Behind the beautiful, lavish parts of Delhi always lies the most abject poverty imaginable. I have read several books on the slums of India and thought I’d know what to expect when I saw them in person. Yet nothing I’d ever seen in all my years of travel could have prepared me for the stark reality of desperation, misery and despair of walking through a real live slum in the heart of India’s capital.


In the background of the lush green, beautiful grounds of the American Embassy lies the Vivekananda Camp, one of many unauthorized slums that surround every single part of Delhi. We visited this slum as part of our tour with WaterAid, a global NGO that provides safe drinking water and sanitation to areas around the world that do not have access to it.

The stark contrast between the neighboring American Embassy and the Vivekananda Slum were almost too hard to morally comprehend.  These two places represent the immense contradictions and inequalities that can be found all throughout Delhi and India as a whole. One of the greatest inequalities ever seen anywhere in the world is right there staring into your face, making it impossible to not feel deeply distraught.

In the Vivekananda Camp, a slum of approximately 500 households, there is no running water, no sewer lines and people live in absolute dire circumstances. Thanks to WaterAid, improvements to sanitation have been made by the building of a Community Toilet Complex (CTC), a compound containing 20 toilets for women, 20 for men and a few for children as well as a couple of showers, providing some sort of dignity in a place where dignity hardly exists.


The Community Toilet Compound (CTC) inside the Vivekananda unauthorized slum.


The entrance to the CTC which is a pay per use system costing 1 Rupee ($0.02) per use for women, 2 Rupees per use for men and free for children. The charge is used to maintain the facility.


Inside the women’s CTC. This one is a clean facility. Others have run into problems with clogged sewers. Each CTC is managed and monitored by a community worker from FORCE, a local NGO. Therefore, when there are issues with a CTC it can be resolved.



This concrete wall was added to the women’s toilet and shower area to provide privacy from the peeping Toms.


A Vivekananda women using the CTC (left) and a FORCE Project Coordinator on the right.


Vivekananda Slum.



Less than a third of people ( 772 million people) have access to sanitation in India, and 90 million people in India do not have access to safe water per WaterAid.  Over 186,000 children under five die from diarrhea every year. With 17% of the world’s population (over a billion people), the water crisis in India is only getting worse and is becoming life or death for millions of people.

This post was written on behalf of my meeting with WaterAid India and our tour of the Vivekananda Slum. All statistics are sourced from WaterAid. All photos are mine. Thank you WordPress for inspiring this post for the Weekly Photo Challenge: In the Background


  1. I have travelled in India and I have seen places like this. It broke my heart. I felt guilty that I could just walk past and return to my very comfortable life. Back in Australia I immediately sponsored a little girl in India…not much, but better than nothing.

  2. lovely post, amiga, though i am sure it was difficult for you to reconcile how you live with those bathroom conditions. but at least some of them some of the time have a bathroom.

    do any of them know of the guava tree’s medicinal properties for stopping diahrrea? it’s a dessicant, antispasmodic and a mile antibiotic. i have watched the tea from those leaves work womders for stopping diarrhea almost instantly. someone should try it… make the tea really really strong – brew it for half an hour then let it sit, but start them drinking it after about ten minutes of simmering… what could it hurt if they have no medicine? i’m not a doctor but i have witnessed that cure many times, and it’s worked on me and friends, and it’s 100 percent safe/healthy tea to drink even when one is not sick!


    1. Interesting! I have not heard of this before. I wonder if the guava tree grows in India? Or is it only a tropical plant. I think the big thing over in India is the children and infants getting really sick from diarrhea. They loose so much fluid they become dehydrated and die. It is sad that diarrhea, a preventable illness, is one of the leading causes of death in children in the developing world under age 5.

  3. The numbers are incomprehensible — that 90 million people in India don’t have access to safe water. That is just under the ENTIRE population of the Philippines, where I come from, and where we have poverty issues as well, with slums close to high rise luxury apartments.

    I can never understand how we human beings can live in a world of such disparity, that we allow this despair while many can have access to an insane amount of resources. And why with our technology and advances, that in the year 2013 we still seem so far off from addressing basic human needs for millions of people.

    Thank you for what you are doing, we all need to open our eyes, and as hard as it is, we need to see and work to find solutions.

    1. Thanks for your comment Lola! Yes, it is absolutely hard to comprehend the immense poverty in India. I have been to China too which also has a billion people but their poverty really seems settled in the rural area and I did not see much of it in terms of slums in the big cities. India is quite a complex place. There is so much work to be done there that it sometimes seems hopeless yet just seeing a few of the girls I saw at the schools trying to get ahead and with a glimmer of hope in their smiles, made me hopeful. Yet the problems there are so vast and I hate to say will probably just continue to get worse with the climate change and food shortages and continual gulf between rich and poor in India.

  4. That’s incredible and so hard to imagine. Thank you for sharing. I am glad there is a group likeWaterAid to help.

    1. You’re welcome. Sadly there are still many people without water and sanitation in India and around the world. It is so hard to imagine that it could truly be possible in 2013 but is true.

    2. Hi Holly — thanks for mentioning WaterAid’s work. We can’t meet the enormous need for clean water that still exists around the world with out the help of many supporters. Would love to count you in — please get in touch or visit our website to learn more or Call me at 212 683 0430

    1. Yes it was really hard to see. The problems in India are so vast and so complex that it is hard not to give up. But we can’t as I’m worried it will only get worse as the climate changes and food shortages arrive. It is frightening but we can’t give up! 🙂

  5. Very vivid report of abject poverty – the background to life around the world. More people need to be thinking about this and what can be done to help. Your post brings the issues of poverty to the foreground. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, there is so much need in the world, especially in India with its growing population and limited resources. It is frightening that the problems they face will probably get worse in the coming years yet we can’t give up and must keep trying to help out.

      1. Absolutely – words to abide by “we can’t give up and must keep trying to help out.”
        Again, thank you so much for sharing 🙂

      2. So glad you were moved by the post. That is my intention and it makes me glad that the post has impacted others! 🙂

  6. Brilliant report & I wonder if you are still in Delhi???

    The reason I ask is I’ve helped establish some slum tours in Accra, Ghana – very similar situation – in the heart of the city. They’re growing, I mentor him several times a week online & 18months on, he’s massively grown in confidence & giving back to his community in many different ways, particularly with the young children – have a look here:

    There are massive problems with sanitation in areas like these, with vermin & mosquitoes loving the breeding ground it provides. Unfortunately it’s the children that get sick & the under-5’s have less chance of survival, particuarly with malaria!

    Could someone find a suitable person to head up a similar project in Delhi??

    1. Thanks so much! This is a great post. I would be very curious to see what the slums in Ghana are like as compared with the ones in Delhi. Are there organizations like WaterAid there helping to provide safe drinking water and sanitation?

      1. Hi Nicole — WaterAid works in 27 developing countries including Ghana. We have been working on water, sanitation and hygiene for over 30 years supporting on the ground service delivery as well as advocacy and policy change. I encourage all of your amazing followers to check out WaterAid’s website to learn more.

      2. Thanks Hallie for all your amazing comments to my readers! This is so incredibly helpful and I truly look forward to working more with WaterAid and creating awareness and change. 🙂

      3. Haillie

        Please correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t believe you work in inner city slums in Ghana, particularly Accra but your work focuses on outlying villages

        I would be very interested to talk to you further as Ghana Nima Tours is working to improve sanitation with groups in Nima & they need help! We have someone going in 3 weeks from the US who is keen to help implement a plan; which can be used in other slums in Accra such as Jamestown, Agbogbloshie (the computer rubbish dump & highly toxic living) etc, etc

        Please do get in touch! Or anyone else interesting in helping a mothers group in a Ghanaian slum keen to improve their own sanitation as the government seem to turn a blind eye!

  7. Those are devastating facts. It’s so hard to imagine that so much of Indian life is lived like this, while others spend ridiculous sums of money on fancy weddings, houses and cars that drive right past the poor people living on the sidewalk or under a tarp. What an amazing experience you’ve been able to have, Nicole!

    1. Yes it is so complex and so full of contradictions. I agree that many of the rich there just give up and turn a blind eye on the problems at hand. I got that feeling from some of the people, especially since many of the slums are migrants. It was so hard to see it all and I worry about the coming years and what will happen as there is more pressure on the environment and its precious resources as the population continues to boom.

  8. Oh, Nicole, I know how one feels when first seeing a Delhi slum. Pretty overwhelming! Thanks for this fabulous post, my friend! I hope to get back to blogging in another week or so.

    We move into our house in Ecuador this week. Been painting it and getting ready to relocate to this permanent home.


    1. Yes, it is very hard to see isn’t it Kathy. But I’m so glad I did and also glad I got to see the NGOs on the ground and doing their work.
      I can’t wait for you to start blogging again about your new life there in Ecuador! 🙂

  9. I have been in India myself, (Bangalore) and was just appalled at the conditions I found there. It does break your heart. Makes me feel helpless.Thank you for sharing this.
    Brayton L.

    1. You’re welcome. It isn’t the happiest of subjects but I do think it is so important to spread the word. Maybe it will inspire more people to help in some way.

  10. I visited India about 8 yrs ago, (Bangalore) and I was shocked to say the least.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Brayton L.

    1. You’re welcome. Yes it is hard to imagine so many people living in such terrible conditions. Life or death. We have much to be thankful for and much to do to help out.

  11. After my parents returned from traveling through India, my mother said that the sights, smells and sounds were almost impossible to comprehend until one had visited there. I look forward to your posts sharing more from your travels.

    1. Wow, Kat. That is the perfect way to put it as it is impossible to comprehend or explain until you see it for yourself. It is the most complex place I’ve ever been.

  12. Thanks for posting this insightful and important piece Nicole. WaterAid is grateful for your voice and help raising awareness for the lack of water and sanitation that is still so extensive in much of the developing world. The solution is in all our hands and I hope many of your readers will be inspired to take action and support WaterAid’s work. Thanks again and we hope you enjoyed your visit with WaterAid in India.

    1. You’re welcome Hallie! I was very inspired by the visit and look forward to working more to promote awareness of the WaterAid’s work and the importance and basic human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. This is such a solvable problem. We just need to keep spreading awareness.

  13. Excellent post. I recently heard a news report about building robots to do more work for us, and we hear many similar uses for technology every day.When I hear these, I always wonder why more time and money is not spent on solving the really important problems of the world such as what you have written about. It’s great that you help spread the word about the enormous problems that exist, and I know it encourages people to step up to the plate and do something, however small it may be. Thanks.

    1. Well said! I agree wholeheartedly. After seeing such desperation and poverty, it makes absolutely no sense why people aren’t being provided with the basic human right of water and sanitation. You would think it is the governments responsibility but unfortunately it doesn’t always work that way. Thanks to NGOs like WaterAid, people are receiving safe water and sanitation but we still have a long way to go.

  14. Your post highlights the accident of birth that makes this contradiction a reality for so many million Indians. A shame that the Government cannot care for the residents of the capital city better. To be fair to them, most of these people, as those in the slums of Mumbai and other metro cities, are migrant workers who pour in from rural areas, straining the already stretched resources of our cities. There is a more urgent need to improve conditions and provide opportunities in their hometowns, because there is a limit to how many people any city can absorb. I doubt developed Western cities would survive such an onslaught. There are plans and rural schemes underway, but like most things Indian, and thanks to ‘democracy’ AND corruption, they take years to implement, by which time the original problem has multiplied ten fold.
    The statistics seem staggering because of the staggering size of our population. You have to understand that we are talking about 1/5th the population of the entire world! We could have – perhaps should have for a while at least – gone the China way. (The reason we consciously took the decision to have one child) Not sure if it helped eradicate poverty there either. Believe me, just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
    For the moment we can all just do what we can at a personal level, and hope our vast, ambitious, young population will somehow lift us out of this quagmire. Even if I don’t expect that to happen in my lifetime.

    1. Brilliant comment Madhu. These same thoughts have been rolling around my head as well. It seems that the more the economy picked up, the more the migrants came to town and the slums kept growing. It is a hard problem to come to terms with. Very complex. One thing interesting is that I do not remember seeing this kind of disparity in China. I know China’s poor is mostly rural but I don’t recall seeing the slums like you do in India. I could have missed them though.
      One thing I found interesting is how the slums in Delhi seemed to surround every neighborhood. They weren’t really confined to an area but were everywhere. I had asked an Indian woman about it and she said it was because of the “help”. That the middle class hired maids, cooks, drivers, etc and they needed to be nearby. Not sure if this is the case, but I found it interesting.

    2. I have read quite a bit about the migration of families from the countryside and yes, no western city could maintain this influx of humanity. It’s so sad and makes me feel selfish. I gave Nicole GREAT kudos for getting involved. I believe strongly in birth control but in a voluntary manner not a government mandate.

  15. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think more people need to really open their eyes to see how some people live. The extreme disparity in living conditions in such close proximity is just insane.

  16. This is amazing to see. Thank you, Nicole, for sharing. What a life-changing trip this must have been for you. There is so much work to be done!

  17. Nicole, thank you so much for bringing this issue to the forefront. I had always heard of the abject poverty in India but never seen many photos. What you are doing is inspiring, and many would say courageous.

    1. Oh LuAnn! You are always so kind in your comments. It was a life changing experience and I am committed to doing as much as I possibly can.

  18. I recommend a wonderful book to all of you interested in the disparity and economics of life in Mumbi slums – the shadows of luxury hotels near the airport. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo — won the 2012 National Book award. Written by Pulitzer prize winning journalist who spent 3 years there living and researching the underworld of India’s prosperity.

    1. Hallie, this is by far one of the best books I’ve read recently. I completed a few months before India and when I was in Mumbai at the airport moving from the domestic to international terminal, I actually saw the slums! I couldn’t believe it, especially after reading such an incredible book. So much work to be done in India and the world. I am so honored to be a part of sharing WaterAid’s work.

      1. Great to hear have already read this book Nicole. There is so much to ponder in all this but thankfully WaterAid is pondering and acting! We really do appreaciate all your efforts to share our work and inspire others to take action.

  19. An eye-opening post, Nicole. It’s good to know that NGOs like WaterAid are doing what they can to lessen the problem but it must be overwhelming with such high statistics. Again, you are very inspiring and thank you for bringing awareness of such complicated issues to a wider audience.

    1. Since its founding in 1981 WaterAid has reached 17.5 million people with clean water and since 2004, over 12 million with sanitation. We use affordable and sustainable technologies such as and rope pumps, bore holes and rainwater catchment systems. Every community is involved and invested in the work as well as local organizations and NGOs. There is much yet to do, we know what works, we have the reputation on the ground and employ locally inclusive approaches — we can do it but we need everyone’s help and resources. Think about joining in —

      1. Thanks for the info and link, Hallie. I’ll take a look although at the moment I’m living in Thailand and looking for NGOs working here.

      1. I don’t know, Nicole. I’ve been wondering that myself. There’s no lack of rainfall here but I’ve seen people washing themselves in the filthy river in Bangkok. As for drinking water everyone drinks bottled water as far as I know but I don’t remember what it was like up in the hill tribes and more remote areas. It’s been a while since I was anywhere like that.

      2. Hi – Hallie from WaterAid here. The biggest water issue that WaterAid addresses is access to sustainable clean water sources. So even in countries with “lots of water” there are still major obstacles with access and contamination often resulting from a lack of sanitation as well. Rainwater catchment systems are a very affordable and locally appropriate technology for places that have abundant rainfall. Click this link if you want more details about how this works and more about the technologies we use.

      3. Thanks for the information and link, Hallie. Looks like WaterAid is doing some incredible work out there. I’ll have to look into the situation in rural areas of Thailand.

    1. Thanks so much! 🙂 Appreciate your kind words. I am still trying to digest this trip. It was so all encompassing. So much I saw about pure humanity. The daily struggle to simply survive. Wow.

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