend government school, but the quality of education is nothing to write home about and young people feel complexed and frustrated as they reach their teens, many dropping out in secondary school to seek domestic work and other forms of informal employment. In Gurgaon, slum children do not go to school at all and they sort of resent the fact that their parents make no effort at all!

When asked why they drop out, slum kids express a lack of confidence in being able to find employment. They are convinced that they will find it difficult to succeed in a world that gives opportunity only to those who speak English. It always seems strange they think like this, because I can think of a zillion types of jobs that require intelligence and hard work, not super fabulous communication skills and certainly not in English! I wonder if this is a BPO/KPO driven hype where poor urban youth sees thousands working in such set ups and see that as the modern form of white-collared mass employment? But seriously, it is a challenge for these young people to reconcile their very basic levels of education with available opportunities; and then put these in context of their aspirations, which in a world influenced by media and mobile technology, have changed considerably as well! In this scenario, I was pleased to read some NGOs making an effort to help slum youth find jobs. A lot more such initiatives would be needed, with counseling efforts to help these young people fit into modern working environments, develop a basic understanding of work ethics, rights and responsibilities, avenues for growth, etc.

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