I’m seeing U.P.’s new Chief Minister, who would be the head of state of the world’s fifth largest country if U.P, with its 200 million inhabitants, was its own nation. But I started out the day in the Ujariaon slums.
I just finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s book on the slums of Mumbai, and so was thinking about this part of the trip before I got here. I’ve been to poor areas many times, but I don’t think anything can completely prepare you for a place like Ujariaon.
About 2,000 people live here in an area of about a square kilometer. What little work there is around here is almost all done by garbage pickers, who leave every morning quite early to roam around the city to find things that they could possibly sell or use. As you see in these photos, there are mountains of soda bottles and cardboard. And in the middle of the garbage, families are making whatever makeshift shelters they can.
During the day, there are lots of young kids around who aren’t old enough to be of much use picking garbage. They were awfully curious about who all these visitors were.
I sat down with some community health outreach workers and some women who are raising their families in the Ujarianon slums to hear about the Urban Health Initiative. The UHI is working in 11 cities to expand access to family planning services. Reaching women who live in circumstances like this is extremely difficult. But the outreach workers are dedicated to helping local women understand what options they have and getting them access to contraceptives if they wish them.
It was touching to listen to the women talk about their hopes for their families, and to hear them explain why having fewer children could mean a better life for their kids. The circumstances are horrendous, but their determined hope for their children is beautiful.
The challenges of helping communities like this could be overwhelming. That is why I was so encouraged to meet Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and many of his staff and ministers. He is young – only 38 years old -- and something of a rising star in Indian politics.
I came away with a very real sense that he and his colleagues in U.P. are truly committed to a number of critically important initiatives, particularly around health care for the poor, vaccines and development. There are new efforts around universal vaccination, which will have a huge impact on U.P. They’re also addressing critical needs in water, sanitation and hygiene. My visit to the slum earlier in the day, where good water is rare and open defecation is the rule, was a stark reminder that even in the cities, there is much work to be done.
We had a very productive exchange with Chief Minister Yadav as we talked about the projects we’re working on in U.P. His energy and optimism for changing life for the better in U.P. was encouraging. While the Chief Minister and the mothers I spoke to earlier in the day live in very different conditions, they share a deep desire to make things better in U.P. – for their families, and for the state as a whole. I don’t know that you can understand things like this very well without going to see, and I felt lucky to be in India on day one.
Tomorrow, it’s Delhi and the chance to talk about polio with some important guests.