Glendora Press – Oct. 5, 1969
India’s People Chained to ‘Structure’
(Editor’s Note: For two years prior to joining the faculty of Glendora High School, Dwayne Hunn served the U.S. Government as a member of the Peace Corps. For the next several issues the Glendora Press will carry articles by Mr. Hunn in which he vividly describes the stark reality of life in teeming India and some of his experiences there during his Peace Corps duty.)
By DWAYNE HUNN
‘Seek to imitate… our Master, who when he sees a poor man does not wait for him to beg for alms.”
Stay with me for some of my next few words as they walk down a street for you. After walking down this street I will attempt to become, in some way, analytical about our world’s relation to it. Both worlds are very important, although and because, their way of thought and motivation are different.
Try to imagine that you and I are on the corner of that street. Trust me to guide you down it and view it to you as I feel you would. Trust me, because I lived on that street for ten months and viewed it many times as you probably would in this paper.
The corner is a busy intersection jerkily flowing with small cars, an occasional rich man’s Chevrolet, two-tired and dilapidated red buses, bicycles, and carts of all sizes — all laboriously pulled by thinly strewed, dark skinned legs. The restaurant on the corner, with the walls opened to the street, makes edible curry. Edible, once you have gone through the initial stages of dysentery due to the initial eatings of it. The overhead fans do little to keep flies off your food.
The etiquette of the waiters, who carry six glasses of water at once by inserting their fingers into the innards of the glasses, leaves a little to be desired. Carrying the water glasses as such is not too bad, but when the waiter cleans leftovers from the dishes, blows his nose in his fingers and then brings the glasses — then, more than etiquette enters in.
Passing the restaurant we edge around the queue (line of people) which winds down the sidewalk. They have queued up to receive their vegetable oil allotment. The third little shack dispenses it. The short squat man lying in the shack on a raised portion of wood is the proprietor. He lies there with his white clothes and contented smile almost daily. He does not seem to do much else. Others do it for him. We have passed the last of the little shops. They were selling articles from soap and materials, to flashlights and lamps. All domestically made articles – this is the poorer area of the city.
Perhaps along with our visual conceptions a little socio-economic background would aid our journey. The housing area we are now entering is one of the areas commonly termed the chawls. The chawls are India’s slum-tenements. Here, a few hundred thousand of Bombay’s one to three million chawl dwellers reside.
Continuing down the street our senses take in the new and unexpected. But the sense mechanism is so flooded – shocked may be a better word – that initially it is impossible to express. But we do notice the obvious. The air of the street is filled with dirt, vehicle exhaust and the stench of dirty humans, garbage and excrement. But that is merely the air.
Breathing this, we proceed down the street. We proceed slowly, being jostled and stepping between all the little people on the sidewalk makes our movement such. We become Impatient with the overflow crowd of the sidewall and move to the street. There with part of the overflow crowd, we compete with vehicles for movement.
On the curb of the sidewalk we have just left art little, weary Indian women commonly called “vegetable wallahs.” They sit on a little hemp sack with their income for the day or week beside them. That income may consist of 40-50 small potatoes stacked, ready for sale, in piles of four.
Moving in the street through the foul air and crowd our ears soon become attuned to the honks and screeches of passing vehicles, the call of vegetable wallahs, the clatter-chatter at the crowd, the walls of children and the blare of Hindi music.
Looking through the crowd we can see into the room of a dirty grey, four-storied chawl. Through the barred window we can see that pots, rags, pictures of holy men and very often a picture of President Kennedy adorn the meager wail space. The room we have looked into has that one barred window, one door and no fan. It is 15’x12’ and it is home for usually 5-12 joint family members.
Outside the barred window lies a 20’ separation before the next chawl begins. That space is littered with dirt, rocks glass, red Indian spittle, excrement and garbage. Around numerous large piles of garbage, dining cows and/or pigeons will be found at any time of the day. At night rats in large numbers will be found. Rats in Bombay are estimated at between 5-12 per person.
Returning to the curb our view focuses on a 10 month old child of one of the vegetable wallahs, The mother keeps the child wih her since the rest of her family is out trying to earn a few paises (like a penny). The child adjusts to the environment, she must. The naked child crawls oft the hemp mat and as it does so you notice the large sores around the pelvic area. Medicare? No, not even Johnson’s Baby Powder is available.
One observant walk down such a street is unforgettable. Many walks — and especially living there — brings home the vicious circle of the meager life, education, and experience these people are forced through. The crowded and dirty living conditions put health, privacy and enjoyment at a bare minimum. Their food staples, rice and dahl, are severely rationed and spreading it to a joint family keeps that family frail and weak.
During the school year the children get out of this environment six times a week — to be educated. They go to half-day classes that average between 35-50. Teachers are not well paid or well trained, and the environment background speaks for itself. With this classroom setting, rote memory, with next to no creative formation is the method.
At birth those children were as cute as, and their eyes sparkled, as much as any American counterpart. But soon enough their eyes assumed a hollow, weak look. A middle class American baby gets, and soon enough learns to expect, much different treatment.
Incidentally, what we just walked through is how the upper lower class lives, the class which borders on the middle class. The one-and-a-half to three million who live in clusters of disgusting hutments and under the skies an the streets are lower.
That was a bit of the grass roots description of a RPCV. The Peace Corps is meant to try to effect development on this grass roots level. Sometimes it can, sometimes it must work otherwise. Such was the case with our group. But out of this all of us learned something about the problems which blocked success at this level. At the same time one of ourmost important educations was one of appreciation for the “so much” we have at home.
As an Urban Community Development group some of us came to India believing we should act as proteges of Saul Alinsky. That we should organize the lower classes, have them petition and/or fight for their rightful, human deserts to the government bureaucracy above them.
Yes, the beautifully pyramidal, governmental welfare structure exists — on paper. But to expect redress of life’s grievances from that structure is foolish, and the lower classes have never bothered to feel otherwise.
Being an American in the city also offers opportunities to get to know the upper and middle classes. The middle class has its own environmental hang-ups. They are aware of how the rich live, desire same of their possessions and experiences. Their teenage children are not like the chawl or hutment children — many of which have never been to the downtown, financial, entertainment center of the city.
The middle class teenager has seen it, experienced some of it and adds to the family pressure to enjoy more of it. But that costs money. Money comes from position. Appointment does not depend axiomatically on position, but class position plays a very important role in attaining these appointments. For those below the upper class it is usually a hindering role. The economic structure of developing nations adds to the hindrance.
The middle class father would like to have money for a business venture, would like to have connections to aid this and would like to use both to put his children through the good private schools and then through a foreign university. With these status symbols his children’s aspirations will be more attainable than they presently are to him.
Father has learned a little through life and has been stuck beneath the bureaucracy long enough to realize the impediments thwarting improvement of his position. He can talk continuously of these problems. He has not yet tired of talking, but has tired of believing — if he ever believed such that he or anyone can meaningfully change the structure. He is frustrated, but seems to have accepted his position —beat by the structure.
India’s political structure offers few immediate, effective changes. Such a structure based on a 75-80 percent illiterate and peasant populace, supported by ensuing traditional beliefs and continued by a moderate (for Asia — except when imputed on its base) two point four percent population increase; offers few clear spots in the smog.
This is but a sketch of the problems of the world’s largest democracy. How does the rest of the free world, and particularly America, aid India with these problems? Proponents of aid would generally agree that it should be directed to developing human and economic resources. Opponents would point out that for 20 years we have aided nations like this yet they have not “taken off.” Their answer is — “therefore taper off.”