Meeting the real Slumdog Millionaires

WHT reporter Chris Richards is currently in Chennai, India, where he is taking part in Rotary International’s Group Study Exchange (GSE) programme. Sponsored by the Rotary Club of Potters Bar, he is spending a month learning more about the rich history and culture of the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Here is his first report from the slums of Chennai.

INDIA is a land of stark contrasts.

As I rode pillion on a motorcycle down the streets of Chennai – formerly known as Madras – I observed luxury hotels and vast, air-conditioned shopping malls overhanging the crowded city streets.

Yet at the same time, I could not help but notice the abject poverty many still find themselves in.

On a visit to one of the city’s many slums, I saw cows, chickens, goats and dogs roaming the streets as families battle for survival.

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Such images paint a bleak picture of the future prospects of a country which achieved its independence from Britain nearly 63 years ago.

But despite this, there is hope – a feeling many think is portrayed perfectly in the 2008 multi-Oscar winning British film Slumdog Millionaire.

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In the movie, an impoverished young man from the slums of Mumbai wins 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

And Ramesh Kannan, 50, believes the film has been positive in promoting India’s image to the rest of the world.

“It is true that there is poverty all around us,” he said, “but it is also true that a slumdog can be a millionaire in India.

“We have people who used to sell peanuts on the road who now own five star hotels.”

On setting foot in the Light House slum, just a stone’s throw from Chennai’s popular Marina beach, I was immediately swarmed by more than a dozen slumdogs, all desperate to have their picture taken with me.

It was an incredibly humbling experience.

These youngsters may well face an uncertain future but the unadulterated joy I saw in their faces has left an indelible mark in my memory.

As I left the slum, smartly dressed call centre workers and businessmen pass me on their scooters, a further reminder of the gap between the haves and the have nots in this country.

Many commentators believe that India has an awful lot to do before it can shed its unwanted tag as a developing country.

However, one eminent statistician, Hans Rosling, believes it could be wealthier per person than the UK and even the US as soon as 2048.

It may sound implausible but, having witnessed first hand the country’s improving economy and the intelligence and resourcefulness of its truly wonderful people, I for one would not be willing to bet against this.

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