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Bill Cash MP
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Plight of the real 'slumdogs'

An article by Bill Cash published in The Guardian 15/09/2009

Slumdog Millionaire doesn't get near it. By the way, the slum dwellers of Mumbai and Delhi I was with last week resent the use of "slumdog" with good reason. It is difficult to describe or, indeed, to exaggerate the degrading living conditions to which they have been reduced. When people speak today of human rights, the rights of which they speak are off the radar as far as the rag-pickers are concerned. For them, the theoretical luxury of a remote judicial process would seem totally alien and meaningless. They are simply on a continuous journey of survival.
I went to India with Results UK with the co-operation of Global Health Advocates, who also work internationally with Tear Fund, as I do, along with Water Aid, on sanitation and water matters. I travelled with two other members of parliament, David Borrow (Labour) and Mark Oaten (Lib Dem). We were equally affected by what we saw. We went for three days to see at first hand the problems caused by tuberculosis and the lack of sanitation and water. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on third world sanitation and water, I also learned a great deal about TB and its relationship to HIV/Aids.
The Indian government has a TB strategy, which is beginning to work, helped by our own Department for International Development (DfID), the WHO and others. It now appears to have a 70% detection rate, where it can establish contact, and a treatment success rate of 85%, with 100,000 patients being treated every month.
Yet because of its scale, the problem is in great danger of overwhelming even these determined efforts, and malnutrition is intensifying an already desperate situation. TB kills more adults in India than any other infectious disease, with more than 1,000 people a day dying at the rate of two deaths every three minutes. Recent statistics suggest that there are about four million virulent TB cases, and half of those who have HIV complications run a 10 times higher risk of dying. We were told that compliance with international regulations is significantly reducing the risk of exporting TB from India to other countries, which is politically extremely important.
The movement from rural to urban living has imposed an intense burden on the already struggling infrastructure. It is with anxiety that I heard of increasing urbanisation, which I fear will make the overstretched water systems even worse. Despite their deprivation, though, people gather under the aegis of organisations such as Saahasee and Save the Children (India) into self-help taskforces co-ordinated by local teams of courageous women slum dwellers.
Through these local networks, the women work within a catchment area of about quarter of a million poverty-stricken people. With careful management, they turn tiny voluntary subscriptions of one or two rupees a day into funds of more than 5 million rupees (£62,000) and more. These self-helpers are alleviating the poverty and evolving a new way forward from the very bottom up.
These grassroots movements are not, in any sense, political, but they do create an underpinning for some of the most impoverished people in the world. I have seen comparable slums in Nairobi and other parts of Africa, but never before this meeting of ground zero conditions with the soaring effect of self-help.
Comparable deprivation in the mid-Victorian period was found in Ireland by John Bright in the 1840s in his campaign for the Irish peasantry during the famine of 1849, which he complemented by his campaign for self-government, water, irrigation and canal systems for Indians in India. More now needs to be done to create a convergence of India's economic miracle with help for those in the most deprived slums. For democracy to continue to succeed in India, the conditions of the slum dwellers must change.
It is to the credit of the British government, DfID and the Conservative party that they have committed themselves to ring-fencing international development funding after the next general election. But we need renewed international action through the G8 and G20, as Tony Blair promised me in one of his last letters as prime minister on 27 June 2007. I raised the issue with Gordon Brown on the floor of the House of Commons on his statement about this year's G8 in July, reminding him that he had not pursued his predecessor's promise on sanitation and water – which he then agreed to do.
I left India with the abiding memory of a woman rag-picker crying out from the midst of the crowd surrounding us, "Please, we beg of you, give us clean water. This is what we need!"

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