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Having started their Asian adventure by looking at the city of Calcutta as regular tourists (see article), Rodney Appleyard and Dan Thory decided to go beyond the tourist sites and look at another side of the city.

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Calcutta's warriors against poverty

Calcutta is well known for the poverty to be found on it's streets, but seeing it for real can still come as a shock to visitors to the city. We certainly don't wish to discourage you from travelling to Calcutta, on the contrary it's important that visitors do go there, the tourist industry is a vital part of the economy, but it is worth knowing what might be in store. Journalist Rodney Appleyard and photographer Dan Thory report on their own experiences.

We were surprised by Calcutta's stunning buildings, vibrant atmosphere, world class entertainment facilities and the kindness of people in the streets, bars and restaurants – but you cannot turn a blind eye to the desperation which also exists in this city.

We talked to a nurse at Mother Teresa's hospice, and to the Editor of Calcutta's Salvation Army magazine, to find out how bad the problem of poverty really is and what is being done on a local and national scale to create solutions.

Some families live, sleep, eat and wash on the streets. Young children cry and roam around naked in the middle of the most popular tourist areas. You can be oblivious to the problems whilst wandering around the market on a Saturday afternoon, admiring the beautiful colours in hand-made Indian garments, until you notice a person without limbs screaming in pain on the pavement.

Major J. Samraj, the Editor of the Salvation Army newsletter, told us about the biggest problems facing Calcutta at the moment:

Major J. Samraj: "The most difficult problem we are facing at the moment is with the street children. A lot of parents cannot afford their children's basic needs like food, and everything else, so they just don't bother and just leave them alone on the streets. This is a new problem which we are not used to, so we are facing a new challenge in this area."

I couldn't believe it when, after my second day, I passed a child which must have been just under a year old, naked and crying on the pavements of Sudder Street. Surely this child could not be abandoned? But he probably was. Why does Calcutta face these problems?

Major J. Samraj: "The problem is because Calcutta is a famous city. People from the different states come here to work, as truckers, drivers... They take the work away from the people who already live here, so the local people end up with less opportunity to get jobs. We must honour Mother Teresa and appreciate her contribution to the city, which made her get a Nobel Prize."

It's estimated that the population of India will overtake that of China by 2020. Another frightening statistic is that 1 billion people currently live in India, and 20 million of these people are already infected by Aids. Calcutta suffers more from these problems than other Indian cities because the population is spiralling out of the control. Is there any hope for Calcutta?

Major J. Samraj: "Calcutta has a population of 20 million, which is not ordinary. 150 years ago, the British people came and established so many things, such as the railways, but they couldn't achieve everything, so they left.
     The city needs hygiene strategies, counselling, rehabilitation and traffic control. The traffic has been the same since the British were here 150 years ago...
    ...but the people of Calcutta are very good, kind and co-operative people. There is not any terrorism or hypocrisy. A millionaire can live side by side with an outsider from the city and a poor local person who can't get a job. They can accept each other and see each other as equals in their hearts."

You have to admire the optimism of the people who work at the Salvation Army in Calcutta and at Mother Teresa's hospice. Despite the desperation they see around them, they will never give up on trying to help the sick and suffering. The Salvation Army gives food to 250 needy people every day and provides home, food and education to 190 orphans. In addition, they have social services and accommodation for 20 blind people and about 50 old people.

Mother Teresa's hospice provides nurses, and religious support for people dying of any disease. Both organisations are grateful for the help provided by British, American, Australian, Canadian and European volunteers. When Mother Teresa opened her hospice, she looked after prostitutes and helped rehabilitate them back into society. She also persuaded the courts to create an act that allowed her to take custody of homeless children and find suitable people to adopt them. It is a huge credit to her legacy that her revolutionary work is still practised today.

Text © Rodney Appleyard, photographs © Dan Thory, 2002

Would you like to help? Please contact these organisations if you think you can help them fight poverty in any way.
Major J. Samraj, Salvation Army: e-mail: India_Communiactions/IND/SArmy@SAHUB
Mother Teresa's Hospice: Mother House, 54A AJC Bose Road (033/249 7115)

For more general information on the Salvation Army and the ability to donate on-line.
For more information on Mother Teresa including contact addresses and information about acting as a volunteer.