Mumbai is the economic heart of India and one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the country. But many of its 20 million inhabitants live on the streets or in slums found all over in the city. In one of these, about forty minutes by train from the centre of the city in the north west, live about 400 thousand people in conditions of extreme poverty.
It is here that in 1997 several families in the slum decided to set up a social project in collaboration with ‘Support at a Distance’, a project run by New Families. In 2001, during her first visit to India, Chiara Lubich encouraged them to develop what they had begun as ‘a practical response to the poverty around us.’
From then on the project has grown. Today it cares for 115 young people from 4 to 22 years old. Its activities aim at supporting students in their schooling, nutrition and health, in order to raise the standard of life for them and their families. In 2004 the project took the name ‘Udisha’ which means ‘the sun ray that announces the new dawn’. Today Udisha participates in the Schoolmates project, which seeks to build up a network among school classes and groups of young people in various countries and to support projects that promote solidarity.
ñ Schooling and education. In India the schools have 70-80 students per class. This makes it difficult to give individual tuition and, to pass their exams, the young people have to attend expensive private support lessons. The poorest among them, since they cannot afford this, are forced to give up their studies. Udisha, therefore, offers free support lessons in several subjects. In addition it tries to raise funds to pay for further schooling, educational equipment and school uniforms. Occasionally extra-curricular cultural and recreational activities are organized.
ñ Intercultural awareness. There are various religions present at Udisha: Christian, Hindu and Muslim. One of the project’s objectives is to contribute to creating constructive integration, culturally, religiously, linguistically and also between the generations. It encourages exchanges of experience and activities, working together especially with the Shanti Ashram of Coimbatore.
ñ Medical treatment. Many of the young people suffer from malnutrition. They are at risk from the seasonal epidemics that come with the rains or floods. For this reason during the year there are group medical visits involving both doctors in the area and other organizations. Help is also given to improve domestic diet with proteins and vitamins through the distribution of food stuffs and dietary supplements. For some time a counselling service for young people and parents has also been on offer.
ñ Training in parenting. Meetings to raise understanding and to share good practice among families are organized periodically for parents. These are occasions for a rich exchange of experiences, advice and points of view.
ñ Microcredit. A year ago Udisha began an small venture into microcredit which involves seventy of the young people’s mothers. Split into three groups that meet monthly, these mothers have been trained in microcredit in the kind of atmosphere of mutual trust absolutely necessary for such a venture to work. This year they will start to offer loans.