By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
June 5, 2011
Sayra has lived all her life on a small patch of sidewalk in downtown Calcutta, now called Kolkata. I interviewed her 23 years ago for a book on Asia’s urban poor. I looked for her in the intervening years, but I could never find her until just last April. She still lives on that patch of sidewalk, as her mother and father had before her. She was born there and had her first child there. We had a long conversation, while her neighbors joined in, and at the end of it I asked, if she believed in God despite all her problems.
“I believe in God,” she said, “but He’s not doing His job now. He is supposed to take care of us, but look around and you’ll see He is not doing that.” She swept her arm in a gesture over the people’s sleeping mats and the dirty street.
About 30 families live on the sidewalk with Sayra. All are from Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, and most are from the same village. They have come to Calcutta for work. The main work the men find is as rickshaw pullers. This corner of Calcutta is one of the few places in the world where one person sits at comfort in a carriage and another person, like a beast of burden, pulls him through the streets. The rickshaw pullers run and walk on the boiling hot asphalt, in the middle of some of the world’s most chaotic traffic. Their faces are expressionless and they never look anyone in the eye. The pressures of those streets drive dogs racing madly through the traffic barking insanely.
The people are Muslim. They help each other like the poor do everywhere to survive, but they are at the bottom of Indian society. A year ago the police came, beat the people, abused the women and set their household things on fire, in order to drive them out. A hotel owner on the same street thought they were bad for his business. But they are determined to stay there until some better place for living and raising their families is offered them.
The rickshaw pullers earn 50-100 rupees a day. (The rupee has the same value more or less as the peso.) Sayra’s son, a rickshaw puller, stood beside while she talked. He was lean as a leather belt and laughed good naturedly at his mother’s comments.
The people have water pumps from the government, but little less. As in Manila they can bring their sick to public hospitals, but have to pay for any medicine they use. The education arrangements weren’t clear. The women seemed to say most children didn’t go to school, but some were adopted by foreign foundations and raised in boarding schools outside the city. The women earn about 1,200-1,500 rupees per month making blankets for the government. They also earn from talking to tourists about their lives. They are not complaining: in fact there is much laughter and good feeling. They are happy to be together. Sayra is chubby, but the other women are thin as women can be.
The pavement dwellers live across the street from two very old Protestant churches dating back to the 1860s, the American Civil War and the glory days of the British Empire. The museum is almost as old. If it were possible to remove the cars, we could have been back in 19th-century London. The red brick museum with its barred windows could be part of a movie set for a retelling of the Jack the Ripper serial killings.
After our talk with Sayra, I came in the mornings to sit by the churches and watch the people rise and get ready for the day. They do it slowly giving each person their chance at the facilities. It’s ballet-like in a way, very peaceful.
The Communist Party ruled Calcutta and all of West Bengal for 32 years, before losing the recent statewide election. A veteran communist leader A.B. Bardham said in the May 16 issue of the Times of India that the defeat was due to the arrogance of the party leaders who lost touch with the poor people.
There are, as is obvious, many similarities with life in Metro Manila. Tens of thousands of our poor brothers and sisters curl up at night on mats or newspaper along our streets or in the parks. At six in the evening you see them cooking their rice and by seven or eight, they are in bed. Government treatment of these poor people is pretty much the same as it is in India. It is an open question whether the government here will also lose touch with its people.
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The British Broadcasting Company spent a whole day filming along Estero de San Miguel, which flows near Malacañang. Paul Mason who headed the team was fascinated by the cohesive organization of the estero people and their determination to join with Palafox Associates to build permanent houses on the esteros. He told the people, “I am honored to be here with you.”
We admire the ordinary people of Egypt, Libya and Syria who hunger for freedom and a dignified life to the extent they risk their lives in revolt. Our poor possess the same God-given instincts. They want freedom, dignity and justice just as deeply.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is email@example.com.