Rosmita Barik, 19, shivers with cold as she deftly makes ‘parathas’ (fried unleavened flat-breads, as opposed to the plain ‘roti’) on the mud ‘chulha’ in the single room in Bhubaneswar’s Narayani Basti (slum) that is now her home. ‘Parathas’ are a rare treat for the family but today a few are being cooked for dinner because her five-year-old nephew has bluntly refused to eat.
The indulgent aunt says, “We cannot afford to cook any vegetables so we generally eat ‘rotis’ with salt and green chillies. But my nephew is too young to take to the taste of green chillies so, every now and then, he rebels.” However, there are no ‘parathas’ for Rosmita, who lives with her elder sister, an alcoholic brother-in-law and her young nephew. She and her sister will not deviate from their daily rotis-salt-chillies routine.
Rosmita is living in Bhubaneswar today because her home in a village in Odisha’s coastal district of Bhadrak was washed away by the flash floods that hit the state in 2009. At that time she was repeating a year in Class Ten. Desperate to finish school she hoped to get a job that would help pull her family out of its crushing poverty. But the floods washed away all hope. Her parents, who were among the 62,200 flood victims that were evacuated from the 15 affected districts, took shelter in an NGO-run relief camp and sent her off to live with her sister in the city. Today, two years on, Rosmita’s parents are still submerged in debt and have to starve more often than not. But they prefer to think that their younger daughter is ‘better-off’.
Misfortune, however, has made it a habit of dogging Rosmita’s footsteps, following her from Bhadrak to Bhubaneswar. The Narayani Basti, in which she lives with her sister, is one of the poorest of the 337 slums that dot Odisha’s capital city. None of the houses here are made of concrete or even bricks. There are no toilets and the only source of drinking water – government taps – is some way off. Yet, some 300 families have made it their home. In June 2010, government bulldozers razed the slum to the ground and Rosmita was caught in the midst of anti-demolition protests by those who lived here.
For three months, she, and all the other families here, camped under the open skies. With help from some local organisations, community meals were cooked daily. Rosmita, who had come to escape a flood-related disaster, fell headlong into another crisis. “My nephew was very small then and things were so bad that my sister could not breastfeed him. Instead we tried to feed him on the thin gruel that we were being served and, I remember, he had a severe attack of diarrhoea.”
The acute crisis may be over, but life continues to be bitter struggle for Rosmita and her sister’s family. Most of the slum people have rebuilt their homes but one can hardly call these structures ‘homes’. The shack in which she lives has thin mud and brick walls, and the plastic sheets that serve as a roof bear large holes. There is no cot to sleep on and, in fact, there is not a single piece of furniture in the space which the two women keep immaculately clean. To beat the cold, they have placed cardboard sheets on the floor, layering it with newspapers scavenged from city homes. This is covered with a mat and a ragged bedsheet is spread over it. Needless to say, when the weather turns cold, the ‘bed’ hardly keeps them warm and Rosmita’s racking cough is evidence of that. But she takes her cough stoically. Can’t afford to go to a doctor or buy expensive medicines, so no point worrying about it, she says.
In illness or in health, Rosmita’s day begins at 4 am. First, she and her sister fetch and store the day’s supply of drinking and cooking water. “Since there are no toilets and we defecate in the open, we have to finish all that while it is still dark,” she adds. By 6 am, it is time to start cooking and that’s the most challenging part of the day according to her “we have to think of what to cook with the very few raw food items at our disposal.”
Rosmita’s sister, Soni, has to leave the house by 7.30 am. She works as a domestic worker in three houses. “My sister eats in one of the homes where she works. They usually give her leftover rice from the previous night and she has that with salt and maybe half an onion, if her mistress is feeling generous – which is not often. I eat the same at home. But we have to cook breakfast and lunch for my brother-in-law, who is a casual labourer,” she states.
They usually cook rice and arhar dal, because the man of the family cannot be served stale rice. The child, too, has the same. In winter, when vegetables are cheap, they sometimes add vegetables to one meal, but after Soni’s husband and the child have eaten, there is very little left for the sisters. Eggs, fish or meat are simply unimaginable. What about getting foodgrain through the PDS? Interestingly, most of the slum dwellers, including Rosmita’s family, neither have ration cards nor Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards.
Things would not have been so dire for them, if Soni’s husband didn’t spend all his earnings and most of her wages on alcohol. Reveals Rosmita, “No matter how much my sister screams and shouts, he will come home drunk every day and ask for more money from my sister. Our house badly needs repairing, especially the roof. But when there is no money for even three meals a day, how can we afford that?” The monthly family income is not stable – Soni’s husband gets work 15 to 20 days a month and his wages are Rs 100 (US$1=Rs 50) a day; while Soni makes Rs 800 by working as a maid.
As for resuming her interrupted education, Rosmita has simply dropped the idea. “How is it possible?” she asks. “My sister has to go out to work and I have to look after the child and also do other work at home.”
Her slum life has taught her quite a few lessons though. For instance, how to eat little and still survive? How to dodge illness despite living in decrepit conditions? Both she and her sister are still young and have a lot of fight left in them. Their infrequent meals, low-nutrition fare and unhealthy living conditions have seemingly not yet taken a serious toll on their health. But they are almost certainly anaemic although they have not undergone any tests. Soni puts it matter-of-factly, “We women can make do with very little. But I have to make sure that my husband gets at least enough to eat so that the drink does not ruin his health.”
But clearly both Soni’s and Rosmita’s prime concern is the child. They are ready to starve to keep him healthy. “Now that he will go to school next year, I worry that I will not be able to give him nutritious food.” But Soni is even willing to risk her husband’s wrath to ensure that. “My sister has been beaten up for buying eggs for the child instead of handing over the money to him,” says Rosmita. “Our saris may be in shreds, we may have to do without even so much as a cup of tea every day, but we are determined to give the child a better life. He is our future,” she says, in the midst of a present that holds little hope.