Hello Magic Bus supporters! I’m Ross, Magic Bus UK’s Information Coordinator. If you’ve ever looked around our website, read our seasonal newsletter, or just seen a Magic Bus UK post on social media, then you will have seen some of my work!

Right now, I’m somewhere over Europe, jetting my way to Mumbai on my very first visit to India. I’m on my way to see the work we do first hand, to visit some of the communities that we work in, to meet my colleagues at Magic Bus India, and to meet the kids that your generous support is helping.

As I edge across the map my excitement grows, as I have the privilege of visiting a country as vibrant and diverse as India. But, if I’m being honest, I do feel a small sense of trepidation.

Your intrepid (not really) traveller!

This is my first visit to India and while I look forward to seeing the sights of Mumbai, this isn’t a holiday. In only a few short days I will see India at both its best and its worst. I’ll see first-hand the kinds of poverty and hardship that most of us in the UK will only ever read about. But I’ll also get to meet people fighting to overcome that poverty, working to create a better India where children have a chance at a brighter future.

It’s for this reason that I’m writing this blog. Over the next week I’m going to share my experiences with you, to help us all better understand the work Magic Bus is doing and how your support is helping to change the lives of children and young people all across India.

Day 1:

While I haven’t had an opportunity to see much of the city outside the airport, the Magic Bus office, my hotel and what I could spot from the back seat of a taxi, it’s been eye-opening none the less. Mumbai is a city of fierce contrasts. Old and new, rich and poor, Urban and suburban. While this is no different than most cities around the world, these differences are much starker than anywhere I’ve ever been: Private jets lined up on the other side of a fence from a slum at Mumbai Airport, ultra-modern skyscrapers towering over crumbling colonial buildings, autorickshaws and Mercedes-Benz’s jostling for position on the roads. It’s all a firm reminder that India is in a state of flux, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, soon to become a powerhouse on the world stage, but still a developing country, where millions are being left behind by this rapid growth.

And it’s very hot.

Much of the afternoon of Day 1 was spent at Magic Bus’ head office, a chance to catch up with colleagues who I had met in the UK, and to properly meet those colleagues I’ve only known through our exchanges by email. Everyone has been very friendly and welcoming (of course they have! They work for Magic Bus!) and it’s been a great opportunity to learn about some of the important behind-the-scenes work that makes Magic Bus a success. It’s also been a chance to get up to speed on Magic Bus’ plans for the future. I won’t give anything away here, but I will say is that it’s all very exciting and will help Magic Bus continue to make a positive impact!

Day 2:

Today was the first of two community visits I have planned while I’m in Mumbai. Escorted by the lovely Aarti from Magic Bus head office, we travelled by autorickshaw to the small community of Chamunda Nagar in Bhandup, North East Mumbai.

This tiny community is made up of around 200 people, primarily Buddhists and members of one of India’s lower castes. The area in which they live is tightly packed, sandwiched between a canal, a main road and a busy railway line. Most of the buildings, primarily homes, but also a couple of shops and a small Buddhist temple, are non-permanent, largely built from tarpaulin, wood and sheet metal. Some are lucky enough to have a door, most make do with a sheet of cloth or tarpaulin for privacy. None of the homes have access to running water, let alone any toilets. Clean water for the community is accessed from two taps, which work for only two hours each day because they can’t afford to pay for a regular supply. The only other source of water is the canal, which is filled with rubbish and into which pours raw sewage from an outlet pipe less than 10 yards from the clean water taps.

A satellite photo of Chamunda Nagar. You can see the town square in the bottom-left corner and the canal in top-middle of the image. The Magic Bus sessions are held in the green fields across the main road. Click to Expand.

While this isn’t a photo of Chamunda Nagar, I’ve included it here to help you imagine it, as this is an excellent representation of what the community is like. Click to Expand.

Each day the women of the community gather with an assortment of containers to collect the water their family needs to survive that day. The men are generally day-labourers working for the local government, earning a meagre sum.

It was during this two-hour slot that Aarti and I arrived, with women and children gathering as much water as possible before the taps stopped. We were met by Sonali, the Training and Monitoring Officer (TMO) for the area, Ashit, a Community Youth Leader (CYL), and their friend Akshay, an informal volunteer. For those that don’t know, Magic Bus CYLs are young people who run the Magic Bus sessions and serve as mentors and role models for their community. The TMO’s are the managers of the CYLs, providing training, and gathering the data for each Magic Bus session.

We took a walk through Chamunda Nagar, a community so small that it took only around 10 minutes to complete a circuit. On one end are the aforementioned taps, the other is essentially a town square, a small open space that serves as a focal point of the community. In between, the buildings are tightly packed, with little more than a shoulder width of space between structures to serve as streets.

Rubbish lies everywhere, animals roam free and there’s no escape from the flies and mosquitoes. Sonali explains that open defecation is commonplace (which I luckily did not have to witness) as the only toilets for the community were some clunky portable ones on the other side of the busy main road, which are apparently so poorly maintained, no one risks visiting them.

As we visited the fresh water taps on the far side of Chamunda Nagar, Akshay showed me the canal and the open sewer pipe just yards away. The water, largely hidden underneath floating rubbish, had been turned grey by the sewage flowing into it, with a putrid smell of something rotting.

I’m trying to imagine being put in a position where I and the 200 that living nearest to me only had access to clean water for less than two hours a day. If I didn’t get enough water in the morning and ran out, I would be forced to choose between enduring +30Co heat without water, or to drink stinking, polluted sewer water from who knows where (there have been efforts to trace where the sewage is coming from, but with no success). From the comfort of my desk in an air-conditioned office, bottled water at hand, this feels like an impossible scenario that this community faces every single day. To think that most of us in the UK only have to worry about the occasional hosepipe ban puts things in very sharp perspective!

Personal hygiene is obviously limited. With only so much water available, needed for drinking and cooking, basic acts of personal hygiene like washing hands is forgotten.

Having completed a circuit of Chamunda Nagar, Akshay very kindly invited us into his home, giving us an opportunity to chat (with Aarti as interpreter. Sonali, Akshay and Ashit only speak Hindi and I, obviously, only speak English.) His house, like most of the others, is largely assembled from tarpaulin and sheet metal. It has no windows to allow in light, and the black tarpaulin walls only amplified the already stifling heat. The house is divided in two with a cooking area and a living area and no evidence of a bed. Akshay doesn’t have that many possessions, but he clearly does his best to keep everything tidy and orderly.

From Left to Right: Myself, Akshay, Ashit & Sonali.

If you think I’m looking a bit warm in this photo, you’d be right! Thank you Aarti for taking the photo!

I’m now writing this a day later and I’m still struggling to process everything I saw at Chamunda Nagar. Whenever I read about other people’s experiences on these types of visits, generally the term “Shocked” or “Surprised” comes up. I’ll be honest, having worked at Magic Bus for a few years now, read the stories, seen the photos, watched the films etc., I had a good idea what I was going to see. But to stand there in this slum community surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells, my reaction both as I stood there and as I write this now, is anger. Anger that anybody should be forced to live in these conditions every day. Anger that a community of 200 people only get 2 hours of water access a day, their only alternative being raw sewage. Anger that the local government has at best chosen to ignore this community because of its legal status. Anger at myself for taking for granted all the things that fill my basic needs that this community, through no fault of their own, must suffer without.

In the short time I was there I saw genuine examples of kindness and friendship; that these people, little different from me when push comes to shove, have no choice but to live in these inhumane conditions infuriates me to my very core.

But there is hope that tempers my anger. The work that Magic Bus is doing there, with around 50 kids, 30 boys and 20 girls, aged 12 to 18, is already having an impact. Before Magic Bus arrived a year ago, none of the children in the community went to school. They didn’t see the point. Now they all go to school, they even make sure to do their homework! Better yet, all of them aspire to something better. They’re just like kids back home when you ask them what they want to do when they grow up: “Scientist! Doctor! Train Driver!” And just like kids at home, their aspirations change every day. But the fact that these children have aspirations at all and are not scared to chase a better the future, in this place where hope would otherwise die, is truly amazing!

Sonali, Akshay and Ashit are perfect representations of this fact. The three of them, between the ages of 18 and 21, are firmly committed to doing whatever they can to improving Chamunda Nagar and improving the lives of the children that live there. They all have aspirations too. Sonali is preparing for her government exams, so she can become the kind of official that can bring sweeping change to communities like Chamunda Nagar. Ashit wants to become a policeman just like his Grandad. Akshay wants to become a social worker, so he can best help his community and continue the work he does with Magic Bus. The three of them are incredibly bright and deserve so much more than what they have. But I’m sure that with the determination and commitment I saw in them, and the support of Magic Bus, Sonali, Akshay and Ashit have a good future ahead of them.

So, for all my anger at what the people of Chamunda Nagar have to endure, I also feel a great deal of hope. With the Magic Bus programme and young people like Sonali, Akshay and Ashit leading the way, I am confident when I say that the future of the children of Chamunda Nagar is bright.

Thanks for Reading!

Ross

Day 3:

Most of today was spent at the Magic Bus office, giving me time to get some work done for the UK office, meet more wonderful Magic Bus staff, work on the blog and digest everything I saw yesterday. As I alluded to in my last post, my feelings about what I saw, both good and bad, were not tempered by a good night’s sleep.

Tomorrow I’m visiting Dharavi to finally see a Magic Bus session and to see the community. This is like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Chamunda Naga was very small and home to around 200 people. Dharavi is the worlds third-largest slum and home to 700,000 people. I’m not sure what to expect, but it’s not going to be easy.

Day 4:

Today started bright and early at the Dharavi Sports Club, a space for sports and physical activity near the edge of one of the largest slums in the world. Rupesh, Aarti and I had arrived just in time for a Magic Bus session. We were met with a spirited “Pilelo-Ho!” by around 30 kids, split 50-50 between girls and boys. They were taking part in an icebreaking game, a fun way to start each session and get everyone warmed up and ready to go.

This time of year, kids in India are off from school and get to enjoy a break from studying, and the subjects of Magic Bus sessions reflect that. Why emphasise the importance of going to school when kids the schools aren’t open? So, today’s session focused on the importance of staying hydrated when out playing, how to recognise the symptoms of dehydration, and what to do if you become dehydrated. All excellent advice on this, another scorching Mumbai day.

A satellite photo of the part of Dharavi I visited. In the bottom left of the image you can see the sports complex where Magic Bus holds its sessions for this community. Click to Expand.

The session started proper with a game of Call Response as the CYLs (Community Youth Leader) and a TMO (Training & Monitoring Officer) told the story of a man with a long beard who always took water with him to school. I didn’t get it, but the kids clearly thought it was hilarious! This done, the kids moved onto another game. It was a lot like a game of “It” or “Tag”, where a team of kids had to chase the other team around a square, all while hopping on one foot. As I understand it, the frustrations of the “hopping” team, who had a very tough time trying to catch their running opponents, was meant to represent what happens when you don’t drink enough water. Long story short, it’s not nice. The teams swapped so everyone could get a taste of this before the game moved on to part two. This time the hopping team were allowed to run instead and had a much easier time catching people. This represented drinking plenty of water: by doing so, it was less frustrating and overall you got to have more fun.

After the games, the kids sat down for a little group discussion with the CYLs to talk about what they had learnt. It was clear the lessons had gotten through, as everyone was making sure to drink plenty of water as they sat in the shade of a nearby tree. Once the discussion was over, it was time for a game of good old-fashioned football to end the session.

As I watched the kids taking part in the session, I was immediately struck by their boundless enthusiasm. These kids were clearly having a lot of fun and were really engaging with the lessons during the session. It was an absolute delight to see the kids having so much fun. I hadn’t yet visited the community in which they lived, but I knew that they didn’t have easy lives; that without this kind of intervention they would be trapped in poverty forever. I’m sure we’ve all seen the impact statistics that show that Magic Bus is having an obvious impact: 0% of girls married before 18, 99% of children regularly attending school etc. But watching these kids play it was obvious Magic Bus is having a positive impact that can’t be measured with tables and statistics. These were happy children, full of life and confidence, that when given the kind of support Magic Bus is offering, could take on the world and live the kind of lives that they would otherwise have been denied. I’m still angry at the injustice that I saw a Chamunda Nagar (and would see in Dharavi), but to see the kids at the Magic Bus session, I’m filled with renewed hope and faith that Magic Bus can bring about extraordinary, positive change for thousands of children.

Credit has to go the TMO, CYLs too! They brought just as much enthusiasm as the kids and helped to make an otherwise dull message about hydration fun and exciting for everyone. It was obvious the kids looked up to them and I learned later on that they are held in high regard by the rest of the community for the support and advice they give outside of the sessions not just to the kids, but the parents too. The support we give to Parents is something I hope to bring up more in Magic Bus UK’s communications in the near future. While it’s not the main focus of our work, by involving the parents, we ensure the lessons taught in sessions stick once the kids get home. Not only that, we’re helping parents to become organised, to help them collectively bring improvements to their communities that they could not achieve alone. It’s evidence of a much broader impact, one that we’ve not done enough to talk about up to now.

With the session over, Rupesh, Aarti and I headed over to the community in Dharavi where the kids lived. Like Chamunda Nagar it is an illegal settlement, meaning it was built on land not designated for slums by the government and therefore receives no support. Both communities have similar problems, but this part of Dharavi is so much worse. Like Chamunda Nagar, there are restrictions on water. There are taps for every four houses, which only function for half an hour a day. Evidence that the community has tried to work around this tight restriction are visible everywhere. A jerry-rigged network or pipes ran down the tiny streets to ensure water is distributed evenly and large water butts can be seen everywhere to make sure there’s some water available throughout the day. Because the government provides no support, the water for this part of Dharavi is supplied by a “Water Mafia”, which means exactly what it sounds like. They charge extortionate rates for just half an hour’s water access, above and beyond what the average Indian has to pay for non-stop access. With no government support, people have no choice but to suffer extortion.

Public defecation is a widespread, one which I never saw, but could certainly smell. None of the homes have a toilet. There are public toilets available, but they cost 5 rupees per person to access, money that people can’t afford to give up. Animals roam free, exacerbating the problem of waste.

When we arrived at the community, we didn’t stick around for long. Not out of any concern for our safety, but because we had arrived when the taps were running. With only half-an-hour to collect as much water as possible, to wash and clean as best as possible, we were keen not to get in the way and waste anyone’s time. As we walked the narrow passages, I had to constantly pay attention to avoid hitting my head on a low roof, tripping on steps, slipping in sewage, or getting caught by electrical cables. The smell was nauseating as the odour of human waste permeated throughout. There were sections so heavily built up that almost no light could get in, trapping the heat and smells. I’ve never suffered from claustrophobia but walking through these cramped lanes was a deeply unsettling experience, one that I’m not going to forget for a very long time.

Where I could, a stole a glance at the homes. Unlike Chamunda Nagar, the buildings are all permanent, made of stone and brick. Each one is no bigger than your average British kitchen, serving as a living space for at least 5 people per home. Most were at least two stories, a separate home on each floor, with a rickety ladder giving access to the house up top.

I cannot begin to imagine what this community must deal with during the monsoon season. The streets will be flooded with water, spreading sewage, human and animal waste everywhere. Many of the houses are built bellow the level of the streets and will be flooded with filth. Diseases like typhoid and cholera, which will already run rampant, will be exacerbated by the monsoons. The problem of disease is made worse by a lack of education, as the community will often fall back on traditional remedies to try and cure disease. We briefly spoke to a mother who told us that her son had recently been bitten by a dog. To prevent disease, he had been treated with a traditional remedy: giving the wound a wipe with a brush. While we were quick to insist that she take her son to a doctor for a vaccination, thousands of others will suffer unnecessarily due to a lack of education.

This type of slum is common across India and the problems are often similar. As of 2013, 65 million men, women and children live in conditions like this in India. That’s the entire population of the UK living in inhumane conditions, and the problem is only going to get worse. Proof, if it were needed, that Magic Bus’ work is more vital than ever to help children escape this nightmare.

At one point during our visit we stopped at the community’s rubbish dump, sat on the edge of the area, but still right next to some of the homes. In the distance, across a mangrove swamp, we could see one of Mumbai’s many business clusters, filled with ultra-modern skyscrapers that housed some of the world’s biggest companies, familiar to both you and I. This is a very vivid reminder that India is a deeply divided country. It is quickly becoming a major player on the world stage, one where everyone is keen to do business. It would be ridiculous to ignore the fact that India has benefited enormously from all this investment, the overall decline in poverty in the last 50 years can be partly attributed to that. But millions are still getting left behind, trapped in appalling conditions with no hope of escape without a serious intervention. This is what Magic Bus is doing. By reaching out to children at a young age and working with them right through to when they start working, Magic Bus is ensuring that kids and young people have the necessary hard and soft skills necessary to find sustainable employment and escape from poverty.

Which brings us to the last stop of the day, a Magic Bus Livelihood Centre, just 5 minutes’ walk away. The Magic Bus Livelihood programme is aimed squarely at young adults who are looking to start working or enter into further education. It focusses on more tangible skills like spoken English, IT literacy, CV writing, and interview skills. Then once those skills are in place, Magic Bus provides placements at relevant companies or organisations such as Marks & Spencer’s, Kidzania, or local Colleges. For the next 6 months, Magic Bus checks in with the individual to ensure they are progressing well or if they need additional support. For many of these young people, working in a retail or office environment is totally brand new, most times it’s not even something their parents will have done. So that additional support helps make sure employment remains sustainable for the long term. Most astonishingly is that all the training is completed in 45 days: 8 weeks, Monday to Friday. The results speak for themselves: at this centre, around 70% of young people find sustainable employment with a decent salary. At another Livelihood Centre next to Magic Bus head office, the success rate is around 90%. The average across all the centres is 70% of young people placed into sustainable employment with a good salary.

What I think makes the Magic Bus livelihood programme special is its commitment to the individual’s desires. It doesn’t try to force people into whatever job is available. Even if a certain career is unavailable, there’s generally a suitable alternative offered. The Livelihood Centre I visited offered a great example of this. A young woman arrived wanting to be a doctor, this was her dream. Unfortunately, and through no fault of her own, she hadn’t taken the necessary courses at school to start medical training. The only alternative was to pay a large sum (something in the area of 10,000 rupees, an impossible sum). So Magic Bus presented her with two alternatives. There were two courses available onto which she could enrol: training to become an X-Ray Technician, or training to become an Operating Theatre Technician. While neither would let her become a doctor, both would allow her to work in medicine and to help the sick. Today this young woman is an OR Technician at Mumbai Hospital, one of many young people who have gone on to become medical technician’s through the programme.

I think the livelihood programme serves as proof that Magic Bus is achieving its ultimate goal: getting children and young people out of poverty. By starting early, at the age of 12, our main programme is providing children with soft skills such as confidence, resilience and self-efficacy. This lays a strong foundation to develop the hard skills necessary for work through the livelihood programme. This ultimately translates into the high success rate of young people finding, and staying in, work. I should add that right now not every child who goes through the main programme enters the livelihood programme. As the livelihood programme is only a few years old, the resources aren’t there yet, but that is the goal: that one day every child that enrols in the Magic Bus programme at the age of12, eventually graduates from the livelihood programme and into sustainable employment, completing their journey out of poverty. 

Thanks for reading!

Final Thoughts

At the time of writing I have left Mumbai and am now travelling by bus from Delhi to Jaipur. As I take the opportunity to explore more of India by myself, I thought I’d write one more blog post to collect my thoughts about everything I’ve seen and experienced in Mumbai.

I realise a common theme throughout my writing has been about all the contrasts in Mumbai. It’s an idea that’s stuck with since the moment I landed and has only gotten stronger as I’ve explored more of the city. Rich and poor, old and new. It’s home to some of the most expensive homes in the world, and one of the world’s largest slums. Crumbling colonial buildings sit in the shadows of skyscrapers still being built. Tiny family businesses share the same addresses as some of the world’s largest corporations.

It’s also a city in a state of flux. Construction is everywhere as Mumbai attempts to transform itself into a global city to rival London, New York, Los Angeles or Tokyo. As a result, it feels like a city still being built, an unfinished project that is awaiting polish.

Unfortunately, it’s evident that this relentless growth has a human cost. As I walked around Worli, a district in the west of Mumbai, I stood in the shadow of towering office blocks, home to more major companies. Exactly the kind of thing you see in cities like New York. But clustered around the base of these buildings were miniature slums, grabbing whatever space they could in this jampacked city. Proof that extreme poverty exists everywhere in Mumbai, not just contained in large slum communities like Dharavi.

I predicted in my first post that I would see the best and worst of India while I was here, and it turns out I was spot on. The things I’ve seen during my visit, both wonderful and appalling, will stay with me for a long time. The conditions in the slum communities like Chamunda Nagar and Dharavi infuriate me. The commitment of Magic Bus’ volunteers inspires me. The happiness and enthusiasm of the children in our sessions fills me with hope and joy.

I’m so glad I came to Mumbai, and I can’t give thanks enough to everyone at a Magic Bus India who have made me feel so welcome during my stay. Special thanks in particular have to go to Rupesh and Aarti, who took me to see our sessions, the communities we work in, and gave me all the help and support I could have asked for during my stay.

So that’s it! I’m now off the explore India’s Golden Triangle before heading back home to the UK. I really hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blog as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it! But before I sign off, I do have one last request. Part of the reason for this blog was a way to record my experiences for my own sake, but to also give an opportunity for Magic Bus supporters in the UK, and the West in general, to get to see our work, up close, through a familiar lens: that of a 20-something Brit who had never been to a developing country before. None of the truly amazing work Magic Bus is doing to combat the appalling poverty I’ve described throughout this blog would be possible without your support. So, I ask that if you’ve enjoyed my blog, please make a donation, so that the children of Chamunda Nagar, Dharavi and all over India can escape poverty for good.

Thank You!

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