“Of the 500,000 people who migrate to Delhi each year, it is estimated that fully 400,000 end up in slums; by 2015 India’s capital will have a slum population of more than 10 million.”
-from Planet of Slums by Mike Davis
Delhi has been described as a third world “megacity.” From a 1950 population of 1.4 million, India’s capital has morphed into a sprawling conglomerate of city-street-meets-country-lane urban/rural hybridization, home to more than 20 million people today. After watching Slumdog Millionaire and reading astonishing facts about slum populations worldwide (see more on Davis’ book in my Reading List), I have become increasingly curious about the realities of life in these impoverished areas and the people who eventually settle there, for whatever reason, desperately grasping to the fringe of society.
Despite the apparent squalor—the area immediately surrounding Katha offers a mixture of foul air and flies, rusty corrugated tin and brick building materials lain in heaps—I was surprised by the activity in the neighborhood encircling the school. Not knowing at all what to expect, I noticed a man wearing immaculately white clothes, maybe an artisan of sorts, stitching up some fabric pieces with a sewing machine in front of his open-air bedroom, the daily news resting on his pillow. Another man shoveled trash into a dumpster, arching his back dutifully to complete the task while a painted chart behind him displayed the ward’s most recently posted statistics. All around were children, from the very young to the adolescent, who clearly were not attending school that day, and my mind wandered, thinking about what they might do with their time. One little boy was playing in dirt near the wall of the school, the wind carrying the sound of whinnying goats over his small frame and to my ears.
The Katha school lies in Delhi’s Govindpuri slum cluster in the city’s rambling outskirts. Labyrinthine architecture of brick and cement, plastered with mud and dung to keep the flies out and keep it cooler, creates an otherworldly feel, like penciled-in sketch out of M.C. Escher’s early portfolio. As I walked through the corridors, up and down the narrow stairwells, I could not help but be amazed by the resourcefulness of the people who built such a place. The structure is designed for optimum ventilation and circulation, essential for the schoolchildren who attend during the nearly unbearable heat of the Indian climate, which barely dips below “warm” for most of the year. If the kids were not here in this school, they would be scavengers of the dumpsters, untended by desperate parents with other obligations, or put to work in some avenue of family business.
Katha operates on an attendance policy/scholarship system. After an introduction to the values of the program, we were given plenty of time to wander through the various areas of productivity, from primary school lessons to woodshop to a women’s self-help group meeting. Here are a few glimpses into the world of Kathashala:
A teacher in the school, who in her twenties is a shining example of the good people can do for others when they put their own personal interests aside, shared a Hindi expression with me: Meri shehep ek paheli. “My city is a puzzle.” Thankfully there are people like her to put the pieces together.
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