ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Quiet Revolution

CNEWA?s Needy Child Sponsorship Program improves the lives of an entire village.

The sprawling mass of huts in Asia’s largest slum outside Bombay, India is the scene of a revolution, a revolution funded by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. A quiet battle against centuries-old attitudes is fought with education instead of violence.

Through its sponsorship program the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) has been improving the lives of those living in Kumbharwada, which means “place of the potter” in the Hindi language. The 17-year-old program provides a personal connection between the needy children of the Near East who so desperately need financial assistance and concerned, generous members of the Association who want to establish a friendship with a child. For $14 a month a member of the Association can “adopt” a needy child. Often the child is the victim of war or poverty or one parent is dead. Under the supervision of CNEWA the money is used for tuition, clothing and food.

Although India is the country with the largest amount of sponsored children, the program has expanded to include all the geographical areas assisted by CNEWA, benefiting nearly 40,000 children. The Kumbharwada community came under the auspices of the sponsorship program in 1974.

Kumbharwada is situated on 12 and a half acres in a low-lying region in the center of Bombay. The monsoon season from June until September coupled with the inherent problems of poor drainage due to the low-lying location create miserable housing conditions for the more than 7,000 families living in Kumbharwada.

The Kumbharwada potters and their families form a self-contained community within the larger slum known as Dharavi. Seventy years ago the ancestors of these craftsmen migrated to Bombay from the Surashtra region in the northwest corner of India near the Pakistan border. They found a livelihood in the city based on the vital need for pots to store water which is collected from community taps.

For the majority of Bombay’s 9 million residents, water is not pumped into their homes. The typical home is made of cement with corrugated tin for the roof. Usually four or five stories high, these buildings have a common tap and bathroom for each floor. Inside each “house” in the corner on the floor is the mori or sink area. Here the water is stored in jugs of clay that the potters have molded. Pots are also used for ceremonial purposes. Oil is kept in the pots to feed tapers which burn to the gods during religious festivals.

In Kumbharwada the men stay at home waiting for the most favorable conditions to fire the kiln with dry cotton waste or cotton dust. The women leave the slum every morning wearing bright red skirts which are native to the Surashtra region. They balance the pots atop their heads in straw baskets, selling them throughout the city. Until the sponsorship program began in Kumbharwada the children, when they weren’t helping their fathers, were often unsupervised.

The local municipal school, located in Kumbharwada is poorly staffed by teachers and there is a lack of equipment. Another municipal school, in Dharavi, is better staffed and well financed but Kumbharwada children have to walk very far to reach it.

In addition to directly aiding the children, the sponsorship program increases the adult awareness to the value of education. School has now become compulsory for other children in the family. Mothers encourage their children to do homework. Families are becoming aware of the need for light, ventilation and furniture. When the children come home from school with questions and ideas the parents become curious and want to learn.

As a result of the sponsorship program the drop-out rate has declined from 60 percent to 15 percent. The rate for girls has fallen from a high of 80 percent to 20 percent and among boys to five percent.

The decline in the drop-out rate is primarily because students have come to realize that the assistance from the sponsorship program would discontinue if they didn’t complete their education.

The realization of education’s value has influenced other areas of the potter’s lives. It has contributed to an awareness that there are opportunities beyond the clustered world of the Kumbharwada’s community. Some students are studying tailoring, others carpentry. A few even work in factories. Child marriages and engagements are less frequent and there is very little unemployment. Education is a motivating force in the children’s lives. Knowledge, adequate food and clothing all contribute to their higher self-esteem.

The sponsorship program has broadened the horizons of the residents of Kumbharwada. The quiet revolution has transformed the community. The battle of perception has been won, and literacy is now looked upon as an investment in the future thanks to the generous sponsors of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

The authors are graduate students in Bombay’s School of Social Work.

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