Dr Helen Joseph was Professor at the College of Social Work, Nirmala Niketan (affiliated to the University of Mumbai) since 1983. Throughout her academic and professional career, she was been actively involved in issues related to communal harmony, domestic violence, ethics in social work practice and Peace Education. She was the Founder-Director of Salokha – A Field Action Project of the CSW, Nirmala Niketan on building communal harmony. We interviewed her on various issues:
Vivek’s World (VW): You are a founder-trustee and Chairperson of Aroehan (NGO). Tell us about the journey of Aroehan. Looking back, what are your thoughts about the achievements of Aroehan?
Dr Helen Joseph (HJ): I am reminded of the day (in 2005) when Dr. Abhay Bang gave a lecture at the College of Social Work on the plight of malnourished children in Maharashtra. This left some of us with a terrible sense of discomfort; and made us ask ourselves what more our profession ought to do to remain relevant and more responsive to the plight of the disadvantaged in India. As field work coordinator at that time, I made a small presentation at our weekly faculty meeting in this regard, proposing that we practically demonstrate the relevance of our teaching by taking up a limited area, working there, and showing the impact of our intervention. An opportunity arose when in 2006 the Govt. Of Maharashtra wanted us to take up some villages in Mokhada to work on the issue of Malnutrition. Accordingly AROEHAN was born. Anjali Kanitkar took responsibility to steer the project as Director, and I was part of the advisory team.
Starting with a micro-planning exercise we quickly realised the multiplicity and inter-connectedness of various factors that contributed to the high malnutrition deaths in the region. Hence we realised the need for an integrated approach that intervened simultaneously in areas of Health, Education, Agriculture, Livelihood and Good Governance.
Starting with a small team, led by a social work graduate from our own College, we began an arduous learning process in a difficult and hilly terrain lacking transportation facilities, no electricity, and where the villagers survived through subsistence farming and migration to the cities. As we educated ourselves, we stumbled, we fell, we rose, we discussed and debated on intervention strategies, our partnership with the government and the industry, what our ideology should be, what we should compromise on and what we should not etc.
Funds were difficult to access initially, though after CSR came into existence in 2013, the situation improved significantly. Today, we work in Mokhada, Jawhar, Dahanu and Palghar talukas of Palghar district. In 2014 we graduated from being a field action project of the College to an independently registered organization.
Health: We started with a maternal and child health program and Life Skills education among women and girls, but moved on towards empowering them to participate in Village Health & Sanitation Committees (VHNSC) which monitors nutrition and community health. We were instrumental in getting Ultrasound machines in 3 rural hospitals in Palghar district with the help of Siemens and DHLF.
Water conservation has been a major achievement for AROEHAN. We have so far constructed 196 small and medium sized check dams, sub-surface bunds, and cordons, repaired and refurbished several defunct wells, and made new ones. This has helped not only in mitigating the water issues of the villagers, but even more importantly it has helped in recharging the ground water table across 13 GPs over the time we have been there. This has also relieved the women of the drudgery of carrying water from far off places, and made the conditions suitable for farmers to grow crops during the rabi season, thereby enhancing their livelihood. Thus intervention in a strategic area has had multiple impacts. Today more than 1000 small farmers have moved beyond rain-fed primitive agriculture to using modern techniques of farming to augment their yield. Besides cultivating grains and millets, they have also started growing vegetables, fruits and flowers.
Education for Life is what AROEHAN is working towards, which involves capacity building to make children and youth responsible and proactive citizens of tomorrow. The youngsters take up environmental projects, participate in school governance issues etc. The Jigyaasa project makes the teaching of Science, Technology, English and Mathematics (STEM) more interesting to students – allowing them to explore with their hands the concepts that many children find very difficult to grasp. Through this project, AROEHAN has so far reached out to 7575 students in 10 Ashram schools of Mokhada block.
In the critical area of Governance, villagers are empowered with knowledge to proactively engage with local self-government bodies to claim their entitlements and influence their village development. This was done by forming ‘pada samitis’ (sub-village neighbourhood communities) which then learn how to engage with the Gram Sabhas, a statutory body, where their representations can be made. As a result, the villagers now work closely with the statutory committees like the VHNSC, the committees formed under PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas), and on issues concerning their forest rights, employment issues (under MGNREGA) and other aspects of the Village Development Plan. Working on Governance is the corner stone of our work, as AROEHAN believes that at the end of 4 to 5 years, people should be able to work independently. Only then can our work be sustainable.
VW: What do you think Aroehan should do now to bring about substantial change? And what are the plans ahead?
Dr Helen Joseph (HJ): In general, I think we are on the right track. However NOW, we need to establish evidence of our impact on the ground, by setting up some measurable targets that demonstrate this.
We have therefore selected a few villages where we will focus our attention on achieving the following strategic goals: (i) To achieve Zero Malnutrition deaths in the selected villages, (ii) To ensure that ALL school-going children are in schools, (iii) To reduce migration by 50% in these areas, and (iv) To establish a citizen’s forum with special emphasis on participation of women.
Secondly, it seems to me that the CORONA pandemic has brought into sharp focus a number of issues that are ailing the public health care system. I believe that there is need for AROEHAN to play an active role in assessing/identifying gaps in the system and advocating for a more robust public health care system especially in rural Maharashtra.
But in all this, people themselves need to lead the change; otherwise no work is sustainable. For this, people must believe in themselves, believe that they can aspire for a better life, and also believe that they are responsible not just for themselves but for their entire village. When we can do that, we can withdraw from the area -for which we must have an exit strategy in place.
Furthermore, personally, I believe that there is a non-tangible aspect on which we need to bring about substantial impact. Our work needs to go hand in hand with ensuring that a strong value base is developed in our children/youth (and village communities) – values of an inclusive society where there is respect and concern for all, irrespective of gender, caste, religion, race, language, community etc., accompanied by concern for the environment. I say this because I have realised that when disadvantaged people start becoming upwardly mobile, there is a danger that a ‘me-first’ attitude could develop, that takes no responsibility for those others who are still disadvantaged and discriminated against, even in their own neighbourhoods and beyond.
VW: Tell us about the issues facing the NGOs today.
Dr Helen Joseph (HJ): Some of the challenges faced by NGOs are:
- Funding : This is a major challenge that many NGOs face. The Corona pandemic has resulted in a lot of CSR funds being diverted to it. This I fear will definitely affect our funding and thereby our work.
- Professionalism in work, and having a well trained staff committed to the vision of the organization, are things that most NGOs are looking for. But this combination is difficult to find. For instance, there could be individuals who have a fire in their bellies and are devoted to the vision of their organization, but who are not necessarily good at management functions, or at following legal and other compliances, or vice versa. This is a big challenge.
- Retaining one’s value system, and yet skilfully handling the political and sometimes selfish interests that inevitably come into play whenever change is being brought about, is again another significant challenge for all civil society organisations today, especially those that would like to focus on people-centred governance.
Thanks Dr Helen for sharing your thoughts with us.
Vivek S Patwardhan
”What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”
Aroehan: Creating Dream Villages in Mokhada by 2025: “No Malnutrition Deaths, No Child ‘Out of School’, Reduction in migration by 50%.”