Today in Dharavi I got the giggles. And perhaps that seems strange on a day where the heavy monsoon forced me to wade through ankle-deep puddles consisting of rainwater, dirt, garbage and inevitably sewage. I felt as wet and as dirty as the huge rats that scurried through the small moats dug in the side of the narrow residential pathways.
But I couldn’t help but get the giggles.
It started with a meeting and a ladder. A field worker brought me and my translator to the building where we would be attending a discussion on ration cards. When we arrived the field worker pointed up at a steep metal ladder. To get into the home of the woman hosting the discussion, we would have to climb a nearly vertical incline in the pouring rain. I said a little prayer and climbed up – this was, after all, the climb that every member of this family undertook multiple times every day.
Safely inside I washed my feet off and sat on the cold stone ground. My whole body was wet and a fan was humming right above my head – it was my first time since arriving in India that I’d actually been cold. I almost relished the feeling.
I looked around at the home. It was larger than some others I had been to, but more sparsely furnished. There were no beds or refrigerators or televisions. A teenage boy slept on a mat on the ground, oblivious to the meeting going on around him. Our host explained that he was her son. I blinked back at her, unsure of how to respond. This woman looked about 30 years old.
“He’s your son?” my translator asked in Hindi. The woman laughed.
“I know, we don’t look too far apart in age. But he is 18 and I am 33. I got married to my husband when I was 14.”
This sparked a discussion about everyone’s children – I found out that the 26-year-old field worker had an 11-year-old son. She passed around her mobile phone to show photos of her 11, 5 and 3 year old children. I guess at 25 I’m practically a spinster in Dharavi.
After this small-talk, the meeting began. As with most of these meetings, the topic was not domestic violence (the non-profit’s stated purpose). Instead, today it was ration cards.
It’s hard to even delve into the statistics on ration cards in India without feeling a bit overwhelmed. In India, if you are ‘BPL’ (or Below the Poverty line) you qualify for a ration card. The ration card entitles you to subsidized wheat, rice, dal, gas, oil and sugar.
But it’s shocking to hear what BPL actually is. While the exact number depends on the state you live in, to quality for BPL you have to earn less than 30,000 rupees annually for a family (approx $640). That works out to about $50 a month for an entire family to survive – and the average family in India is 5 or 6 people, which means each person is living on less than $10 a month. 330 million people qualify as BPL and theoretically receive ration cards. (Just FYI, these stats come from Indian government websites, which may or may not be totally accurate).
If you put this in perspective, our normal ‘Western’ heuristic of extreme poverty looks at individuals living on below $1 a day. However, about 45% of Indians fit into that category. If you expand the criteria to $2 a day 80% of India is included. By contrast, to qualify as BPL you would have to live on around 30 cents a day.
You would think that existing on 30 cents a day would be enough to go through, but apparently the Public Distribution System (which runs the ration cards scheme) is infected with corruption from the top down. And as such many (if not most) families have difficulties getting their rations.
The women we were speaking with faced all kinds of problems: The proprietor of one woman’s Fair Price Shop (where rations can be purchased) insisted that each purchase came with a 50 rupee (approx $1) surcharge. Another claimed he had run out of oil and had not supplied it for months. Another claimed that if the women complained he could take away their ration cards. And almost all received much less than their allotted rations for the month. It seemed to be widely known and accepted that the shopkeepers stole the remaining rations and sold them on the black market.
So the field worker began to explain to the women their rights – they could demand to see the price list, they could demand to write in the shop’s government-issued complaints booklet, their ration cards could not be taken away by anyone. She said she was going to take them all to their Fair Price Shops to show them where all the items were located and to make sure the owners understood that they now knew their rights.
And so off we all went, down the treacherous staircase, and further into the streets. We were the most colorful and spirited mob of women you could find – 15 Indian women and one white woman in saris and kurtas, all soaked, still trying to avoid the rain – but with spirits bolstered by the newfound knowledge.
And it was on this trip that I got the giggles – because try to imagine a large group of women approaching one man who has systematically screwed them over time and again. And then imagine his face once he realizes what’s happening.
I watched as the field worker stood in front of him and started explaining to the women what their rights were. She demanded to see his complaint book, she demanded to see his price list – and all he could do was watch and cooperate, looking angry and sheepish all at once.
“His face is damn priceless!” my translator whispered to me as we watched. She apparently also found the situation highly amusing.
And clearly this wasn’t going to solve the problems that existed on the state and national level – politicians and government workers are still going to steal rations and the money for rations. Our one day wouldn’t solve that.
But it was hard not to feel empowered by the scenario. These shopkeepers at the ground level had been put on notice. People who deserved to get food subsidies were closer to getting what they needed. And all it took was a little bit of education – these women just needed to know that the shopkeepers couldn’t hurt them. They needed to know what they were entitled to.
How could I not feel good watching that? The problem wasn’t fixed, but these women had certainly taken a large step.
And so I just stood back, let the rain soak me through, and laughed while watching the tiny victory taking place in front of me.