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The Causerati

A few good NGO founders are bringing light into the lives of the less privileged.

brunch Updated: Oct 26, 2013 17:08 IST
Aasheesh Sharma
Aasheesh Sharma
Hindustan Times

They have few things in common. But a feisty social worker, a Supreme Court lawyer, a communications entrepreneur and a former journalist have taken it upon themselves to bring back smiles to the faces of the less privileged and victims of circumstance. They use unconventional tools to reach their goals: from advocacy, and litigation to street plays and grassroots intervention. But this Diwali, this group of activists is helping slay the demons of misfortune in their own distinct ways. Let there be light!

Threads that bind, with dignity

Photo: Jasjeet Plaha

Set up in 1998
Founder: Anshu Gupta
What They Do: Link dignity with donation. Clothes are given away as a motivation to people working on community projects

Spark For The Cause
It was October 1991. A devastating quake had hit Uttarkashi in Uttar Pradesh, journalism student Anshu Gupta’s home state. Gupta, then studying at Delhi’s Indian Institute of Mass Communications, rushed to ground zero. “Close to Maleri village, I met an old person wearing a tattered jacket made of gunny bags that people in the hills store potatoes in. He held a chit in his right hand that read: ‘Koi mujhe garam kapda de do, nahin to main mar jaoonga.’ That image gnawed at Gupta’s conscience. The homeless man wasn’t asking for food, or money, or shelter, but warm clothing since he couldn’t have survived the chilly night without it.

A few years later, when he was formulating the framework of policies for his organisation, Gupta remembered the old man’s face.

The story so far
Today, Gupta’s team of Goonj volunteers collect, sort, and distribute old clothes that people have given away. But he wants to change what he calls our “lousy” giving habit. “When someone in urban India says they want to donate clothes, they actually mean they want to discard them,” says Gupta.

Of the more than 1,000 tonnes of donated clothing, toys and used material that Goonj gets every year, more than one-fourth is unusable. “The cloth is soiled, or torn and the jacket has a missing collar.”

Apart from the lack of dignity with which people approach donations in kind, there is a mismatch in what donors give and what victims of natural disasters need. “For urban men for instance, waist sizes are between 32 and 40 inches, while most men in rural India are between 26 and 30 inches.”

Recently NASA lauded Goonj’s ‘Cloth for Work’ campaign as a game-changing innovation. “Begging is an urban phenomenon,” Gupta explains. “But the biggest asset of India’s village people is their dignity. And clothing is a symbol of that dignity. In ‘Cloth for Work’, people work on community projects – digging wells or cleaning ponds. In return, they get clothes to wear.”

Photo: Raj K Raj

Building champions, step by step

Set up in 2005
Founder: Siddhartha Upadhyay
What They Do: Propagate the idea of the right to play as a fundamental right. They set up sports centres, organise matches and distribute kits, apart from supporting athletes with coaching, scholarships and sponsorship. In tandem with the government, Stairs has also established the first-of-its kind cricket academy for disabled youth in Eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Kushinagar district.

Spark For The Cause
As an impressive fast-bowling all-rounder playing with Sonnet Club in the late 1990s, Stairs founder Siddhartha Upadhyay ran into the wall of nepotism and politics that Delhi’s club cricket is known for. But he did not lose heart.

Since Upadhyay was a natural athlete and had represented his zone in javelin, shot put and running, he diverted his energies to other sporting disciplines. Still, he resolved that one day, when he had plenty of resources at his disposal, he would ensure that other sportspersons’ dreams didn’t die young.

The story so far
Hailing from a farming family from Uttar Pradesh, Upadhyay runs a communications consultancy in Delhi. When his business model was in place, the entrepreneur returned to sports, his first love, and founded Stairs. Initially launched with the support of friends and family, the NGO later found corporate partners.

Today, Stairs has 15,000 children playing in Delhi in flagship programme Uflex Khelo Dilli alone. It is also working with youth inclined towards sports in more than 1,000 villages across Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa. “I want that every child in the country who wants to play, gets to indulge in his or her passion,” says Upadhyay.

Now, a quartet of teenagers supported by Stairs, all residents of Majnu Ka Tilla neighbourhood in north Delhi, have made it to the Asian Games. “Three of the four kids representing India at the Asian Games in sepak takraw (a volleyball-like game) next year are sons of autorickshaw drivers,” says Upadhyay. The next project his wife Chhavi (in the picture on the previous page) and he are upbeat about is the academy for disabled cricketers in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh.

“During a conversation with district magistrate Rigzin Samphel, we realised Kushinagar had a high population of disabled youth. Most of them had never heard of access to public spaces. We got the captain of the Indian disability team to visit them and give tips to aspiring cricketers. Within a day of the announcement, more than 200 physically challenged cricketers turned up to play at the academy, many of them on wheelchairs. That was a very touching moment,” says Upadhyay.

Advocating woman power VAHINI

Set up in 2001

Founder: Ravi Kant

What They Do: Rescue women and children from situations where they fight abuse and trafficking. Shakti Vahini recently helped a domestic help in South Delhi’s Vasant Kunj break free from her abusive employer and rescued another help in Dwarka, whose employers had taken off on a vacation after locking her in.

Spark For The Cause
Over the last decade, they’ve rescued more than 2,000 people, says founder president Ravi Kant. But it all began in the healthcare sector, when he was distributing condoms in Delhi’s red-light district, recalls Kant. “HIV was a burning issue in the late ’90s. We began by sensitising sex workers. But we soon realised that health interventions apart, the root cause of abuse was trafficking of girls who had been forced into prostitution.”

The story so farA well-known Supreme Court lawyer, Kant launched Shakti Vahini in 2001, with his father’s retirement kitty. “Within three years, we began generating individual donations and got support from the government and the European Union,” he says.

Now their gameplan has moved to breaking the circle of organised crime. “We began litigating and carried out rescue operations. Then, after regular media reportage, a lot of people began giving us leads,” says Kant. In the Vasant Kunj case, for instance, it was the resident welfare organisation that alerted them to the plight of the 15-year-old domestic help.

Here’s is how the web of trafficking operates. A pimp locates a potential victim in a village and lures her family with a promise of employment and about `10,000. “Gang members then transport them to a city and the circle of exploitation continues,” says Kant.

Shakti Vahini helps victims understand the legal process. “Once she is rescued, after a short stay in a shelter, the victim is sent back to her village. Within a year she should return to the city to testify,” says Kant. During a court hearing, Kant’s NGO also helps the victim and their family stay at the state Bhavans free of cost. “Our counsellors speak to them and help them gather the courage to testify.”

Where street kids have fame

Photo: Jasjeet Plaha

Set up in 1998
Founder: Praveen Nair
What They Do: Train street children in life skills and help them perfect their creative pursuits. Bring love into the lives of runaway juveniles across shelter homes, contact points and outreach programmes

Spark For The Cause
Praveen Nair had her first glimpse of the lives of street children when her daughter Mira directed the 1988 film Salaam Bombay. She realised the drug pushers, pimps and prostitutes that the film’s protagonist Krishna and his friends were pitted against, weren’t restricted to Mumbai’s red-light district, where the film had been set. “The film was released in 1988. Seeing the condition of street children, Mira and her associates, including Barry John and Sooni Taraporevala, thought it shouldn’t be the end of their association with street children,” recalls Nair.

So, along with founding trustee Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork Films, Nair set up a trust that would build bridges with Delhi’s street children. The seed capital of a few lakh came from the film’s premieres in Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore, she says.

The story so far
Close to 90 per cent of street kids fall prey to anti-social elements, gang leaders and drug peddlers, says Nair. At the age of 11, Vicky Roy ran away from his home in Purulia, West Bengal, and boarded the Nilanchal Express. He landed in Delhi and after being bullied by gang leaders, worked as a ragpicker at the New Delhi Railway Station. But Roy had a flair for taking pictures.

Rescued by the Salaam Baalak Trust, he trained in photography at the Triveni Kala Sangam and apprenticed under Delhi-based fashion photographer Anay Mann. Last month, his work was exhibited at the Delhi Photography Festival organised by the Nazar Foundation. “He was one of four young photographers selected from around the world by the Maybach Foundation to photograph the rebuilding of the World Trade Center,” says Nair.

For the first few weeks, Sanjoy Roy and Nair pounded the railway platforms finding out all they could about street children. “We invited them to our centre but initially, for about 20 days, none of the boys showed any enthusiasm. Then one day, after we had provided treatment to one of the kids who had fallen ill, we got the first phone call,” says Nair. “At every step of their little lives, street children have been cheated, whether by parents, gang leaders or by police. That is why it takes time to win their trust,” adds the genial 82-year-old woman.

Over the last 25 years, the NGO has touched the lives of more than 50,000 street children. They also manage an emergency helpline for children in distress. And it all began with a film!

From HT Brunch, October 27

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First Published: Oct 24, 2013 17:05 IST