During our time in Mumbai, Manor and I wanted to do some volunteer work. It was important to us to not find an organization through a program; we really wanted to find an organization that we could help with a defined project. Manor’s friend Dan actually ended up connecting us each with a different organization and I ended up volunteering with an amazing organization called PUKAR. This is actually the first time I’ve ever volunteered for an NGO and it was a truly enriching experience. It made my time in Mumbai certainly more meaningful, but also more interesting, as I got to know a part of the city I never would have if not for my volunteer work.
PUKAR has a few different programs that they run (you can hear the director speaking about PUKAR here), but the main program that I worked with is called Healthy Cities Wealthy Cities and it is essentially the public health research arm of PUKAR. What makes HCWC unique is that they have been working specifically in one slum in Mumbai, and it is not one of the slums you may have heard of, like Dharavi. In fact, Dharavi already gets lots of attentions and resources, both government and NGO-related. PUKAR works with a slum called Kaula Bandar, which has never had any assistance, from the government or otherwise, in its 60-plus years of existence. Part of the reason this is the case is because the slum is located on a wharf, which is technically Bombay Port Trust land, so it’s easy for the Bombay Municipality to turn a blind eye and say “they’re not our problem.” This means they don’t get any running water, electricity, healthcare, garbage collection, etc. Did I mention that 18,000 people live there?
PUKAR has been doing research in Kaula Bandar for a few years now. Some of their past projects include water quality and vaccination rates. The water that Kuala Bandar gets is not via pipes into their homes. Water comes a few times a week, and they have to lug their water barrels to the site, fill them, and lug them back to their home. They also have to pay for it. PUKAR’s study did show that the water they receive is clean, but it often gets contaminated from their storage containers. PUKAR is currently hard at work meeting with the water commissioner and the local politician to get the city to provide the residents with water.
After their vaccination study revealed abismal rates, they got the health commissioner to come to the area twice a month and vaccinate babies and children. They also work extensively trying to educate the mothers about what vaccinations to give their children and when. Many residents cannot read, so they made up these great pictorial flyers. PUKAR also uses “barefoot researchers” who are youth from the slum or surrounding area to help them communicate and meet with residents.
The project I helped with was the beginning of a mental health study. PUKAR researchers interviewed about 40 residents of Kaula Bandar about the daily problems they face because of living there, as well as past traumatic experiences and other factors that may contribute to depression and other mental health issues. Because I don’t speak Hindi, and I definitely don’t speak Marathi or Tamil (two of the dialects spoken by many residents), I could not actually conduct any interviews, but I did get the job of transcribing them. I would work with one of the PUKAR researchers as they listened to the audio of the interview and translated it to me (in somewhat imperfect English) and then I would type it out, tightening up the English along the way.
While the typing itself was obviously not so fun (although I did improve my typing quite a bit!), the interviews themselves were absolutely fascinating. And depressing. It was amazing to learn what the residents of Kaula Bandar have to deal with on a day-today basis, let alone the many horrific events throughout their lives. While water remains the number one concern, the residents also deal with dirty toilets with long lines, rats and biting dogs, burglaries, improperly built one room homes with no plumbing and often no proper electricity, combined with the fact that they are all extremely poor and can barely afford food for their families, let alone good educations, dowries for their daughters, and medical bills.
Often, halfway through an interview some severely traumatic event would be revealed, highlighting the difficulties they have had to deal with their entire lives: one woman’s son was murdered, one man’s wife has HIV, one mother’s baby died, one wife’s husband beats her and won’t let her out of the house, one man survived a shipwreck and African prison as a ship worker, and it goes on and on. It is extraordinary to read these stories and learn what kind of trauma and pain human beings can survive. And then to put them in the environment that is Kaula Bandar, it’s amazing they can go on. But they do; the most common refrain in the interviews was, “But what can I do?”
Manor and I got to visit the slum one weekend and it was an eye-opening experience. I thought I was somewhat prepared, having gone through several interviews at that point, but nothing could prepare me for the density of houses in such a small area. The lanes between homes (homes are actually single rooms that sleep as many as 12 people) are so narrow and dark, you can barely fit single file through them. But it was a very different feeling than you get walking in a poor neighborhood in the States; we never felt unsafe and the people were actually laughing and enjoying themselves. And no one asked us for money either, all they wanted was for me to take their picture, of course.