LITTERED throughout the streets of India’s Silicon Valley, children belonging to nobody scavenge through piles of rubbish to thwart death.
By day, the children make a few rupees by offering pickings from the mountains of solid waste to retailers.
At night, they dip their hands into the same meal licked up by the local feral dogs, before laying their heads on tar pillows for a night’s rest.
This is Bangalore, in India’s south, and has become the heart of India’s technologies industry but also home to two million slum dwellers.
Local physiotherapist Joe Paul spent eight years treating leprosy patients with a Catholic missionary group before leaving it all to bring life and dignity in the slums.
During a recent trip to Brisbane with wife Ann to visit a childhood friend, Mr Paul told The Catholic Leader how Bangalore’s slum dwellers were slowly building a better life.
“What happened in the 90s in Bangalore, a lot of children are on the streets, near dust bins, near draining,” he said.
“The scenario was very pathetic and these children used to go through a lot of crises.
“The police used to abuse them, a lot of criminals in the city used to abuse them, and already they have been abused by their parents.
“Being on the street they are nobody’s children.”
These nobodies found thrills in sniffing glue, petrol, or other “spurious drugs”.
“Then I thought ‘I must be with them and create meaningful alternatives for them’, and also first and foremost, give them an identity,” Mr Paul said.
“They get thrilled from all this glue, all the sniffing; I should give them some equal thrill with some alternative.”
He left his work as a physiotherapist and focused his time on the slum kids, first setting up shelter programs to offer the young food and enterprise skills.
The Indian Catholic began partnering with small, charitable organisations creating avenues for work, ranging from mechanic shops, screen painting businesses to a courier service.
Groups of illiterate, uneducated children and teenagers, many of them boys, began to work hard, received a decent wage and grew in self-worth.
But the results were only temporary.
“One drawback I found, these boys would be in the shelter five to six years, then they don’t know how to go back to their home,” Mr Paul said.
“They all come from slums.
“They don’t even want to see their parents because they have some culture, they’ve got identity, they know who they are.”
Mr Paul changed tactics and started attacking the problem at its core – inside the slums to create stronger family units.
“The father, who is an alcoholic, and every second person in the slum, they don’t go to work – they only drink spurious drinks, all country drinks,” Mr Paul said.
“Then they get problems, and they beat up the mother.
“The child experiences this everyday, that the mother has been abused or brutally attacked.
“And because of that, most of the boys, male children, are very much against the father.
“I had to do something that can change the whole family.”
Mr Paul first tried working with the fathers, opening rehabilitation centres to work on their addictions, but after numerous relapses, he got discouraged.
“Then we were working on the best solution – who is the best developmental agent?” he said.
“Then I found out – the mother.
“What happens in slums situation, the husband doesn’t go for work, but the mother, I don’t know where she gets it, she has to cook for the husband.
“Not just mere rice, she has to provide some meat for them, otherwise she’ll be beaten up, black and blue.
“And take care of the children.
“How she does it, we don’t know; from where she gets money?
“So I thought, let me strengthen this person, in terms of giving her economic power.”
Mr Paul was given access to speak to a group of 20 women and started micro-credit groups.
The women would meet weekly, adding in a dollar or less to the joint kitty, and whoever was in financial need that week received the loan and paid it back with small interest repayments.
After a number of weeks, women not only became financially independent, but used the groups as a way getaway from their domestic problems.
“Every week when they come, they talk – they mainly talk about family problems,” he said.
“Husband coming, and beating, or whatever.
“Another woman also shares with her about her mother-in-law problems.
“What happens (is) they get a little morale support.
“These groups take care of those issues, they get neutralised, they feel strengthened.”
Soon, these groups were taking out large loans from agencies that advised the women on where to spend their new funds, either on school fees or building expenses.
“The mothers are educated and they know their priorities,” Mr Paul said.
“What happens is…they wanted their houses to be better, and wanted children in schools.”
But the height of changed happened when Mr Paul found the women work as facility managers at Bangalore’s top IT companies, receiving up to 6000 rupees ($130) a month.
“And in the process when she goes to work for IT companies, they do a lot of housekeeping, cleaning, so she brings that culture to the home – she also likes the house to be clean, the children also to be clean,” he said.
“As the saying goes, ‘If you do anything with the man, it remains with the man. But with the woman, everything changes’.
“In all this what happens, I didn’t just give them fish to eat; I taught them how to fish.
“See in the process what happens, they are able to stand on their own feet.
“The groups are running now, they are going for work, the children are in good schools, they have nice families.”
And their children, the waste pickers, have also found work in Intel and Dell, managing a waste management company, paid for by Mr Paul’s company, Uthsaha Society, a Sanskrit word meaning “motivate”.
Louise Simento, who met Mr Paul’s wife in school and later went to teaching college at a town near Bangalore, said Uthsaha’s work was “very uplifting”.
“What always struck me about Joe, is that I see in him what I would feel is the heart of Christ for the poor,” Ms Simento said.
“They are genuinely caring for the poor, it is not some kind of social work.”
Ms Simento said Mr Paul’s Catholic faith was the source of his entire work in the slums.
“Before he goes to work, everyday he spends time before the Blessed Sacrament, otherwise he doesn’t feel settled.”
But Mr Paul doesn’t believe he is out to save the slum dwellers.
“It’s not a question of saving (slum dwellers),” he said.
“My focus is completing eliminating them.
“There are huge slums where I have worked, and we are able to stop children going to the streets.
“I work with anyone.
“My philosophy in working with these people are accept people as they are, identify strengths and work on it.
“And it has worked miracles.”
By Emilie Ng