Features:

An Activist and a Scholar

Dealing with Delhi

Dealing with Delhi

Medill junior on an internship in New Delhi finds it difficult to ignore the gap between the middle class and the legions of homeless. by Elaine Helm


America's reality TV has nothing on life in New Delhi. Some of the everyday urban challenges I faced there would rattle the best competitors on Survivor.

Delhi's residents seem to handle common hassles with far more serenity and tolerance than I could manage. From catching an auto rickshaw to waiting out frequent power outages, life in India's capital city left me exhausted at the end of each day.

Even doing my Teaching Media internship with the Times of India — the world's largest circulation English-language newspaper — seemed easy compared with adjusting to life in Delhi. As an intern with the Times I worked as a copy editor and reporter for the metro, lifestyle and business sections of the paper. But most of the time when I went out on assignment, I covered events such as a demonstration of massage therapy for captive elephants or the launch of a company's new marketing campaign featuring star cricket players — not exactly hard-hitting journalism.

I was one of four "pioneers" for the Medill School of Journalism's new TM opportunity in India. Although we worked for different news organizations in Delhi, we could rely on one another for sympathy when we came home to our shared apartment at the end of the day.

Unlike our group of U.S. interns, Indians take Delhi's challenges in stride. My co-workers at the newspaper hardly flinched when the lights flickered. Nor did they react too dramatically when cockroaches scurried across their desks.

But the problems fellow Medill students and I faced pale in comparison to those of the homeless or slum-dwelling poor. You are never truly alone in a city of more than 12 million people and a nation of more than 1 billion. And a place so teeming with life also has more than its fair share of poverty.

Poor people from the rural countryside find their way to cities like Delhi in search of jobs and settle on any spare patch of land they can find. Lately the city government launched a campaign to relocate people living in a slum settlement on the bank of the Yamuna River. As one reporter who covered the story told me, however, the people who moved to government-provided plots in the suburbs eventually will find their way back to the city. Only in the city do they have at least some hope of being hired.

Unlike the poor and homeless living in U.S. cities, Delhi's destitute are not confined to the "bad side of town." They often live just outside the gates of the city's upscale residential areas or on streets near commercial centers.

As an outsider, I found it difficult to ignore the stark division between the Westernized, English-speaking, college-educated journalists I interacted with and the poor, illiterate, homeless men, women and children in their midst.

Just as Delhi's middle class tends to dismiss its problems, so too does it largely dismiss the ever-present poverty in the city. Such complacence did not sit well with me.

I don't think I will ever forget the look in the eyes of one young girl who held a crying infant on her hip as she begged me for "one rupee, madam." Or the desperation of a child who followed me for several blocks from a McDonald's one night pleading for "one chapati, madam."

India remains a developing nation, despite tremendous strides in business, education and government relations. It seems that the residents of the capital city risk overlooking the problems that still must be addressed for their country to make the leap from "developing" to "developed."

Events in the news often make people more aware of such problems. While I was in Delhi, many people took a new look at the city's unfriendly conditions for women after the prime minister's grand-nephew was thrown from a train for defending some women. But fewer people seemed to take notice — much less take action — when the government announced plans to clear the Yamuna slum and other settlements in the capital.

The theme of the country's Republic Day holiday on Jan. 26 was "India Shining." But I know I'm not the only one who noticed more than a few areas of society still lacking in luster, even in one of the country's most prosperous cities. I just hope I can return to India in a few years and see progress toward the holiday's premature declaration.

Elaine Helm (J05) of Silverdale, Wash., is the editor of the Daily Northwestern.



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