Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-4-1349 7828

April 2007 # 1

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Back to Editorials 2007

Bombay Nights

Some years ago the company I was working for was awarded a contract to do some work in the Indian city of Bombay, now known as Mumbai. It was a great opportunity and became a life changing experience for me. As the project’s technical manager I had to go over early and while there I was chaperoned by our Indian client. We visited various subcontractors and talked technical stuff. We travelled about the city in taxi cabs that seemed to test the limits of physics and the ability for body and soul to remain firmly attached. Obviously, we survived. When we were not barrelling around the streets I was shown some of the touristy sights and wined and dined. My hotel accommodation was more than adequate and I did have some free time to wander around the streets. 

It was during these times that I began to notice the inconsistencies of not only this vast and fast growing city but also my own thinking and attitude to life. Our client was working for two families who just happened to be the wealthiest in the country at that time. Suffice to say, no expense was spared on this job and it was my good fortune to have a small share in the largess but it was this aspect of my trip that got me thinking. 

Here I was, in a city teeming with life, enthusiasm, vigour and wealth but alongside this was immense poverty, lethargy, hopelessness and death. What drove me to see this vast gap was what I have come to remember as the “tree family”. I wish I had a photo of their home. 

The family lived not to far from the luxury I was enjoying. Unlike me they didn’t have a roof, they had a small tree that was growing through the footpath. Unlike me they didn’t have running water so I assume they accessed taps behind the nearby shops. Unlike me they had no room service so I guess the small pile of tin bowls, pots and cups were their cooking and eating utensils. Unlike me who enjoyed room cleaning and fresh sheets, they hung their sleeping mats from the boughs of the tree and the mother kept the small area under it swept clean with a straw broom. 

Although I never saw the ‘man of the house’ one of my colleagues got taking with the daughter. She was probably about 8 or 9 at the time and she went to school each day. She told my colleague that her dad was a street vendor and that her mother looked after her baby brother. She said she enjoyed school but would like to live in a real house. 

Her story, I am sure, is repeated thousands of times in cities like Mumbai but it is not the worst. I saw families who slept on the concrete footpaths under blankets, tightly wrapped around them to protect them from the cat size rats that roamed the streets after dark. I saw a man and his son asleep on top of his small cooking trolley. I passed him by each day on the way to where we were working. I assume his son went off to school. 

While gathering these sights and experiences, my colleagues and I were living in another universe. We certainly did not have to suffer a shortage of food nor did we endure chilly December nights on the streets. Our rooms were made up for us each day and when we arrived back at the hotel in the early hours we ordered drinks and food – all charged to the client’s tab. These inconsistencies and anomalies jolted me into thinking even more deeply about the world around me and my role in it. 

The thing that moved me most was the unjustness of the systems that govern our economic, social and personal lives. I had always thought Australia was the ‘lucky country’, blessed by an egalitarian spirit of co-operation and a sense of justice and the fair go. What I began to notice on my return was that this was far from the case.  

The ‘lucky country’ moniker I discovered was truly a tongue in cheek metaphor. The poverty was better hidden than in Bombay but the suffering was just as real. I realised that our nation is riven by class divisions and that justice was only as equal as your dollar could afford. Although I didn’t see families living under trees I found out that many families were forced to live in their cars. I had always thought that it was little girls in Bombay who went hungry. I could never have imagined, till my experience there and on getting back, that some young girls in Australia often went to bed with little or nothing in their stomachs. Two questions arose in light of my reflections. What could I do to change this situation and what could I do to change my own attitudes? 

The first question was not as challenging as the second. I could support aid projects abroad and at home but that, to me was not enough. I could work for an aid agency but I would still go home to a warm house and a good meal. I could write letters to politicians but I would not change their minds. I was and still am, plagued by doubts about how I can change myself and the world around me. 

However, what I have learned is that justice begins with your own attitudes and that while I may not be able to feed all the hungry, tend all the sick, visit the all needy and clothe all the poor, if I am to begin to undertake any of these tasks, I have to change my own approach to how I interact with the world around me. Unfortunately this is still a work in progress but I do take some solace in the fact that everyone else I encounter is just as human as I am. 

Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learnt from my experience 18 years ago is that justice begins inside us. It begins by facing and attempting to change our own individual weaknesses, biases and prejudices. The flip side of this process is that we begin to develop a heightened sense of the injustice around us and the injustice we inflict on others.  

My greatest weakness remains the fact that I often flee from the responsibility I feel to ensure that the “tree family” and their counterparts in my own country can rely on me to continue to struggle, along with the many good people who are also struggling, to ensure that their basic human rights and their dignity are upheld and maintained. 

While I am not a brave and fearless person by any measure, what I have come to realise is that unless we face our own demons and tame them, justice will never be complete. While we remain ensconced in the McWorld of passing pleasures and pursuit of happiness we will struggle to notice the “tree families” around us. While the task of personal transformation is fraught with dangers and pitfalls, the best part of it is that while I and you may not be able to change the world, we can, at the least, engage with it encouraged by the fact that we are striving for a better place to be created. A place in which we may not be able to change the situation of the “tree families” but at least we know they exist. That is the first step in the beginning of the change process.

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