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One With the Urban Struggle

text by Dr. Gracy Fernandes, D.H.M.
photographs by Ilene Perlman


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The Daughters of the Heart of Mary, or DHMs, were first drawn to India in the early 1950s and, recognizing that to improve India’s fortune they would first have to work with women and children, they ventured to establish a social service network in Bombay. The fruit of their labors, the Social Service Institute, has maintained a relationship with CNEWA for more than 30 years. And, through a generous perpetual endowment from CNEWA, the DHMs have expanded their network of diverse services to embrace Bombay’s expanding perimeters, including Chuim-Khar Danda and Bassein.

Chuim-Khar Danda is a sprawling Bombay suburb located about 11 miles northwest of the city. Known for its deplorable social and ecological conditions, Chuim occupies the spacious green lawns that once served as a golf course for the affluent. Nevertheless, the real estate, with its coastline and expansive views of the Arabian Sea, remains prime. Yet the majority of those who live there cannot enjoy the abundance of nature’s bounty. They struggle to make ends meet – quite a contrast to their middle – and higher income neighbors who live in the high-rise flats hugging the beaches.

The inhabitants of Chuim are a heterogeneous lot: most are Hindus, but there is a sprinkling of Muslims, Buddhists and Christians. Migrants from various rural areas of India, they have come to Bombay with the hope of opportunity. The vast majority of adults have little or no formal education. A substantial number of men work as unskilled manual laborers; others are cobblers, while a few are drivers and vegetable vendors. They work on a daily contract basis and earn below subsistence level wages. The women supplement the family income as domestic workers in the middle – and high-income areas. Danda is a fishing village and the women there sell fish, either door-to-door or in the markets.

The DHMs, a religious society founded during the sociopolitical upheavals of late 18th century France, arrived in Chuim in 1969 at the request of Valerian Cardinal Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay. The Cardinal requested their assistance to administer and teach in the parish school. Other DHMs involved themselves in pastoral work.

Following the example of Marie Adelaide de Cice (cofounder of the community), these DHMs had a deep feeling for the sufferings of the people of Chuim, for both their material and especially their spiritual distress.

Day-care centers were among the first programs to be set up by the DHMs. Without them, older children stayed away from school to care for their younger siblings while their parents worked.

Rohit, now a young man of 22, recalls that his mother used the DHM day-care services for him from when he was a year old:

“At work my mother was at peace because she was sure I was cared for well. My younger brother and sister went to day care when they were just three months old. This was because my mother was happy and pleased with the care I received.”

The day-care center now enrolls more than 80 children; their ages range from three months to three years. Four and five-year-olds go to the preschool, which prepares them to enter city, parish or private schools when they become eligible at the age of six.

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Tags: India Children Poor/Poverty Socioreligious programs Urbanization