Amritakuteeram voices from Ajanta Nagar

Monday, 1 March 2004 — Pune, Maharashtra

Mata Amritanandamayi Math, in connection with the local and central government, is in the process of rehabilitating slum dwellers of Ajanta Nagar. The project involves the construction of 27 blocks of four- and five-story apartment buildings where on top of what used to be a nine-acre slum.

Walking around with the brahmachari in charge, we had a chance to speak to some of the slum’s residents, all of whom will receive new houses between May of 2004 and the end of 2006.

“This brings so much hope to my heart. Now I know that if I die our children will live in better homes. I am so grateful to Amma because She gives them shelter,” says Chabubai Diwar, a 60-year-old grandmother who lives in one of the Ajanta Nagar slums. She currently still lives in her slum dwelling, a stone house with a roof made from rusty iron plates thatched with plastic bags. “My oldest son was in an accident four years ago,” she says. “He cannot do a full days work anymore.”

Her other son makes about Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 1,500 a month doing odd construction jobs. Chabubai herself hand washes clothes in the nearby neighbourhoods. It is hard work. It brings her an average of Rs. 500 a month.

For the past 14 months, Baskar Sampad Tayde has lived with his wife, Kamal, their three daughters and his all-but-blind mother in one of the Ajanta Nagar transit houses set up by the Mata Amritanandamayi Math. They will be among the first of the slum residents to move into a new flat when the rehabilitation-project’s first phase opens in May 2004. Every day Baskar reports to a local contractor to find out if there is any work available for him. No work means no money.

He gets work on the average of 10 to 15 days per month, making around Rs. 200 to 250. Hardly enough as the cost of living here is about Rs. 5,000 month.

Nonat Ganpath is 34. Since he broke his back in three-story fall he can no longer work construction. With no medical insurance and no disability pension, life is hard. He still suffers from quite a lot of pain but is able to make Rs. 500 to Rs. 1,000 per month ironing. He lives in the slum with his daughter, wife and mother. His wife earns money sweeping the floor in the nearby hospital.

Mullah Shvik [the man with the white hat] used to work as an electrician but lost his leg in an accident. He shares his slum house with his wife, their daughter, and his son’s family of four. The whole family depends solely on the Rs. 2,000 the son makes as a construction worker.

In one of the slum houses, Dr. Meenakshi runs a small health clinic. Wanting to help Pune’s poor, she set up the clinic after completing her medical studies. “I want to work for my satisfaction,” she says, “and here I really feel I can contribute.” The main health problems in the slum are hygiene and the seasonal fevers, she says. Many children get sick from contaminated water, so there are many cases of dysentery.

Dr. Meenakshi charges little for her work. A check-up costs Rs. 10; medication is sold at its cost price. “I am very happy to see the renovation work progressing so fast,” she says. “It can really benefit the people. Their life standard will surely change; now most of them live in very unhygienic circumstances. The new houses invite for more hygiene, but the people need to change too. I hope they will change their lifestyle too.”

As night falls in Ajanta Nagar, women start cooking. Many dress up to go to the Pune ashram to listen to Amma sing bhajans and to receive Her darshan. Renovating slums lies not only in the rebuilding of houses; it is in the relieving of pain and suffering; it is in the transformation of lifestyles and the providing of hope to people who have been beaten around their entire life.

— Kannadi