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This Ramadan spare a thought for pavement people

Zubaida lives on a pavement in Bandra. In December 1995, the little girl watched in horror as a truck veered straight into her "home", injuring her 10-year-old sister Rabia, who had to have eight stitches on her face. 

Next door, Samsiya mother of four daughters and two sons, has a grisly tale of her own to tell. "Two years ago, my eldest daughter Anisa was sweeping the road outside our shanty before going to sleep when a Maruti 800 hit her and sped away. I've lost count of what I've paid for the stitches on her chin. Can you imagine how I sleep at night when my two sons lie on the road?" 

Last month, Noorulah Sharif was crushed to death while he was sleeping on a Bandra pavement. "Pavement-dwellers are invisible. Nobody wants to acknowledge their existence. They make a transition from villages to a city that is hostile and alien. They are the worst-off in every public amenity." This statement is part of a recent report by the voluntary organisation Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centre (SPARC) that works to resettle pavement-dwellers. 

The holy month of Ramadan is here. A slew of community projects would get their share of attention and finance from Muslims. Ironically, the urban poor are more often neglected, even forgotten. One such section of poor urban Muslims is that of pavement-dwellers. On Mumbai's streets, the fear of being mowed down by rash drivers is very real for the city's pavement-dwellers.

In Mumbai, rash, often inebriated, drivers pose a constant threat to the 1,00,000 homeless people for whom the city's pavements are home. A large proportion is children who have barely obtained rudimentary education and live in shacks without basic amenities. How many are victims of abuse is anybody's guess. Taiyab, 4, and Zubair, 6, play on the road oblivious of the heavy traffic. It seems they are used to this as they live on the pavement. Any middle class mother's heart would skip a few beats seeing them playing on the road and under constant risk of being run over by a speeding vehicle.

Mehmood, their father, is a hawker selling odd food items. "I do not have recourse to send them to school. Most of the organisations I approach either ask us to bring some recommendation or they only give funds for higher education not for pre-primary or primary education", he complains.

A cursory observation of Mumbai pavements at night gives the indication of the gravity of the issue. Thousands of people, of all shapes, sizes and ages, sleep on the footpaths. The lucky ones have a blanket, the others just a block of stones to use as a pillow. It is as if these poor people had walked until exhaustion, and when they could finally walk no more, they simply found the nearest piece of vacant footpath and lay down to sleep. 

Probably the saddest image is of a famished Sakina cradling a baby that could not have been more than three months old. She is sitting on the side of a busy main road. Just sitting and staring into space. "My husband deserted me after the delivery. I myself do not get proper food. Hence I am unable to feed my daughter," she says.

Infants and young girls are the most vulnerable. Tahira, 17, was struggling to cover her body with a torn shawl. Her mother Shahida, looks over 60, but her real age is hardly 40. "I could barely have a sound sleep because of the responsibility of protecting my daughter and thinking about her future. We do not have shelter over our heads. That really sets me worrying about her as she is now grown up," she says.

Perhaps the scale of the problem is too large for one single organisation to handle, but Shaheen Mistri's Akanksha a Sanskrit word meaning inspiration is trying to tackle it. "Returning home from college one day, I thought I'd walk into a slum," says Ms Mistri, recounting how one day's whim became her life's work. "I talked to the children and read to them." She began to visit Mumbai's slums frequently with friends and undertook an informal survey of 100 families on the concerns parents had for their children's future. Most said that access to good education was a serious problem. 

Now over 1,500 children are being taught at Akanksha's 27 teaching centres. Volunteers run a variety of courses, from English to health and hygiene lessons. Akanksha kids receive regular medical check-ups and social workers follow up on cases of concern. Emphasis is placed on practical skills, and classes in embroidery, tailoring and computer skills are offered. In art classes, children create designs for greeting cards, bags and wall paintings. Their mothers process the artwork into finished products to sell, recouping the lost income of sending an employable child to school.

As children grow older, Akanksha helps with formal education, too. Enlisting the support of local businesses and their employees, the organisation recently started mentoring programs whereby students receive one-on-one tutoring on company premises.

"We have to battle constantly to keep young girls, particularly Muslim girls, in our programmes," Ms Mistri says with a sigh. Many have marriages arranged for them in their mid-teens. Akanksha has to run a more intensified curriculum for such students," so that at least the girls will be able to take something away from the classes." 

Quite a few of Muslim organisations do have a budget for the poor and needy. Ironically, a majority of these organisations cater to the middle class. There are very few organisations amongst Muslims which work for the uplift of the slum dwellers or the homeless. No doubt, the community works on a war footing when a natural or man-made disaster strikes, providing homes to those who become homeless. But there are hardly any organisations that take care of this deserving section of the society.

M H Lakdawala in Mumbai

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