Friday, August 8, 2008

The destitute of Delhi

You pass by people sleeping on the street without a second glance and studiously ignore the pleading eyes of children begging for money – after all it's part of being in a developing country – but, having been exposed to their worlds, I now feel quite embarrassed at my indifference.
On Wednesday night we visited a hostel for the homeless. Situated close to the main railway station, it has five large rooms - each with space for 100 men to sleep on the floor - and a small room at the end of the corridor for children – Oliver Twist sprung to mind. Homelessness in Delhi means just that – a bit of tarpaulin strung over a couple of poles constitutes a home here – these men had nothing. Despite the fact most of the 150,000 homeless do work rather than beg, the police regard them as thieves and vagabonds and frequently beat them up so the hostels sanctuary as well as shelter. Most are migrant workers forced from their villages through poverty and exploitation who, without the necessary paperwork, struggle to find jobs that will pay anything like the minimum wage - £1.25 a day. The night we visited, the hostel was full not least because they also provide a TV and there was a big cricket match on. Like most Indians, the men are besotted by the game – a small pleasure in their otherwise harsh world.
Last night we were invited to watch a documentary on street kids which had been made by the children themselves. On arrival we were greeted by some of the stars of the film who had come to tell us their personal stories. It was a humbling experience to say the least. When you know their names, have listened to the challenges of their daily life and, in particular, heard their aspirations – a meal a day, an education, a life without fear – you respond differently to the next little outstretched arm. A sweet or a banana has made me feel less hard-hearted and – no – you don't then find yourself besieged by a million other outstretched arms.
I hope my new found compassion doesn't leave me.

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