MARK and Cathy Delaney don’t need to see the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire. The Brisbane couple experience slum life in India every day.
For 13 years they have lived in the shanty towns of the Indian capital, New Delhi, raising their children and sharing their lives with the locals. Their two sons, Tom, 12, and Oscar, 7, were born in India and have lived most of their lives in slums.
The family home, in a neighbourhood called Janta Mazdoor Colony, is about the size of a typical Australian bedroom. They have no running water, no TV, no fridge and no washing machine. Two mattresses, used to sleep on at night, double as a “lounge” during the day. Meals are eaten sitting on the floor and they share with neighbours a squat toilet in a small bathroom.
But the Delaneys are not complaining. For them, living in a slum has been deeply enriching.
“It baffles us that more people in Australia who say they are sick of their lives don’t do something like we have,” says Cathy Delaney, who holds a masters’ degree in pure mathematics.
“The longer we have stayed here the more we can see the positive effect it has had on us as people. I feel much freer of money and possessions – these things don’t define my life.”
Mark Delaney, a 42-year old lawyer, says more than a decade in Delhi’s squatter settlements has been a “radical detox” from consumer society.
“For the first couple of years I thought, ‘We’ll do this for a while and then we’ll go back to Australia, get a deposit and build a house’, and so on, but I’ve let go of all that now,” he said.
Mark works part-time for a Delhi-based medical organisation but the family’s main focus is on their slum. They are strongly motivated by their Christian faith, believing that life is more about caring for others than comfort and success.
“Our main purpose is simply to experience what life is like here, to live with and learn from the poor and contribute something positive to people’s lives,” says Mark.
The Delaneys moved into their current neighbourhood on the eastern outskirts of Delhi in 2003. About 60,000 people are packed into the illegal settlement which is less than half a square kilometre. It is one of an estimated 1500 squatter settlements scattered across Delhi that house at least 3 million people.
The settlement started 30 years ago as a cluster of makeshift humpies in an open field but as time went by, people gradually upgraded. Flimsy walls were replaced with bricks, slab roofs were added in place of black plastic. Even so, open drains still run along the slum’s maze of narrow alley ways and empty into a putrid canal not far from the Delaneys’ front door.
Properties are bought and sold in the slum and there are even informal titles exchanged to prove ownership. Although these documents would not hold up in court they give those purchasing a slum hut a sense of security. A three-level slum house in the area recently changed hands for 190,000 rupees (about $6000).
The Delaneys pay 1800 rupees ($56) a month in rent, although many small rooms in the slum are half that. Each day the family witnesses some of the vulnerability and powerlessness of the characters portrayed in the film.
Witnessing this has nurtured a strong sense of social justice in the boys.
“I have realised that the most important thing is to help other people,” says Tom.
“But I have also realised that I have limits.”
There is hot debate in the household about how simply they should live.
“Cathy is a bit harder line than me,” says Mark
“Sometimes she says ‘let’s move down a bit’ but I’m usually a bit resistant. Most people think we are pretty stupid already.”
Once Tom asked how much income his neighbours had to live on and insisted their family do the same.
So for the experience, they cut their monthly budget from 10,000 rupees ($310) to 5000 rupees.
“First we ran out of cornflakes and then we ran out of jam. Our diet got much simpler,” says Cathy. “It was a hard experience but a really good one. It gave us so much more respect for the people who live here.”
Mark has been pleasantly surprised by how much their boys have benefited from the experience of living in a poor neighbourhood. Oscar is in year 2 at a local school and Tom has recently switched to home schooling.
When the boys were asked if they wanted to move back to Australia later this year or stay in the slum, they chose to stay.
“I used to think that, with the kids, we would just endure living here for a while and then go,” said Mark.
“But now I’m thinking this is a good thing for them and I want to stay not for my sake, but for the sake of my kids.”
Things that most families take for granted bring the Delaneys great satisfaction.
Such as electricity. The power goes off in the neighbourhood several hours each day.
To help the family cope, Cathy got a small solar panel worth about $100 for her 40th birthday that powers a lamp during the blackouts.
A striking feature of the Delaneys’ lifestyle is their small environmental footprint. They use very little electricity, create only a small amount of waste and rely exclusively on public transport.