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Making human rights real

By Kiran Martin - posted Wednesday, 13 October 2010

I would like to begin by transporting you to what I saw when I entered a slum colony in New Delhi in August of 1988.

Shanty huts, made of cardboard, plastic sheets and pieces of cloth, barely 50 sq feet in size, lay tightly packed together. Piles of rotting garbage were everywhere. Pigs wallowed in ponds filled with dirty water and solid waste. Little children played around the filth and excrement that lay all over. Some were rummaging among garbage, looking for bits of metal and plastic to sell. Most were severely malnourished and ill.

The public toilets at one end of the slum were piled high with rotten faeces. The urinals were broken, and the stench of urine and excreta filled the air. There were small shallow hand pumps everywhere that the residents had dug themselves. The water was brown and contaminated with faeces, and everyone used it for drinking, bathing and washing.


Electricity was being tapped illegally from overhead cables, and hundreds of live wires that had been hooked on to these cables, found their way into people's homes.

A closer look at the shanty hut revealed that there was barely enough room for a small cot. There were no windows or doors. Pots and pans were hanging under the roof to collect the leaking rain water. A little kerosene stove and a few utensils lay in a corner. Huge rats kept running across the floor, and there were flies and mosquitoes everywhere.

The women looked pale and tired of life. There seemed to be large numbers of men lying around, doing nothing. Some lay on the ground, drunk, reeking of alcohol.

Five thousand people lived sandwiched between a large dirty drain one on side and a government office complex on the other.

Ambedkar slum represents more than 30 per cent of the total population of 14 million in India's capital city, New Delhi. The residents are disadvantaged in nearly every conceivable way, suffering from numerous health, environmental, social and political problems. The Maternal Mortality Ratio at 750 and Under Five Mortality Rate at 149 are among the highest in the world.

As the relentless rise in food prices in urban areas combines with persistently low incomes, the urban poor cannot afford to purchase adequate amounts and types of food. Serious malnutrition and stunted development is widespread in slums. Children from poor families are often born into hunger, grow up in hunger, and might die in hunger.


Women are mostly restricted to the roles of domestic servants or child bearers, and struggle to voice their opinions. The sex ratio is about 850 girls to a 1000 boys, and female feticide and infanticide are common.

The majority of people living in slum areas work in the urban informal sector, which is characterised by job insecurity, low wages and dangerous work. The markets for land, basic services and labour are skewed in favour of private interests. These unequal opportunities create minorities in the marketplace, whose individual members are automatically excluded from a wide range of outcomes associated with economic growth and globalisation. Slum areas remain a blind spot, when it comes to policy interventions, job creation and youth support.

The urban advantage of better access to education remains a myth. For most slum families, educating their children is the last thing on their minds. As families struggle to survive, many children are forced to work to supplement the family income. Every child up to the age of 14 is entitled to free schooling, but the government schools they attend are poorly resourced and have low teaching standards. English and computing skills are barely taught, and the option of higher education remains an expensive dream.

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This article is edited from the speech given for the Chancellor’s Human Rights Lecture at the University of Melbourne by Dr Kiran Martin on October 6, 2010.

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About the Author

Dr Kiran Martin is the Founder and Director of Asha. Originally working single-handedly at a borrowed table outside a slum in Delhi, Dr Martin has created a community health and development society that has transformed the lives of over 300,000 slum dwellers.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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