Click on the quote below to read the article...

MADRAS, Sunday: What enraged the Indian slum lord was when the Australian social workers jumped into an oozing Madras sewer and set up a dinner table there with wine glasses and fine linen.

"We did it to draw people's attention to the filth. We didn't eat off the fancy table setting. We're not that crazy," said Kevin Mackay who, along with 16 other Australians and a New Zealander, is trying to clean out the foulest sewer in this southern Indian city of 7 million people.

However, what began as a simple good deed has backfired. Inspired by the film Gandhi, these Christians came from Australia to teach hygiene to the Indian poor and help in Madras's wretched slums. Now their efforts have led to death threats and they say the Australian High Commission in New Delhi no longer returns their telephone calls.

A thatched hut where they lived has been ripped down. Bullied by the slum lord, the poor are too scared to help the Australians in their messy work.

Even the city officials who at first welcomed these strange white sahibs have deserted them. Police with watchdogs appear to prevent the Australians from cleaning out the reeking sewer. Their adversary, K. A. Krishna Swamy, is not an ordinary slum lord. He is also the State of Tamil Nadu's law minister and one of its most powerful politicians. "He thinks we've humiliated him, made him look bad by drawing attention to the mess on his turf," Mr Mackay said.

It is a battle that may end in the Australians' defeat. They may soon be driven out of India, forced to abandon the children's playground, the classroom and the clinic they have built over the past few years on ground cleared from a rat-infested rubbish heap. They are down to their last $1,000, which must stretch to feed all the volunteers, and keep their projects going. Few of the Australians have money left for an air ticket home.

"We'd like a Hollywood ending - to show the slum kids that you can stand up to the bad guys without getting stomped on, but ..." said Mr Mackay, his voice trailing off sadly. On January 26, the group, which calls itself Vision 2000, wrote to the State's Chief Minister, offering to hand over the playground and park.

Mr Mackay, New Zealander Craig Hendry and a few others arrived in Madras in December 1990 with only the vaguest idea of how they would put the Mahatma's teachings into practice. "We just started sweeping the street outside our house and kept going. Pretty soon, we reached the sewer," said Mr Mackay, a skilled cartoonist who has painted funny, vivid murals around the playground warning of the dangers of human excrement.

Within Hinduism's strict caste hierarchy the job of removing human waste is left to the despised, lowly Untouchables. At first, instead of pitching in and helping, the slum-dwellers tried to grab away the mops and scrubbers.

The Australians soon gained many supporters, among them M. B. Nirmal, a prominent social worker. "Sometimes they stay in that s--- for three or four hours, and I can't even get close to it. Tears come to my eyes," he said.

After the stunt of putting the dinner table in the sewer, the Australians attracted much publicity in the press. Their good work, however, was making the city officials look bad.

After the Australians' hut was destroyed, the law minister paid a rare visit to the Greams Road slum. "The white man's gone," Mr Krishna Swamy allegedly warned the shanty town people. "If you let the white man back in your village we'll demolish your homes too." The slums are a politician's power source; votes come cheaply, bought with a bottle of rum or by burning down a few shacks.

In their naivety, the Australians ignored the corrupt and petty-minded Madras politicians. By clearing land they also excited the politicians' greed. The volunteers had taken useless unwanted property and put trees, grass and a playground on it. Today, with land prices soaring in Madras, it is worth about $950,000.

Every afternoon, hundreds of children pour out of the slums to ride the flying fox, a bucket on a rope the Australians rigged up from their playground pirate ship. "These kids had no idea how to play. They asked us what use was the ship. If nothing else, we've tried to teach them that imagination is a way of changing the world," Mr Mackay said.

At the end of the playground, where the sewer again begins, the Australians have put up a sign: "Don't let the dream stop here." But maybe it has.

Pin It
Don't have an account yet? Register Now!

Sign in to your account