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Grasping Kolkata

Grasping Kolkata

By Mary-Rose O’Sullivan

Waiting in line in Dubai for my flight to Kolkata, an Indian man just ahead turned around and said, “So, you’re going to Kolkata?” We had crossed paths at the breakfast bar earlier and exchanged hellos. In western clothes, his wife was in traditional Indian sari. “Tourists don’t go to Kolkata” he said, so why are you going?”

I was now more curious, what was Kolkata really like if I, as a middle aged Caucasian woman was not a typical visitor? The geography on the city is well known, 16 million in habitants, located near the mouth of India’s biggest river, the Ganges, a cross roads between Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and the other major cities of India, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. It was put on the map by Mother Theresa of what was then called Calcutta, who devoted her life to the poor. So how is the city 15 years after Mother Theresa’s death?

I emerged into 38C heat during a monsoon downpour, the noise of the honking horns from taxis and motorized tuk-tuks was the first cultural shift – yellow taxis like New York weaving constantly across lanes like a perfectly choreographed routine, it was hard to believe we would get to our destination without a collision. Walking on the streets later that evening, having to negotiate a constant stream of people and traffic, whole lives are being lived in front of you. Stall holders cooking local fare for 30 to 50 rupees, about 20 cents. Further on, family groups squatted around a single saucepan, a square of carpet defining their only home, a couple of pans their only possessions.

More detail comes into focus each day, a lot of it shocking. I joined a volunteer group with The Hope Foundation; a registered Irish charity working with Kolkata’s poorest since 1999, who were visiting Baghar Coaching Centre, which is a community education project next to Baghar Dump, one of the city’s main rubbish dumps. The people, including children, earn their living by scavenging through the rubbish for items to sell for recycling.

It’s hard to describe their living conditions. Put simply, they are not ‘living’ conditions. What can you call an area full of rotting rubbish, with no running water but for a communal pump, no toilets, and make-shift shacks of plastic the only protection from the elements? Children were wandering in the filth without shoes, going to the toilet by squatting down in the dirt, the stench an unseen cloud pressing down on the visiting group, many in tears of shock, everyone speechless.

The Baghar Coaching Centre is an oasis of hope in the squalor where 150 children get essential supports to stay in mainstream school – a nutritious meal, help with homework, time to play and counseling to enable the children cope with traumas in their home lives, such as alcoholism and physical abuse. Their parents cannot read or write and need their children at work on the dump to keep the family fed. To break this cycle of abject poverty, education is essential. Four years into this project and the smiling, healthy children in orange uniforms rushing to welcome us says it all. There is hope for these children.

Later at The Hope Foundation’s office, Paulami De Sarkar, programme manager, told me about a 12 year old girl who a year ago had been raped on Baghar dump. A student at the Coaching Centre, she had wanted to go to the police, but her family would not allow it. The reasons? Shame on the family because this had happened and if they did report it, they would be thrown out of the community, as no matter how awful to us it seems, this is home, and no one wants to be thrown out of home. But there was no justice for that poor girl.

Later that evening, The Hope Foundation invited me to be an observer on their Night Watch programme. This is an ambulance with two social workers and a driver that patrol the streets at night looking out for children in distress that need help. We stopped at a kerb side where two little mites were sleeping on a mat, both under five years of age and no adult in sight. The social worker got out to investigate. She found their father at the other side of the wide busy road, and once a responsible adult was identified, we moved on. Driving away my heart was hurting for those little ones, but they belong with their family and homelessness and poverty is their family’s reality.

We stopped next in an area called Hastings, a community living under a motorway, to distribute clothes. Two women got in a fight over a t-shirt and it got physical. The head of the little tot in the arms of one of them twice banged off the side of the ambulance. I felt sick inside and frightened. This is life on the edge, surviving on your wits, and yes, if it’s your child in need, you would fight if you had to. The children here have horror in their eyes.

It’s impossible to grasp all the cultural and geographical complexities of why there are so many street children. India is developing slowly; there are fast food outlets, phone and technology stores and shopping malls. But there are 1,300 million people here. About 250,000 children are homeless on the streets of Kolkata. We cannot save each one today, but we can share their stories and the constant drip, drip effort and effect of, for example, the Irish volunteers I met earlier, is making a difference. That’s what counts.

Mary-Rose O’Sullivan is a freelance writer and was visiting Kolkata to see the work of The Hope Foundation, working for street children. Mary-Rose@rosecommunications.ie/www.hopefoundation.ie

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