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Mumbai slum fire story is not about one child star

Ruhi Khan writes: Indian media should rid itself of the Slumdog Millionaire fixation and focus on a generation being exposed to poverty, illiteracy and crime

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Every news media recently carried the news that a slum in India's commercial capital Mumbai was gutted in a fire. All 2,000 odd shanties turned to ashes, almost every possession of those who lived there burnt to dust.

This is not the first time such illegal hutments in Mumbai have been engulfed in a fire, but this incident made international headlines thanks to a 10-year-old girl who starred in Slumdog Millionaire, British director Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning movie.

This Garib Nagar (poor man's land) slum has been a part of Mumbai's queen of the suburbs Bandra for decades now. Bandra is a place with many contradictions. On the west side you have the palatial houses of Bollywood stars. To the infamous East, you would see some of the most heart-wrenching slums, acute poverty, illiteracy and hunger. Scenes that resonate similarities with the poor impoverished villages of Africa.

I grew up on the west side of Bandra. As a child, the only time I saw the East was when waiting at the railway station near an illegal settlement of slum-dwellers who built themselves hutments on a reclaimed patch of marshy land on the other side of the railway station.

I often saw men defecating on the railway tracks, women puffing away at a wood stove or children playing with marbles. At first, you are usually horrified by such images, but soon it just becomes an eyesore and you don't give it much thought.

Years later when I went back to Mumbai as a journalist, I visited many slums. It was an enlightening experience as I saw the city as I had never seen it before. Soon after the July 26, 2005 floods, I found myself on the eastern side of Bandra for weeks. I saw the poverty people lived in, their houses and possessions ruined in the raging floods and children and the elderly battling against diseases like dengue and leptospirosis that followed the floods.

I reported on the issue for Mumbai Mirror, a tabloid of the Times of India group, which was instrumental in getting help and resources to those affected.

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A couple of years later, while working on a feature story for NDTV, I spent a few days at Dharavi, one of Asia's biggest slums and the place where Slumdog Millionaire was shot. It was another eye-opener. For a week, my cameramen and I spent all day shooting in the bylanes of Dharavi.

We worked through our ‘sources' at Dharavi. People in the slum don't trust strangers because a lot of what happens there is illegal, including rampant child labour. But if you have someone to introduce you, they welcome you with open arms and share not just their life stories, but also some of their secrets. We could put most of it on camera and the bits we couldn't only added to the wisdom we acquired in this shanty town.

While I had seen most of Bandra East by then, I had still not entered the place I used to see from across the railway station as a child. Slumdog Millionaire was slated to release around that time and I received a phone call from my office asking me to find the two child actors of the film that actually came from the slums. All I knew was that Rubina Ali, who played the role of Latika, and Mohammad Azhar, who played Jamal's evil brother Salim lived in the Garib Nagar slum.

An address in a slum is irrelevant unless you have people who can lead you to your destination. So my cameraman Rakesh and I spent a good 40 minutes walking through piles of garbage and sticky mud on reclaimed marshy land.

It was tough trying not to inhale the stench of faeces and rotting plants and garbage. Finally, we met some children running precariously on a huge pipeline along the marsh playing what looked like a game of tag. Luckily for us they led us to Rubina's house.

The house looked much like every other house in the slum. A tin structure covered with plastic sheets that was as small as a toilet. It had a small kerosene stove on which Rubina's step-mother was cooking rice and a blanket under which two children, Rubina and her sister, were sleeping.

Rubina led me to Azhar, who lived across the road in equally appalling conditions in an illegal structure built on the roadside. I spent the next two days shooting with the two children in their natural environment. By now I knew many a nook and corner of the Garib Nagar slum, met many of its residents especially children and saw yet another generation being thrown to poverty, illiteracy and crime.

My feature story was about the Slumdog kids , but the recent Garib Nagar fire story is not about just Rubina (who incidentally has a house that she was given after she did the movie). It's not about Rubina losing her Oscar memorabilia in the fire; it's about the plight and future of hundreds of other real ‘Slumdog' children, who unlike Rubina, have neither any shelter nor any stardom to fall back on.

These children were living in a death trap in those slums anyway. Perhaps the fire that has destroyed these children's tragic past can be a hope for their better future. Its time the media took up this campaign.

Ruhi Khan is a journalist based in London.

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Latest Comment

It's time for Indias rich to help their own countrymen be freed from poverty. It is shameful that there are super rich in India and yet, they also have the poorest people in the world. It really is a study in contrast. These bollywood stars especially should put their pretensions aside and do something at least to help out.

Xeres

18 March 2011 17:19jump to comments
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