Most of the people in the Bay Area look through a glorified lens when they see the world. Most of us surmise that a majority of the people in the world live like the top 1 percent. We take for granted basic necessities such as a bed, drinkable water, and access to information. This year, we traveled to Mumbai, India. We wanted to see the world through a different lens and understand the challenges of people who are deprived of basic necessities. We volunteered for two weeks with SNEHA, that educates kids and parents on mental and physical health. They took us on field visits through the slums of India, educating and engaging with parents and kids. Generally in their field visits they walk into the neighborhoods and talk to the parents about sending their children to SNEHA for health education, counseling and activities. In the afternoon we went to a girl’s home, Sharanam Center. Most of the girls here have a living relative, but they were sent here because their parents either were too poor to take care of them or had a conflict such as drugs.
SNEHA gives guidance to the kids and parents in the slums, and guides them in the right direction about nutrition and general wellbeing. They gave us a small taste of the day in the life of the people that live in Dharavi. Dharavi is one of the biggest slums in the world, due to the rising population in India. When we walked through Dharavi, I was amazed! This is not an exaggeration even in the slightest way. All my previous thoughts and preconceptions were wiped away and replaced with a completely new thought and view of Dharavi and the rest of India. We entered the slum through a tiny passageway that would surely not show up on any map. As we entered, we saw a dead rat lying on the side of the walkway. It startled me. I was extremely attentive during my entire walk, constantly darting my eyes from place to place, dodging puddles, trash and sometimes animals. Over a million people do this constantly everyday and I could barely make it through a few hours without stepping in something unpleasant. We went into Dharavi multiple times. During one of the visits, we visited someone’s home and chatted with a group of moms. All these moms send their kids to SNEHA and sometimes even visit SNEHA on their own. Most of them have not been educated past middle school (8th grade). However, they said those 8 years of education taught them enough to value education and to make sure their kids get an education. That is why they send their kids to SNEHA.They don’t want their kids to go out into the world with a lack of societal knowledge.
Dharavi has sections for each business: there is a pots section, meat section, textiles section and a lot more. The house we visited was in the pots district. When you walk through the streets of Dharavi, all the houses are crumbling and literally falling apart. There is mold growing on the walls and water dripping from the roof. But when you step inside the house, it is a completely different sight. The floors are clean and polished and the paint is all there. They have a TV and sometimes even a refrigerator. There is running water and electricity. This came as a complete surprise to me because I expected the entire house to be broken down and dirty like the exterior but this is not true at all. Dharavi as a whole, makes about $600M every year! That translates to an income of about $600 per person every year. That is about a hundred times less than the income per person in the US. An entire family lives off of a little over $12 per week and here I spend $5 for just one boba tea. The issue in Dharavi is not the wealth. It is the lack of space, sure some people are really really poor, but most of the people in Dharavi just don’t have anywhere else to go.
When we visited SNEHA’s office in Kandivali, we interacted with a lot of kids there. On our first day, a group of 20-30 kids (9-14) came to get a health talk. Before the health talk, we taught them how to play rock paper scissors. I considered rock, paper, scissors a universal game, but these kids live in such isolation, they haven’t even heard of the game or any variation of it. It was fun teaching them and singing songs with them. The health talk was about mosquito safety and prevention against malaria. The teachers reminded the kids not to drink water without boiling it and to watch out for stagnating water.
On the second day the older kids came for a session. All of them were older than 15. Rama–one of the SNEHA staff– showed the kids their city website and how to find their area/county. In India, it is different from the US because in the US, many cities make up a county but in india many counties make up a city. The children split up into 3 groups based on what they believed was the biggest problems: garbage separation, street lighting, and garbage collection. Each group was put of to the task of going through the website and figuring out how to file a complaint for one of the issues. My sister and I also looked into filing a complaint for a street light in Palo Alto. The process was very simple for us. All we had to do was fill out a form online and the city would come and fix the street light. The street light group took the entire time (2 hours) to figure out how to file a complaint. In order for them to actually file a complaint, they had to go to the city office and fill out multiple forms. The city lighting group had it the easiest out of all the groups. for the other groups there wasn’t even a process on the website for the other groups to follow. Without SNEHA, the kids would never learn about their basic rights and how to advocate for themselves. By doing this, SNEHA is making a huge impact in these kids lives.
In Mumbai, we also visited a shelter for Girls in Dharavi, called Sharanam Center. We would visit Sharanam every afternoon for about 3 hours almost everyday for 2 weeks (we spend the mornings at SNEHA). Most of the girls in the shelter have a living relative but they couldn’t take care of the kids, so they sent them to Sharanam. There are girls ranging from the age 5-18 but the alumni visited very often, because they were family. In our first week with Sharanam, an organization called Shoebox came to run activities with the kids. Shoebox is an organization that teaches kids how to tinker with things like circuits. On the first day, they did not help the kids at all. The instructors just gave them materials for circuits like battery, light, motors, wires and let them figure out the rest on their own. Most kids in the Bay Area have prior experience with circuits and activities with electronics. I was surprised to find out that these girls had never dealt with anything like this. However, they were very experimental and eventually figured out how most things worked. On the first day, I spent most of the time watching a girl named Rebecca, who was in 8h grade. Even though she had never worked with circuits, she was very resourceful and persistent and made a very complex circuit. Her circuit didn’t work the first 4-5 times but after a lot of trial and error, she made her circuit work. The people in Shoebox strongly believe in letting the kids figure it out on their own, so we didn’t have the chance to actively help the kids,.
On the second day of shoebox, the kids made scribble bots. This was their chance to put everything they learned on the first day into action. When making the scribble bots most of the kids succeeded in getting the circuitry to work, though some of them struggled to get their bots to balance. I realized that the issue is not their intelligence or smarts but their lack of resources and help. All the kids in Sharanam are very happy and bubbly, even though they have so little, it doesn’t seem to remove much of their joy in life. They are very playful and dance and sing during their free time. People in the US complain about getting too much homework, and having to study for a test, but the problems these kids have are 10 times worse such as no one teaching them for tests or doing activities with them. Yet they still find joy and happiness in life.
In Mumbai, you can find everyone from wealthy business tycoons to famous actors, but you can also find two of the biggest slums in the world and some of the most poverty-stricken people in the world. This summer, we visited Mumbai to learn about and help the disadvantaged and to share our knowledge with the people who don’t have access to it.