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>KUTCHCH DIARY: Saving Children of a Lesser God

>Nabina Das

Bhuj, Gujarat, June 23 (2002)

After the devastating earthquake of January 2001, several voluntary organizations and NGOs moved into the area to conduct relief and rehabilitation work in Kutchch, Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Kandla and Jamnagar. With the government machinery taking a beating due to the staggering volume of death and destruction, it is these NGOs that pitched in day and night to offer food, shelter and clothing to the affected. This is when Save the Children (SC) of UK embarked upon a huge rehabilitation project in Bhuj and Rapar.

It is a voluntary orgnisation founded and based in the United Kingdom in 1919. It has branches all over several countries of the world. In India itself, its presence is about 35 years old. Mainly, SC has been supporting children’s groups in Rapar taluka and empowering them to take the message to the community through child awareness campaign.

There were losses reported worth lakhs and crores in terms of life, livelihood, housing and livestock. The state of Gujarat is still reeling under the impact of the temblor after more than a year. The worst area was Kutchch where the people of Bhuj taluka seem to have more or less bounced back to normal life while backward and climatically harsher regions of Bhachau, Anjar and Rapar still are crawling to build their lives back.

For SC it has not just been a challenge to simply work for the children for their protection and see the implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act in the state, it has been a focussed endeavour especially in the context of emergency, both natural and human-made.

My visit to SC-Bhuj is to see its activities in Kutchch for long-term assistance to affected people of the region. It provides support to villages both in terms of ‘hardware and software’. It is building back destroyed or ill-maintained anganwadis, balwadis, training centres, health centres etc by investing in land and construction. The software that it is providing covers, imparting joyful learning to children of migrant labourers and disaster-struck children, conducting training programmes for partners, anganwadi/balwadi workers and helpers, creating health and nutrition awareness, child-to-child health promotion, bal melas (children’s fairs), childline services etc.

According to the 1991 census, Kutchch district has a population of 12,62,507 which is 3.1 per cent of the total population of the state. The district has a total of 949 villages of which 884 are inhabited and the rest uninhabited. The 10 towns of the district are Anjar, Bhuj, Gandhidham, Mandvi, Bhachau, Mundra, Rapar, Madhapar, Nalia and Kandla. Nakhatrna and Lakhpat talukas have no town area, only rural areas. Among the economically active population, 26.57 per cent are cultivators, 25.85 are agricultural labourers and the remaining 47.58 per cent are engaged in livestock, forestry, fishing, mining and quarrying, manufacturing and processing, construction, trade and commerce, transport and other services.

“We have actively cooperated with the government in order to restore people’s homes, rehabilitate them, provide them temporary shelters and distribute relief materials,” said Randal Leek, SC-Bhuj ‘camp’ chief. Here the staff refer to the office as ‘camp’, as it perfectly resembles a temporary set up in huge tents and quaint bungas (read Life in the bunga).

The recent communal tension in Gujarat is not much perceivable in Kutchch. And even if minor scrap happen here and there, largely the locals dismiss it as ordinary tiffs and not altercations communal in nature. Understandably though, Bhuj, economically and socially, is Patel-dominated, but is well off in a way and does not display any tendency to fall into the trap of Hindutva politics.

“A major part of our project is the construction of ICDS (integrated child care development service) centres or anganwadis. We are at present building 115 of them, for which we have received sanction from the government,” says Leek. Save the Children is working in collaboration with partners like Yuva, Gram Swaraj Sangh, Samerth, Chetna, Marag and others.

Among the government agencies, the Gujarat Electricity Board is showered high praises for its proactive cooperation. The GEB has readily electrified all existing ICDS centres, health centres and activity centres in even remote areas, and has agreed to do the same for all upcoming ones.

Structurally speaking, the ICDS centres are unique in the sense that the quality of the buildings and facilities would be far more superior to those that are being replaced. They promise to meet international earthquake and cyclone safety standards and are being tipped as NGOs as ideal model for future constructions in earthquake-affected areas.

Robert Orina, programme coordinator, who is an international appointee from Kenya to SC-Bhuj said, “Construction is also in progress for 16 medical centres – a primary health centre (PHC) among them catering to a population of up to 50,000, 12 health sub centres and three dispensaries in Rapar taluka of Kutchch. For the PHC, we also have work going on for living quarters for staff, ambulance park and a morgue.”

“In Rapar,” went on Orina, “even before we began construction activity, we have been working with partners to impart information to them on child rights, gender, child to child training, children’s health, government health care system and the ICDS system.”

“In fact, last August, SC carried out a series of focus Group Discussion with children on the design and functions of ICDS centres. The results were fed directly into the design. This was phenomenal as it led to considerable debate and about the issues of and value of children’s participation,” said S K Nandaratna, another international appointee from Sri Lanka, in fluent Hindi, and added, “It was radical in the sense that it challenged social biases in terms of child right. Only Save the Children was doing such pioneering work in the region.”

Another feather in the cap for SC-Bhuj has been the first ever Children’s Summit in Rapar. This March, children between 12-18 years, and representing one of the economically and socially most marginalised segments of the Kutchch society. Participated in the summit which was actually the brainchild of 11 children’s groups formed at their own initiative. In the summit, the children demanded fulfillment of basic needs like good nutrition, health services, quality education, organised representation by children’s groups, full cooperation and collaboration from adults and the recognition of the potential of the children to change the society for the better. SC simply provided advice, logistics and publicity for the event.

The Special Projects (SPs) under save the Children are those that have drawn the maximum applaud because of their uniqueness. Most of these SPs are education-based, both formal and non-formal. There are Bal Sampark Activity Centres and Dhanvantri school in Bhuj, Sri Sarvajanik Vidya Mandir school in Anjar, balwadis in Bhuj, as well as support for Children’s Development Programmes and Activity Centres for Children of Migrant Labourers and Earthquake Affected Children in Slums in Bhuj and Rapar.

S Sahany, who looks after the Special Projects, said, “There has to be some difference in what always went on in anganwadis and what SC is doing. Also there is a lot of overlapping of activities between anganwadis and balwadis. We try to overcome that. We advocate joyful learning especially for the children of migrant labourers and those children who had been affected by the earthquake.”

Jalpaben has been sending her daughter to one these activity centres. “I am happy that my bacchi is learning new things. She will grow up with more commitment in life than just look after a household,” she said. Jalpa herself is an anganwadi worker. “We look forward to the new centres being built by Save the Children. Through healthy happy children alone we will have a stronger society,” said Jalpaben.

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This entry was posted on May 3, 2008 by in Bhuj, children, disaster, earthquake, Guajart, india, Kutchch, Nabina Das, NGOs, Save the Children.
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