When I return to the slum each morning, I’m repeatedly reminded of a type of hell: there is mud, grime, and two other aspects that are difficult to convey via a blog – a strong “workshop” smell (oil, fumes, solvents etc), and most of all, NOISE. Maypuri is known as the biggest motor workshop in the world, and wherever you go, there are deafening sounds of metal beating against metal, metal drilling through metal and engines roaring. Unemployment here is not the highest in the world, at 20%: there is work, but it’s tough, noisy, dirty work. Beat-up vehicles litter the streets, where they are picked at by people with spanners, screwdrivers and sledge hammers. I saw a dumper truck being reduced from a slightly bashed but otherwise perfect vehicle to absolutely nothing at all after being picked at all day by a small army of hard working labourers.
Nothing is wasted. People collect 5cm lengths of wire, random nuts and bolts, springs and anything at all. Children as young as five are sent by their parents to search for bits of metal, using wooden sticks with big magnets on the end. The oily grime on their skin is permanent: hot showers or baths don’t exist here.
I have found myself questioning my priorities as I walk through them holding a questionnaire to ask about the stray dogs. Many of them seem bemused: nobody has ever asked them about dogs before. Why dogs, when people are clearly suffering?
My answer to myself is that why not dogs as well as people? For a small amount of extra effort, animals can be looked after too, and where animal welfare is good, there is a positive feedback loop, with people feeling better about themselves, dogs being friendlier, and the whole atmosphere improved.
I had a female interpreter with me today, which made it possible for me to talk to women in a much more relaxed way. It still takes a long time to complete this type of survey: there are strict rules about gaining informed consent by explaining it all in detail, with signed forms in duplicate, one to be left with the person. Then the questions are rarely “yes” or “no” – there’s always a few minutes of chat before the interpreter passes on the condensed version of the answer. I had imagined I might complete a hundred questionnaires a day: the reality is more like ten or twenty. I’m just gathering in results just now: I’ll need to analyse the data and come up with some sort of conclusion before I’m done here.
One interesting side effect of doing the survey is that I’ve spent considerable periods out and about in different parts of the slum, and I’ve seen aspects that I’d have missed otherwise. Some of it is predictable – the poverty, the lack of infrastructure (many of the drains are open, and there’s no rubbish collection system), and the dangers people suffer every day (that railway…) I previously mentioned a woman who had lost her legs to the train as a child. Today I wasn’t surprised to meet a dog with a hind leg missing: neatly sliced off by a train last year. It’s a small miracle that he survived, with no veterinary treatment at all.
There have been other unexpected surprises – the open friendly nature of the folk here – you’d think they might resent this wealthy foreigner with his fancy camera asking strange questions about worthless street dogs. There’s not much negativity: smiles and welcomes are the upfront response (although who knows what’s said or thought privately?)
And there have been some bizarre sights too: a man with a Pug on a leash, walking the dog along the railtracks. Where did he come from? What’s going on there?
And I was astonished to see a pet white rabbit hopping around: when I commented on it, a boy came out and picked it up – it’s his pet.
The most astonishing encounter that I had today was nothing to do with animals: I met an eight year old girl, who’s called Poonja. There’s a clue to her story in her name: she’s called after the Poonja Express, an early morning train that whizzes past every day.
Eight years ago, somebody on that train gave birth to a baby girl, and in this land of high dowries and even higher expectations, she was not wanted, so she was flushed down the train toilet. Somehow, the baby was still alive after landing on the train tracks, and some people from the slum found her as they went about their morning ablutions. They brought her into their home, kept her warm, fed her and loved her.
The charity that I’m here with, ASHA, heard about this, and realising that the couple who’d rescued her didn’t even have enough funds to feed themselves, helped them financially. Poonja is now going to primary school, and she visits the ASHA community centre every afternoon for an after-school club. With luck, she’ll even end up going to university. ASHA is the Hindi word for “hope”, and Poonja is a living emblem of the value of their work.
I just have one or two more days of data collection to do here, then I’ll be sitting down to input it into a spreadsheet to try to produce some sort of analysis. I’ll be sharing this with ASHA, Mission Rabies, AAP and others. What happens after that is still an open question but one thing is certain: Mayapuri has become a part of my consciousness which will never go away.