[Originally posted on Study India 2010 blog, 02/09/2010]
The NGO placements for the Study India Programme afforded us the opportunity to briefly peer deeper into the darker pages of Mumbai's convoluted story, revealing a world we had only previously glimpsed on the sides of the road, at a distance, and viewed through the twin filters of expectation and preconception. Initially these scenes, which can be encountered just a few minutes' walk from our hotel, had the capacity to shock and sadden, if only for the sheer scale of the street-side poverty on show. But I found myself quickly numbed to the sight of the blue tent hovels being overcome by monsoon groundwater, to the sight of filthy children defecating on the street amid piles of festering waste, to the sight of painfully twisted-limbed homeless men sitting quietly on corners and under the reaching fingers of Mumbai's signature Banyan trees. I expected that these sights would be repeated when I first arrived at Salaam Baalak's Umerkhadi drop-in children's centre, and that my experiences of walking down a street in South Mumbai would have prepared me for the poverty and misery I was undoubtedly about to see. What I found at Salaam Baalak could not have been further from either assumption, and I was amazed at how such a short amount of time could be so eye-opening and uplifting.
We arrived on Monday 23rd August and found the centre closed, as it was the day they had the teacher and trustee meeting. We then learned that the national holiday 'Raksha Bandhan' meant that the centre was also to be closed on Tuesday, leaving us with only three days with the children at the centre. This was somewhat aggravating, leaving us with the feeling that we'd never be able to make any impact or be of much use over only three days. However, we had to make the best of it, so when we arrived to the centre on Wednesday, we were really hoping that we would be able to make the best use of our range of skills and help the children in whatever way we could. Going back to what I mentioned above, I was expecting rowdy, dirty children not used to the discipline or routine of school. But when we arrived, the children were beginning their morning with one of the non-denominational prayers that give the all the children, from any of India's myriad religious and social doctrines, something solid and regular to start their day with. There was also nothing of the rowdiness and bad behaviour I was expecting; I don't want to reiterate the cliché so often used - that the children 'back home' would never be this well behaved or polite, which I don't believe is the case - but I was certainly taken aback by the friendly, playful and hard-working attitudes of children who, without Salaam Baalak, would undoubtedly not be making it to school at all regularly, and are used to running the streets and dealing with the daily hardships, dangers and worries that would accompany a life of sleeping rough.
Most of the children are from families whose parents work for much of the day, so are not around to take care of the children when they are not at school. A large number of them are often required to help work on parents business, day or night, or they have to take care of younger siblings while their parents work. They miss out on the fundamental freedoms and security that come with a safe childhood that we take for granted back home, and that are hugely important in the early development of a healthy child. So Salaam Baalak provides a hugely vital service, in that it provides this safe, regular and structured place for a child to come and be a child. They do home work, have a healthy daily meal and structured play. Younger children are cared for as well, in the crèche, leaving older siblings to get on with exam revision or just reading the newspaper. Though we were only there for a very brief period, it was a hugely rewarding week, and one that lifted the veil on homelessness in Mumbai, its realities and dispelling the preconceptions I had carried with me when moving through Mumbai's crowded streets. There are wonderful, hard working, happy and intelligent children in many of the tarpaulin tents you pass, and sparing them a thought would do no harm.