’Slumdog’ only scratches surface of India’s challenges

It’s a world familiar to Christian aid organizations where the challenges at times can be as vast as the population of approximately 1.2 billion people.


“The success of the movie has been a moment of real excitement in India, not just here,” said Rachel Wolff, media relations director for disaster response at World Vision. “What we would encourage is don’t just go the movie to be entertained, do something about it. This is something that is happening in India as well. Indians are using the movie as a way to say, ‘Let’s move forward and take responsibility.'”

A growing problem in India is one that is more often associated with Africa–AIDS. A 2008 United Nations report on the proliferation of HIV/AIDS estimates 2.5 million cases of the disease in India, and even more troubling, that more that 80 percent of infected Indians don’t know it yet.

“This puts India behind South Africa and Nigeria. Because India has a population of one billion, a mere 0.1 percent increase in HIV prevalence would increase the estimated number by over half a million,” said K. K. Lee, Asia HIV/AIDS director for the Baltimore-based Christian aid group World Relief.

Exacerbating the problem, Wolff said, is the social stigma attached to the disease by some Indian families.

“In Africa, it has become so widespread in so many countries that it is a known entity,” she said. “In India, we have seen instances where people have been abandoned by their family after contracting the disease. We have seen cases where a woman has HIV she had contracted from her husband, the husband dies and then she is shunned by his family.

“Our staff encountered a woman living outside of her family’s home because they wouldn’t let her in because of the disease and she had nowhere to go.”

“In India, as in many countries, the HIV epidemic is misunderstood and stigmatized,” Lee added. “People living with HIV have faced violent attacks; been rejected by families, spouses and communities. They have been refused medical treatment; and even, in some reported cases, denied the last rites before they die.”

According to India’s Nagarealm News, most infections are happening through heterosexual sex and to women in monogamous relationships whose husbands have multiple sex partners.

India’s supply of anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) to treat HIV/AIDS is limited because of budgetary limitations even though the country’s pharmaceutical companies produce generic brands of drugs, according to international AIDS news site Avert.org.

Last year, India’s National AIDS Control Organization (NACVO) began funding second-line ARVs to treat people who have become resistant to the effects of mainline drugs. Some non-governmental agencies (NGOs) have expressed concern that the 3,000 Indians NACVO has targeted is too limited, Avert.org said.

Impact of urbanization

During one scene in “Slumdog Millionaire,” Jamal meets up with Samir in a Mumbai high-rise under construction. The building is surrounded by others just like it. During the conversation, Samir points out the slum where they grew up, “back when Mumbai was still Bombay.”

The name change is cosmetic, but it represents a much larger shift in the country that is seen throughout the developing world, in general, and in Mumbai in particular. Indians may flock to Mumbai looking for employment because of existing poverty in rural areas, Wolff explained.

“People don’t necessarily earn that much money in the cities, but they come there because of opportunities which aren’t available in rural areas,” she said. “Many times these same people will end up in the same type of slums you see in the movie. They may send money they make home, but meanwhile the quality life goes down in the rural areas and things are difficult in the urban areas because of overcrowding.

“It’s a real Catch-22 for many families.”

One of the ways to help combat this disparity in through micro-financing–making loans to individuals or small groups for localized economic development.

Episcopal Relief and Development has done this in India by giving poultry to small farmers to help them develop a business of their own. The Church of North India has supplied chicks and chickens for people who are surviving mainly through subsistence agriculture.

In a related attempt to promote rural health, UNICEF has developed what it calls the “Guna Model,” named after a central Indian town, to reduce the infant mortality rate. The model provides a network of centers in rural areas where newborns who are struggling to survive and their mothers can go to receive specialized treatment.

“Rapid scaling-up of services and ensuring greater coverage is the need of the hour. The Government of Madhya Pradesh has replicated the Guna model in 20 districts,” said UNICEF State Representative Hamid El-Bashir.

“Progress is possible when sound strategies, political commitment, adequate resources and collaborative efforts are applied in support of the health of both mothers and newborns,” he added.

Multicultural society

While India is often thought of as a primarily Hindu country, multiple faiths and ethnicities exist throughout the nation. Building bridges from a Christian organization can be achieved primarily through openness and transparency.

“A real strength we have in India is the same as in many other countries is we build relationships with local officials and local leaders,” Wolff said, noting that World Vision has been active in India for about 50 years.

“Our faith is our motivation. We don’t hide the fact that we’re a Christian aid organization, but our philosophy has always been that we need to start a dialog. Because we have been there for a long time, we work in communities for long-term development and have developed trust.”

Christian Children’s Fund is another organization which has operated in India for nearly 50 years. One of its focuses has been to re-integrate the Devadasis sect of women into society. Anchored in an ancient Indian sect, Devadasis women were often sold into prostitution to help support the families they came from. CCF has worked to bring these women into the mainstream of society and help them get and education and gainful employment.

The multi-culturalism also extends to India’s hierarchical caste system. The U.K.-based Christian Aid tapped into its network of aid agencies to assist families from a lower caste rebuild homes destroyed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami after encountering government resistance. The organization is in the midst of spending approximately $2.8 million to help social groups ordinarily on the lowest rungs of Indian society.


World Vision: http://www.worldvision.org/

World Relief: http://www.wr.org/

Episcopal Relief and Development: http://www.er-d.org/

Christian Children’s Fund: http://www.christianchildrensfund.org/

UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org/


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