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HVK Archives: More than a 'gram' of care - a NGO at work

More than a 'gram' of care - a NGO at work - The Indian Express

Meera Nair ()
24 December 1996

Title : More than a 'gram' of care - a NGO at work
Author : Meera Nair
Publication: The Indian Express
Date : December 24, 1996

With eyes widened in innocence, Taai stares at the feet passing by her,
occasionally looking up in vain for the familiar face of her mother.
Abandoned at the age of two at a bus-stop near Pune, because she was born a
female, her brother gained priority when it came to who would stay with the
mother in the face of poverty.

With terror written all over his face, three-year-old Rajesh watched his
father kill his mother, waiting for his turn to die in a deadly suicidal pact
to end their abject poverty. Screaming as his father turned to him, he was
saved by alert neighbours as he watched the last member of his family being
sentenced to life imprisonment. In that moment Rajesh was orphaned, just like
Taai.

Or so they thought - till they were brought to Bal Gram, a haven for
destitute children. Run by the India Sponsorship Committee, Antar Bal Gram is
the brainchild of Zulie Nakhooda, Vidya Kotak and P M Shah.

Far from the madding crowed on a hilltop overlooking a lake with a
breathtaking view, this non-governmental rehabilitation centre is situated a
few kilometres from Lonavla in Maharashtra. With 80 children in its care, the
centre thrives on hope, protection and love.

Nakhooda, or Ammi as she is fondly called by the children of the village,
says: "Our idea was to create a substitute family and a home. Today, what we
have is group foster care." Bal Gram boasts of eight homes or sadans, named
Bhakti, Preeti, Mamta, Daya, Jyoti, Kirti, Gomti and Shama. All the homes
have a mother who has eight to 12 children under her individual care.

What began as an educational sponsorship programme under the India
Sponsorship Committee, a registered non-profit organisation for
under-privileged children in 1967, is now a full-fledged residential unit.
Here, destitute children from the streets as well as from remand homes are
provided with food, housing and clothing and most importantly primary
education, with facilities for continuing their schooling in addition to
vocational training courses.

The 1997 report on the state of the world's children, released recently by
the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), with its six-point programme to
end child labour, lays emphasise on "provision of free and compulsory
education", which is critical to the underprivileged child in India.

With education being the main prerogative for children in Third World
countries, the primary school at Bal Grain is a fine example of enterprise.
The school has gained wide acceptance by the community living around it and a
majority of the children come from outside Bal Gram. A major achievement,
says Nakhooda, was receiving recognition from the Government of Maharashtra:
"This enabled us to send our children to other schools outside Bal Gram for
further studies."

There are multiple approaches through which you can help the orphaned
children - through family assistance, community support, individual foster
homes, of which we don't have enough in India, and lastly through adoption,
which is the best way, because the child gets a name and a legal status.
Unfortunately, according to Nakhooda, this procedure does not work in India
because of strong family Kinshasa.

"Hence, we had to devise a way called group foster care based on the SOS
system with a larger family and a mother to take care of the children,"
explains Nakhooda.

The case of Rajesh is an example of group foster care and it helped him to
overcome the mental trauma of his parents' suicide. He has been at Bal Gram
for the past 12 years and is now a trained mechanic, working in a factory in
Lonavla.

Bala Sule, also from a remand home, came here at the age of six. He
reminisces: "Life at the remand homes that I have been to was hell. They
kept us locked up. When I came to Bal Grain I was struck by the freedom that
was given to me to develop myself."

He went on to win the Gold Medal for the best sponsored child. Today, he
works at Fariyas Hotel in Lonavla in the maintenance section, after
completing a wire man's course from Bal Gram's vocational training institute.

Ganesh Shukla, who has perhaps been the longest at Bal Gram - 16 years
proudly declares his debt to Bal Gram: "Even if I had a real family, they
would not have been able to afford this kind of education." Ganesh is a
commerce graduate and earns Rs 1,400 a month as an accountant at Bal Gram.

Others such as Maya, however, have not been so lucky. In the past eight
years that she has been at Bal Gram, she has not been able to get over the
rejection which she experienced when her widowed mother abandoned her in
order re-marry. Even today, at the age of 16 she is mentally disturbed and
has to be kept constantly under medical supervision.

So, what is the future for people like Maya? "Very bleak," says Nakhooda,
since the centre can take care of individuals only upto a certain age after
which they may have to move on to another home. "We have to make way for
younger children who are being brought to Bal Gram and there is also the
question of depleting resources since we are a charitable organisation."

Bal Gram also has to deal with the problem of children from remand homes who
have been sent with inaccurate medical certificates. Babloo was brought here
as a little girl and nobody knew that she was mentally retarded.

Similarly, when Priyanka Gandhi and Sarojini Malhar were brought to Bal Gram,
the staff did not know that they were infected with tuberculosis till a
routine medical check-up was done at the Gram. Children who are in need of
long-term treatment are taken once a month to Sassoon Hospital in Pure, where
medical treatment is free.

A refreshing change here is that no religion is strictly adhered to by the
Gram's children. They celebrate Diwali, Christmas and Id. This not only keeps
the atmosphere secular but ensures that each child grows up to respect all
religions. Says Nakhooda: "But we do insist on giving the children Hindu
names for convenience, if they do not have any. And in some cases some senior
members of our staff at Bal Gram have gone so far as to give their names to
these orphaned children in order to give them legal standing."

These grafted relationships play a crucial role when it comes to making the
children feel at home within the Grain. Each member of the staff is either a
big brother, an uncle, aunt and, of course, the housemother or Aai.

The feeling of security has much to do with the house-mother. Bal Gram maybe
a classic example of a children's village which also gives shelter to several
destitute women. Most of the house-mothers who have joined Bal Gram have also
come from appalling circumstances. Widows, spinsters, divorcees - almost
all of them have been through desperate situations and have applied for the
post of house-mother, seeking security, financial independence and peace of
mind.

Pratima, for example, was blamed by her husband for his sister's suicide and
therefore sent home to her parents. She was soon divorced on the false
grounds of mental instability. Sunita Pradhan was ostracised by her in-laws
as she could not produce a male child.

What the house-mothers openly admit is that, after coming to Bal Gram they
have become secure individuals, earning a living with no tormentors. They
spend their time fruitfully, looking after society's condemned children,
sharing their woes and receiving their love in return. Almost all develop an
attachment to the children even after they have left the sadan. Says Sanjay
Sawant: "Bal Gram is like my parents' house. I am always welcome here." With
love, care, a balanced diet, fresh air and clean surroundings, Bal Gram's
children are constantly being transformed for a life in the world.



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