A Small Light for the Future, travels in North India with Uniting World

Previous Event: 13th December 2012

S Gillis

A Small Light for the Future, travels in North India with Uniting World

Delivering life changing opportunities to children and families

Sarah Gillis
Principal Consultant, Aspire Australia

“A Small Light for the Future Travels in North India with Uniting World”

By Sarah Gillis

Sarah gave an interesting and informative talk about her recent experiences travelling as a member of the group of ten who had signed up for a charity challenge. Together the group members raised $40000 to help fund the Diocese of Amritsar (located in the North-West of Punjab, Northern India) project for the “Disadvantaged children”.

This project is a partnership between Uniting World and the Church of North India.

Sarah began her presentation by providing geographical and cultural background details about Punjab state. It is called the rice bowl of India. Although some wealth exists, much poverty prevails, especially in the villages. These are primarily the “Dalit” people, known to many as the ‘untouchables’. The main city in the North-West near the Pakistani border is Amritsar, and it is here in surrounding villages where the project operates.

People wear Turbans which is symbolic of the Sikh religion. Amritsar is the city where the “Golden temple” is located, the most significant shrine in Sikhism. Hence the city is the spiritual centre for the Sikh religion. It has a population of about 1.1 million people.

The Amritsar Uniting Church Diocese covers nine states within Punjab with about 150,000 members. The villagers are very poor and disadvantaged. They do not own land and have to work for landowners. Amongst children literacy is very low, malnutrition prevails, sound health practices are unknown and villagers are unaware about their legal rights. There is major inequality between women and men.      

As adult work pay is very low, children often need to work to help their families survive. Their education is neglected. It is a daily financial battle. Poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, health, even drug problems, and total unawareness of individual rights are all rife.    

Within this environment Sarah saw firsthand how this partnership program is helping some disadvantaged villagers cope with their daily living tussles, and prepare them for a better future. The feedback from the villagers has been enthusiastic and very positive.  

The project is run by the Church of North India, with Bishop Pradeep Samantaroy at the helm supported by his team. Its aims are to improve literacy, encourage personal growth and development opportunities, to have better health practices adopted and especially help women members of the community learn how to empower themselves.

This program started in 2008. It covers ten villages with about forty children chosen from each one. Presently there are six hundred and eleven children involved aged from 5-13 years old, with about a 55/45 girl: boy ratio. They are mainly Dalit people who have been downtrodden for many years.

Education: The children are dependent on Government schools. There are insufficient teachers available. Often, teachers do not appear for classes because the pupils do not come. This has changed where the project is operative. School study centres have been established by the Diocese as part of the project. Children are provided with nutritious snacks and are assisted with homework and learning by qualified teachers. For the first time in their lives these children are receiving education. Such positive experiences filter through to other children in the villages.

Women’s health: Assistance is given to women giving birth with Health aid workers undertaking checkups and providing advice and information about nutrition

Individual empowerment: Women villagers in particular receive guidance to understand what rights they have and how to access community organizations. In each project village women have been selected as community organizers to take on the ongoing management of the project. 

Sarah described the situation when she visited two families at their homes

At the first family household everything was neat and tidy inside. The family comprised a husband, wife and daughter. Since the husband is unable to work his wife has to work as a cleaner for which she gets paid 4 rupees / day. When you realize that a bottle of water costs 25 rupees then 4 rupees is meager. They are forced to take a loan from a landowner and so are bound to their debt.  

 Some schools were also visited and these were very colorful. Importantly, children with special talents were being identified and encouraged to develop further. For example, a group of boys excelled at Bangra dancing which is very popular in India, and they now performat various local functions. The boys have gained in self confidence, have lots of fun and are lauded in their community.

At the other family, the husband had fallen off a roof and died, leaving the mother with five children to rear alone. One of the sons had committed suicide.

Overall, this project is making an important difference for these children and their families because they are now encouraged to do things for themselves. The $40000 donated by the visiting group will fund the project for six months.

After the project visit was completed the group went on a fascinating five day trek along the foothills of the Himalayas.

An interesting Questions and Answer session followed covering many aspects of this project. What has clearly emerged is that Uniting World in association with its local partner has made an important start in trying to help some villagers cope, and even contemplate a brighter future. Stephanie Dalton from Uniting World fielded questions about the basis for the charity’s choice and management of projects.