Ramona Kar

As Interviewed by Deepa Telang, Februrary 22, 2013

Ramona Kar: In Her Own Words

I have a Masterís degree in Social Work from Mumbai University of Mumbai, India. Through my degree I did an internship in a municipal school in the Consumer Guidance Society of India in a mental health project. After I graduated I worked in a local hospital as a community health social worker. I then worked in a family service agency as an adoption and foster care social worker. After that, I moved to technical writing and, currentl,y I work as a job coach for students with disabilities in Leander High School.

The decision to be a social worker was a little random. I didnít get admission in personal management, so I thought the next thing best field was social work because I have always enjoyed helping people. My mom was a strong role model for me; she used to help a lot in our church parish. I wanted to get into an environment which was not extremely competitive and work with classmates, peers, and individuals who are not too ambitious, because thatís not who I am. So I wanted to help people, which basically fits my personality.

A slum is a collection of ramshackle dwellings, made with tin, cardboard, palm leaves, wooden planks Ė whatever is available locally and whatever the builder can afford to buy. People who live in slums typically migrate from villages to the city. They donít come with a lot of money, so they donít have a lot of money to buy building resources. So whateverís available, they just build their dwelling. A slum community does not have a good sewer system, no running water, no restrooms, no water. Slums can get demolished just overnight, although many slums have stayed in one place.

Because people who live in slums live in poverty, the slum community attracts or is the target group of many social workers. Typically a social worker who works in a slum would target the health care needs of the people, education needs, employment needs. Recently, women have become one of the chief target groups of most non-government organizations [NGOs]. They help women become more financially self-reliant. Also a lot of social workers work on empowering the people to advocate for services on their own.

I first worked in a local municipal school, which is basically a free school Ė students attend there for free. And the municipal program did research, and they found that a lot of students were dropping out, in spite of getting a free education. We asked the college of social work to establish little social work cells in the municipal program, and I worked in one of them. The name of the school was Bhara Dhabi Municipal School. I used to make home visits to the students that dropped out, and thatís the reason I visited the slum in that area. And then, when I worked in the Consumer Guidance Society of India, we were told to visit the slums to educate the women about food adulteration. When I was a community health worker, I worked at the local hospital. The hospital had various community health projects in the neighboring slums. I basically visited the slums to identify women who had good potential to become health workers, which is basically a health activist. They would in turn educate the local population about the health issues Ė thatís why I visited the slums then. We also set up little tutoring classes, and we identified local residents to become teachers. I would visit them to give them in-service training.

I lived in Mumbai, where apartment buildings coexist with slum communities, but I had never actually been inside a slum before. What struck me was how terrible it was to live in a place where it had an open sewer system. I had never before seen an open drain. You have an open drain, and next to it you have a dwelling thatís just adjacent to the drain. You are level with an open drain, and just the impact of living in that situation day in/day out was pretty traumatic. It just struck me. Secondly, how dark each dwelling is, because sunlight never really enters a slum dwelling. Very often, they build a slum dwelling, and then they build a first and second level above the ground level, and so each progressive level gets lighter as the sunlight hits it, but the lowest level gets no sunlight. Itís very hard to keep the floor clean because itís a dirt floor, which makes it become a dwelling for insects and other things.

After the gas explosion in Bopal, our college of social work sent a team to interview people affected by the explosion and the people lived in slums. I remember going door to door, administering services. I also recall visiting people who lived in recycled colonies. Very often, when builders wanted to demolish a slum, they would resettle the dwellers in what is called as a transit camp, and we would visit them there.

Typically boys were sent to schools, because they were perceived as future income earners, and girls were trained to get married. A lot of girls really dropped out of school after the eighth or seventh grade because they needed to look after their younger siblings. Boys received more privileges, and it was actually considered to be dangerous for girls to venture out after a certain hour to perhaps go to an evening class. So, definitely, boys and girls received different treatment, and it still goes on today. However thereís a slight dynamic change because of globalization. Call centers have sprung up in cities like Mumbai, and a lot of the girls that lived in slums have a slightly brighter future to look forward to. If they continue to study in English-majoring schools, after they complete their twelfth grade, they get jobs in call centers. They have something better to look forward to than say, in the 1980s.

I remember visiting a home when I was interning, because this particular student had dropped out. The home was in a slum where most of the fathers were dairy farmers. They basically lived in a colony, and they raised buffalos, milked them, and sold the milk. They came from a place in India called Uttar Pradesh. Typically, the status of women is pretty low in the villages of this state. So when I visited this dwelling, I could not see anything, it was so dark. The women were in the back of this particular hut. She had her sari almost to her chin level; I almost needed a flashlight just to see her face. I felt so sad because not only is their status low, they are literally invisible in their own homes. Thatís a particular incident that still stays with me. They had no say in whether their child went to school or not; it was the father's decision. Their job was to wake up in the morning, cook, clean the house, and thatís it.

I learned in the field of social work not to measure my accomplishments by outcome but by process. I just felt by being there, and working with people, and by showing warmth and compassion, and being able to identify Ė that this process of relationship would give them an experience on how it felt when someone cared. I felt that my job was to make them aware. Awareness is the first step to empowerment. I don't know if I accomplished a lot, but I felt that the very process of being with them and making them aware was a step in the right direction.

Actually, a lot of people were happy, because people who live in slums live a moment at a time. They really donít have a luxury of making long-term plans or thinking 10 years ahead. They live a moment at a time. If they have food on their plate and a roof over their head, theyíre happy. The children are playing with whatever's available, and they are happy. The neighbors all talk to each other. Itís only the end of the day, when all of the people come home Ė maybe drunk or had not had a good day at work Ė when conflicts arise. But during the day, whenever I was there, most people were happy. In fact, they were very happy to receive visitors, and thereís one thing I would like to say Ė regardless how much money they had Ė whenever we made home visits, they would send their children to the local grocery store and they would buy me a soda.

I hoped that the peopleís living situation would improve. I hoped that the woman would become more vocal and would speak out against injustice and exploitation. That was my hope.

Overall, I am very, very, very grateful that I chose Social Work as my degree. I am very happy because if it werenít for that, I wouldnít know how the 80% of India lives. Because a lot of people in India live in rural places or poverty conditions, so has made me very sensitive to the struggles of many human beings.

I think that the dynamics have changed a little bit in urban areas, and I want to specify that I worked in Mumbai, which is the financial capital of India. Itís very urban, so my experiences definitely will be different than a social worker who worked in rural areas. Globalization has affected the dynamics. A lot of people have different opportunities than they had before. For example, you have a five-star hotel, and that itself had triggered a lot of jobs. But because of globalization, the gap between the rich and the poor has increased even more, because to get those jobs you need higher-level education, which all might not have. Secondly I would like to say that even though a slum consists of ramshackle dwellings, itís also the center of a lot of small industries. For example, in Dharavi, there are small industries making tires Ė there are rubber industries, small computer companies. Many industries are there. Itís not just a dwelling place, itís also a business place. So globalization and world politics Ė the economy has an effect on the slums of India.