Last week, on a blazing hot summer day, I found myself on the top floor of a luxury hotel in central Delhi. From that vantage point, Delhi/India looks charming and serene: a sheet of green carpets the spaces around the whitewashed official bungalows of Lutyens' Delhi and even the normally chaotic traffic seems to move like a synchronised ballet — and the million mutinies that pockmark India seem to be just a bad dream.
The day's agenda was to honour the 25 agents of change who featured in Hindustan Times' recently concluded 'India Awakened' series. The felicitation programme started with the emcee showing a video promo of the snippets of the work of the changemakers HT was honouring and the odds they battled — and battle — every day to make the lives of their fellow citizens better. None of these trailblazers have big bucks backing them; none of them walked down the uncharted roads because they expected recognition or money. They did not wait for the State to act, but took up a cause because they believed that no matter how small they are, they could still provide solutions to the problems their fellow citizens are facing.
One of the most inspiring stories is that of Banwasi Musahar, a Class 7 dropout from Bihar. "My village was known as a village of thieves. I realised that I must educate the villagers to change the way the people look at us," he said. So instead of waiting for a government school to start and teach the Mahadalit children, Musahar started teaching the children of the village himself. With his kind of limited educational background, many would think that the children would probably not learn much. But, hang on, they did and today four of his students are standing at the threshold of making personal — as well as community — history. They will graduate in 2013. The most beautiful thing about his work is that the change he has unleashed will have an inter-generational impact on the people of the village, especially on the lives of girl children.
The same holds true for what Sylvester Peter is doing in an urban slum in Delhi, 1,100 kilometres from Musahar's village. Sylvester, a holistic trainer, takes care of 90 children of a slum in west Delhi and teaches them basic life skills and the love of his life, football. He does all this with his own money and some help from his friends and family.
While most of the slum children go to the government schools nearby, all they learn there is textbook stuff. But, as Sylvester said, the children need more than just textbook knowledge to make the best of their lives and talent. "They need mentoring and what we call in corporate parlance, soft skills," he added. "Their parents are busy earning two meals and cannot guide them. So a big part of my work is mentoring them, helping them to dream big." And yes, then there is football, the "ultimate leveller". Today, Sylvester added proudly, his children can match those who study in the best schools in Delhi.
I could go on and on about the stories, but then words are not enough to describe these superheroes and their superhuman efforts. For those who have missed these heartwarming stories, you can read them here .
Now that the ceremony is over and the changemakers are back where they work, certain issues stand out. First, there are many areas where the State has just given up, even when it comes to providing basic infrastructure facilities like bridges and schools. Even if they have been addressed in some cases, much, much more needs to be done. Second, the government officials need to change their mindset towards these changemakers and must see them as collaborators, not challengers. They need to co-opt these leaders and see how best their solutions can fit in with the bigger scheme of things so that many more can enjoy the benefits of these solutions.
For example, when the reporter who did the Musahar story asked the local education official whether the poor students of the makeshift school can get some help under the Right to Education Act, the official, in typical babu fashion, said that he needed to verify Musahar's work first. While no one's against verifying, it needs to be done on priority. Unfortunately to date, Musahar's students have got no support from the State.
Last but not least, while the efforts of the changemakers need to be replicated, it would be impossible to do so without institutional support. For example, Omkar Nath, who crisscrosses Delhi to collect and distribute unused medicines to the poor, needs a room to stock his medicines. He also wants to put up boxes in localities to make it easier for people to drop their unused medicines and needs a vehicle to go around the city to distribute his medicines to needy patients. Sylvester needs a permanent place to house the children because he fears that the slum might be demolished any day. And, Mohammed Sharif, who performs the last rites of those who have no family, needs a railway pass to ensure hassle-free travel.
Even if they don't get any institutional support, these 25 changemakers will continue in the belief that their work is their life's calling. But by helping them, the State will get another chance to close the obvious gaps that exist. To do that, it first has to accept that those gaps exist — and that might be a big hurdle.