India's population and culture is highly diverse, reflecting the various invasions the country suffered during its millenary history. Throughout centuries, India has been invaded from the Iranian plateau, Central Asia, Arabia, Afghanistan, and the West. Indian people and culture have absorbed and changed these influences to produce a remarkable racial and cultural synthesis. Although 80% of the people are Hindu, India also is the home of more than 120 million Muslims. The population also includes Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, and Parsis. Religion, caste, and language are major determinants of social and political organization in India today. The government has recognized 18 languages as official; Hindi is the most widely spoken.
from the wreckage of collapsed buildings, I traveled to India, in June 2001 in the hopes of providing help and relief to the victims of a natural catastrophe.
The actual death toll was subject to discussion since many of the dead were cremated in some villages or remained buried under flattened towns and cities. Other records from this devastating tragedy state that at least 600,000 people were left homeless as the earthquake destroyed 400,000 homes and damaged an additional 800,000. More than 200,000 cattle were killed and the government estimate economic losses at $1.3 billion. Other assessments indicate losses were as high as $5 billion.
When I arrived in Gujarat almost six months after the tragedy, the feeling of devastation was still very present. Traveling in the affected area, at close distance I could see the damage caused to buildings and villages' infrastructure, smell the scent of human and animal corpses that were cremated and, above all, notice the emotional wreckage left on parents and their children. Surprisingly however, was that in the midst of so much tragedy, something magical was still very alive on the places I visited. People were full of love and hope. In one place I passed by in the heart of Bhuj there was a large banner, which read:We are not victims but warriors of a new beginning.
Which NGO’s (non-government agencies) was I representing?
A developing country well known abroad for the spirituality of its population and major income inequalities, India has attracted throughout the years many non-governmental institutions interested on improving the quality of life of its citizens. Of their staff, it is possible for one to observe a great number of hardworking and dedicated people who have made enormous personal sacrifices in order to help those in need.While in Gujarat, I had the great opportunity to follow up the work of three leading non-governmental world agencies: World Vision, Save the Children-India and SOS Children's Villages. These three organizations were involved in a variety of projects of short and long term goals dealing with immediate relief, reconstruction, public sanitation, health care and education. Though I had a great deal of curiosity in tracking their work, due to my work with children elsewhere and available time of key personnel, I ended up spending most of my time with the staff of Save the Children-India.
Save the Children in India
Save the Children-India (www.savethechildrenindia.org) is a NGO established in 1988 by it's Director, Mrs. Vipula Kadri. It's mission consists on empowering disadvantaged woman and caring for children in need. To empower the disadvantaged they focus their energies and resources on education and health issues.In addition, since 2000, the organization has also concentrated its attention on the combating and prevention of children trafficking from rural areas.
It was a real pleasure and honor to meet with Mrs. Kadri and get familiar with the extraordinary work she has been carrying on for the last 25 years of her life. In 1988, Mrs. Kadri created SAVE THE CHILDREN-INDIA (STCI) in order to have a platform and organization that ultimately touches the lives of thousands of children. Since then, she lent her support to various programs dedicated to the cause of children and has vigorously advocated for their rights. Her devotion and dedication to making a difference in children's lives is infectious.
I spent my first day with Mrs. Kadri learning about the work of STCI and meeting the children and teachers involved in their programs. One program particularly developed to provide relief to the children and victims of the earthquake was a makeshift school program. For this undertaking, school tents were lifted and children ranging 5 to 16 years old of age and from different castes (social classes) were brought together to attend classes taught from Monday to Saturday. Many children who participated in the program had met for the first time on these classes, with a large percentage of them being orphans.
It was worth noticing that STCI provided the makeshift school program with a strong structure. While observing their activities, I couldn't stop observing how well teachers were trained in order to deal with the results of the earthquake tragedy. Throughout the day, teachers interacted closely with the kids in developing games and drawing activities and they seemed to be very much attentive to their needs. To get the children's trust was not an easy thing. When Mrs.Kadri and her team first arrived in the village of Vondh, one of the places I visited and from where I extracted a great part of my observations, the children would not leave their parents. They would cling to them at every given moment. Sadly, this attitude not only did keep the "child" away from any children's activities but also kept the parent from working and returning to some kind of a routine.
The gratifying results of both the staff and teacher's dedication to the makeshift school program were mirrored on children's response. They loved the program with such a passion to the extent of wanting classes on Holidays and Sundays. They cherished the classes and I believe the STCI's provided structure was essential to their healing process. The overall feeling both from the children and teachers was of extreme enthusiasm.
In addition to the makeshift school, STCI was in the process of developing a health care initiative to tend to the nutritional and dental needs of the children. Conceptually, the plan consisted of establishing health camps in which children would be provided with meals better balanced for their need and be treated for teeth and mouth related problems. Due to the terrible shock that the children had experienced, a lot of their eating patterns went out of track. Furthermore, children had the awful habit of eating a candy called "gudhka." Similar to chewing tobacco and leaves, the practice usually resulted in leaving them with black teeth, which ultimately could rot and fall out.
My first introduction to World Vision's work in India was through it’s wonderful Base Manager, George Elson. The Communication's Associate, Caleb Mpamei, was another guide for me, and a great source of information. And lastly but not least was Amit Ramdasani, the superb local driver and sometimes translator! With a smile on his face all day and night.
The earthquake that hit the State of Gujarati had significantly damaged it’s infrastructure for the delivery of services and goods. Throughout the area, one could see broken water pipelines, destroyed aseptic tanks and contaminated cattle troughs. In addition, roads and pathways were cracked and ruined. As a result of all this devastation, the distribution of food, water and clothing became seriously compromised.
With the intent of relieving the population from the distraught caused by the earthquake, World Vision first centered it’s relief efforts on the immediate distribution of food and needed supplies. For this venture, Mr. Elson told me that World Vision put together teams of staff and volunteered workers and trust them with the responsibility of distributing the supplies in the areas most affected by the quake. Conscious about diseases like cholera, hepatitis and typhoid that could be spread as a result of contaminated water, World Vision also took the initiative of repairing the damaged infrastructure. This was work, which included the repairing of water, tanks and taps construction of cattle troughs as well as the laying down of more than 10,000 meters of pipelines.
World Vision was also actively pursuing other activities. Two projects that were brought to my attention were a program that consisted on the adoption of villages for rebuilding purposes and another one known as Transformational Development Program (TDP). Under this program, teams of World Vision workers would be created and sent to live with families previously registered in it. The ultimate purpose was to work with them hands on at developing their community and their lives.
Since its inception in the year 1964 SOS Children's Villages of India has expanded its services for children in need, at a rapid pace. SOS Children's Villages of India has 32 Children's Villages and 122 allied projects including facilities for Tibetan children. The organization provides direct care to 15,000 children through its Children's Villages and indirect care to nearly 200,000 children through its various community projects.
The same way as it happened with the other two organizations, I was greeted and introduced to SOS-Children's Village work by its director in the area, Jagdeep Singh. In our meeting, Mr. Singh told me that because there wasn't a SOS Children's Village operating in Bhuj (the epicenter of the earthquake in the State of Gujarat), during the earthquake relief operations two centers had to be established in the villages of Bacchao and Rapar. I traveled with Mr. Singh to both villages to meet with the children, as well as the "aunts" and teachers.
It was a great pleasure meeting the children at both villages and becoming familiar with them and their activities. The children were delightful. They were all so full of love and light. There were some children that were orphans and others that had just lost one parent. There was a game that two of the young boys would play everyday. I called it the "earthquake game". They would pull bark of the trees, and build a little "house" structure. Then they would swirl their arms over it, as if there was an earthquake coming. The pieces of the house would fall apart. They would then carry the pieces, over to the next tree, lay them down and rebuild the house. They would repeat this game over and over throughout the day.
While visiting with the SOS staff, I have learned that the mission of SOS Children's Villages of India is to help orphaned and abandoned children by providing them with a family, permanent home, education and a strong foundation for an independent and secure life. At SOS Children's Villages, the team of players believes that only the love of a caring mother, a family and home can help a child grow up as a self reliant and contributing member of society. It is this love and understanding that is given in abundant measure, to every child who comes home to a SOS Children's Village.
"India, a subcontinent with exceptional potential wealth--yet where areas and social groups of overwhelming poverty survived. A land of intense spirituality , a land of saints like Gandhi, Aurobindo, Ramakrishna and Vievekanada. A land of incomparable beauty and variety, and of hideous prospects like the slums of Bombay or Calcutta. A land where the sublime often stood side by side with the very worst this world can offer, but where both elements were always more vibrant, more human, and ultimately more attracting than anywhere else."Dominique Lapierre, in City of Joy
Faces of Tomorrow-Photographs & stories of children around the world—by Diana Barnett