Our team is now in India, and one of the first things we did was arrange a tour of a large slum in New Delhi. We did this through PETE, a local nonprofit that provides free educational programs,. This tour was very informative and we wanted to write up a quick post on some of the biggest things we learned.
Poverty is way more extreme here than in the first world
Our tea￼￼m has been in poverty research for some time, but for many of us, this was our first time getting this close to extreme poverty. The slum we went to contained about 30,000 people and we traveled around it for about 3 hours. The level of wealth was shockingly low, with the nicest houses having a door and two rooms and the least nice houses being basically a tarp held up with some wood. Sewage and waste flowed freely on the streets and many people did not have personal access to water or electricity. Things that people often take for granted were not present in many houses. These things included mattresses, flooring of any sort, or any form of light (many houses had no windows). The streets between houses were narrow and filled with open waste and closed water pipes side by side. Pollution and air quality is very bad throughout Delhi, but it was even worse in the slum. Some children openly defecated in the crowded public street. Many people had open wood burning fires indoors. This meant the ash in the air made it extremely hard to breathe.
Water is carried in small pipes. Electricity is leeched from nearby wires.
The state of water and electricity was immediately apparent. Along many of the paths there were dozens of hoses piping water to people’s houses. The water was inconsistent and many areas went for days without any. Personal supplies of water in homes were rare and the water was untreated and salty. It was not safe to drink, but people drank from it anyways as it was the only affordable option for them. It occurred to us that water sanitation would be extremely hard in this slum even if the drinking source was clean or water chlorination was provided. The external surroundings, water collectors, cups and peoples hands, were all easily dirty enough to re-contaminate any liquid. Additionally there were large numbers of flies that primarily stayed around water sources or drying laundry, that could easily transmit bacteria from waste to clean water.
Electricity came from low hanging (almost head level) makeshift lines. We were told it was illegally and quite unsafely taken from a nearby power line. Low-hanging, unrepaired lines looked to be a real danger although we did not see anything touch them.
Children are far happier
Throughout our tour, and even through the rest of our time in India, we have consistently found that children seem substantially happier than adults. This was also true to a lesser extent with young adults. As children are usually the most vocal with foreigners, I can imagine it leading people to think the average slum dweller is quite happy even when it’s not the case. I am unsure what the current research base says on this, and the people in the slum didn’t speak nearly enough English for us to ask them questions regarding happiness. We hope to investigate this more in the future.
The wet season is worse for health and happiness
We were told many times that the wet season made things far worse than the dry season (the current one we were in). This was especially true for health. It sounded like waste was harder to control and flooding was very common. This in combination with our more visceral understanding of housing amongst the extremely poor, helped us understand why so many cash transfer recipients spend their money on home improvements. Much of the wet season’s negative effects could be attributed to flooding which could be prevented by better quality housing.
Wealth is spent in really unexpected ways
Although the poverty was extremely evident, there were some purchases that seemed surprisingly high quality given their wealth bracket. The first thing we noticed was clothing. People had quite nice clothing on even though many had no shoes. The second thing we noticed was cell phones. Many people had cellphones and quite a few even had higher end smartphones. This was in stark contrast to the rest of their living standards. We also noticed some unemployed men gambling money on cards and spending money on small sweets from stores inside the slum.
Many people seemed to want a job, but opportunities were slim. When people did have work it was said to be inconsistent. Many of the women seemed to stay home while the men went out and worked. We asked what the most desirable job for people was and our guide said working in a factory. We asked about the average income and it seemed to vary largely. We were given the numbers that women made 4,000 rupees (~$60 US) and men made 8,000 rupees (~$120 US) a month but are unsure how representative this is.
The clinic was surprisingly nice, even in the slum
The final thing we noticed was one of the better buildings in the slum seemed to be the health clinic. When we went there it was unstaffed but had electricity, wood floors, a computer chair and desk. Compared to its surroundings it seemed clearly better funded.