India: Salma Memon champions art of giving, despite her rough formative years

Pune - A resident of Malwani, Asia’s second-largest slum colony, overcomes personal odds for community uplift

By Nithin Belle

Published: Fri 2 Jul 2021, 10:36 AM

Malwani, a suburb in north-western parts of Mumbai, a maximum city in western India, is a sprawling slum colony and home to hundreds of thousands of people.

Life is tough round the year, and the woes heighten during monsoon, which is usually between the months of June and September.

The daily struggle intensifies, when the low-lying area gets flooded and raging contagions afflict the slum-dwellers.

Salma Memon was born in Asia’s second-largest slum colony and the going has not been easy like most of the local residents, who live in such wretched conditions that beggar description.

She experienced one of the worst crises in her life a decade ago.

She had just joined college when her brother got married. But it was also a tragic day, as her father, who was battling mounting debts, breathed his last.

Salma took up part-time jobs, persisted with her education and also immersed herself whole-heartedly in the art of giving: she started helping scores of deprived children in the neighbourhood.

Salma spoke to Khaleej Times about living in this challenging environment, which may break the human spirit. Building collapse during peak monsoon is a routine affair, deluge leads to washing away of creaky homes amid rampant unemployment and growing drug addiction menace. Yet, Salma has overcome the odds, and has become a shining example of grit and determination.

Excerpts from the interview:

Could you tell us about your activities at the Malwani slum colony where you have lived all your life?

I run a youth organisation, the Umeed Foundation, which is trying to reach out to every needy person, including helping buy medicines, serving food to children on a regular basis, giving people tarpaulins to cover their homes during the rainy season, providing dry rations and ensuring that poor children get free education.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, right from the first lockdown last year to now, we have been serving cooked food to thousands of people, collaborating with corporate entities, other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and reaching out to thousands of poor people.

Does life continue to pose a major challenge for the poor in Malwani, or has there been improvement in their lives over the past few years?

There are many challenges faced by the people in the slums. Even today, there is no access to potable water, which is a basic civic amenity. There is no proper lighting in the slums. Some pockets have seen an improvement though.

What made you take up activities in helping children and even senior citizens in Malwani and other nearby slum pockets?

Having experienced a tough childhood, I feel I should do something to improve the lives of people in my neighbourhood, instead of complaining about my difficulties. The best gift is education, which can only change their lives and make it better.

How do you overcome the anger and sadness that must envelope you while facing frustrating delays and stonewalling attempts by the authorities all the time?

I do not experience anger, but there is sadness that genuine and selfless work has to be proved always by responding to endless questions. There are various dos and don’ts, which, at times, frustrate us. But the smile which I see on the face of innocent children keeps me calm and I keep doing my best to serve them.

Could you tell us about the havoc that the recent heavy rains played in Malwani and how people manage to survive the flooding and consequent damages year after year?

The cyclone and the heavy rains destroyed many homes and a building collapsed destroying many other hutments. The area was flooded with knee-deep water. Many homes were submerged, and lives were devastated. It is tough for the people to lead a normal life. Many take loans, pay exorbitant interests and get crushed under mounting debts.

You have been involved with children’s education over the past few years. Can you tell us how they fare later in life?

Many of the children whom we supported are living in other states across India and have come up in life. Some are teachers, chefs, human resource (HR), working with banks and other organisations. I do not know of anyone who went abroad as they feel they need to be close to their family members and take care of them. I am proud that many of the children we educated are eager to serve society. I feel citizens should become responsible and get basic education, ensure hygiene at home and in their surroundings and serve society for larger community good.

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