October 10, 2012
Loaves and Fishes (Read More)
Marianist ministries help families and children in the slums of India create a better life.
By Jan D. Judy
This is not the age of information …
Forget the news, and the radio, and the blurred screen.
This is the time of loaves and fishes.
People are hungry, and one good word is bread for a thousand.
– David Whyte, “Loaves and Fishes” from The House of Belonging
It is early morning in Ranchi, India. Marianist Brother Alex Toppo is about to begin his work day. He starts by carefully packing bread into a small backpack that he slings over his shoulders. Next he straps on a helmet, revs up his motorcycle and makes his way onto a crowded city street. Horns are blaring, dust is flying, and people are everywhere.
While others are taking out the morning trash, this man is on a different mission. In a city of more than a million people, he is looking for piles of garbage — some left beside the road or rotting on vacant lots. “That’s where we find them,” he says, referring to the children known in India as “ragpickers.”
“Sometimes I’ll find 10 or 12 children together picking through trash. They are scared and very distrusting — and they are always hungry. I usually offer them some bread. It’s one way I build trust and rapport,” says the program director of REDS in Ranchi. “But it takes a lot of time.”
The Marianists have devoted a lot of time — 15 years to be exact — building trust and learning to communicate with street children, destitute families and the working poor of India through a ministry called REDS – Ragpickers Education & Development Scheme. The goals of the program have evolved since 1992, the year the Marianists took over the ministry, when simply getting starving kids off the streets and sheltering them was the focus. Today the aim is to help families and children through job training, life skills and education.
“Our greatest dream for these children and their families is that they can stand on their own two feet,“ says Marianist Father Pragasam Thathappa, district superior of India and executive director of REDS. “We want them to have work skills, know they can manage their lives and feel good about themselves. Our job is to give them the training and support to achieve this.”
The life of a ragpicker
Marianist Brother Del Jorn, an American who has served in India for more than 14 years, has witnessed India’s staggering population explosion which now numbers more than a billion people. According to recent statistics, he says, there are roughly 800 million people who comprise the lower class, with more than 20 percent of them living below the poverty line. There are another 200 to 300 million people who qualify as middle class, and a small fraction belonging to the upper class. By comparison, last year the United States reached a population of 300 million.
“Can you imagine taking more than a billion people, most of them poor, and putting them in the U.S. on land east of the Mississippi, which is about the same land mass as India? Think of all the problems you would have. When you look at India, it’s a wonder so many survive. I’m still amazed to see how some people make a living — for example, a man selling mothballs or someone selling combs,” he says.
Ragpicking is one way the poor survive. While the Indian government has begun waste management programs, it is unable to keep up with the vast amount of waste produced by its enormous population.
Ragpickers make a living by sifting through trash for bottles, plastic, metal parts, glass, cardboard, old clothing — anything recyclable that a broker will pay them to collect. Their work is often illegal.
It is one of the lowest and most demeaning jobs in India. Whole families in northern India are caught up in ragpicking for lack of other means of income. Poor, uneducated and illiterate, it is the only way they survive. But it has a high price. Disease, exposure to toxic waste and poor hygiene are just some of the problems. Alcoholism, drug abuse and malnutrition also exact a toll.
“For children, it is especially dangerous,” says Brother Alex. “In Ranchi, it’s not unusual to find a child fighting with a wild dog over scraps of food. Often the child gets injured and must be taken to the hospital,” he says.
Even more devastating than health issues is the toll it takes on a person’s self-esteem. Says one woman who has been ragpicking most of her life, “A ragpicker is not respected. We work in filth … We smell of dirt. Nobody from society likes us … They call us dirty — even worse than garbage itself.”
With a population that is 80 percent Hindu, India is steeped in Hindu traditions. The caste system and stratification of society by classes is one tradition that is beginning to change among the middle class and more educated. But among the poor this attitude is still strong. Marianist Father Joe Lackner, who serves the U.S. Province as assistant for developing regions, believes that one of the greatest gifts the Marianists give the poor is the gift of dignity.
“Respect and care for people as human beings, these are some of the greatest gifts we could ever give another person,” says Father Joe. This is demonstrated in a number of ways: A simple handshake, sharing a meal, teaching a skill and providing an education, he says.
REDS was started in 1979 in Bangalore, a city in southern India, by an inter-religious group of lay people. In 1984, the Archdiocese of Bangalore took over operations of the ministry and invited the Marianists in the early 1990s to oversee administrative responsibility for its programs.
REDS grew from a Bangalore-based outreach program to include a sister program in Ranchi, a city in northeastern India, in 1997. REDS also developed the Deepahalli Skills Training Centre on the outskirts of Bangalore, a program designed to get ragpicking boys off the streets and offer them a safe haven in which they could learn a trade or skill (see story on page 19).
Today REDS has several outreach ministries. “REDS started as a program for children who were ragpickers,” says Father Pragasam, “but now we are doing more preventive work by offering support to families, primarily women in the slums and migrant workers.”
The REDS programs in Bangalore and Ranchi — and an outlying slum called Hosur southeast of Bangalore — provide care and education to more than 2,000 children and training and support to more than 1,300 women.
Bangalore, which just changed its official name to “Bangalooru,” is a city of six million people and growing rapidly because of its emerging Internet technology and outsourcing businesses. While a portion of the city’s population is enjoying unprecedented wealth, a vast number — as many as 40 percent according to some experts — are living in the slums or on the streets.
The Marianists work in seven slums in Bangalore, but most of their programs are concentrated in a slum called Koramangala-L.R. Nagar — a community of nearly 100,000 people. It is a half hour’s walking distance from the REDS headquarters and the Chaminade Nilaya Marianist community where seven Marianists live, most of whom work directly for REDS. Thirty-two lay staff also work for REDS-Bangalore as social workers, field workers and administrators.
“We are focusing our work in Koramangala-L.R. Nagar by providing play care centers, day care, study and tutoring centers, night shelters, tailoring units and women’s self-help groups,” says Marianist Brother Xavier Raj, assistant for religious life and a coordinator of REDS-Bangalore.
In Ranchi, beside play schools, day care and study centers, the Marianists have concentrated their efforts on developing programs for women. In addition to self-help groups, they offer classes in tailoring, embroidery and machine knitting.
Five Marianists, along with 23 staff members, operate the REDS-Ranchi program from its headquarters at the Gyan Deep community.
Breaking the cycle of poverty
Many of the REDS programs are designed to help poor women by providing child-care services so that they can take a job and earn income. When women are employed, say the Marianists, the whole family benefits. Many of them find jobs in Bangalore as domestic workers, construction laborers or as seamstresses in nearby factories.
But in Ranchi, where 90 percent of the people are self-employed, even the most menial labor doesn’t exist. “Ragpickers can’t get jobs even as dishwashers or hotel staff. Without training, there is nothing for them,” says Brother Alex.
With the little income that these women do make, the Marianists have helped them start “self-help groups” designed to help women pool small sums of money in a collective bank account and draw upon these savings when they need a small loan.
“The women must contribute 25 rupees (less than 60 U.S. cents) a week to participate in the self-help group,” says Brother Xavier.
The group is comprised of about 15 to 20 women. The Marianists now oversee 80 self-help groups in Bangalore and another seven in Ranchi. Most groups are facilitated by a REDS staff member who keeps records of the accounts and loans. The benefits are many.
“I joined the group,” says a woman named Nanci, “and took a loan to pay for healthcare expenses for my son who is not well. If I had taken a loan outside the group, I would have been charged heavy interest.”
One of the greatest benefits of the self-help groups is that they provide an intimate setting where women can open up about their lives, the needs of their families and personal issues.
The best way to help these families in the long run, says Father Pragasam, is through education. One day, the Marianists in Bangalore would like to build a high school in Koramangala-L.R. Nagar slum. “A quality education is the best way to end this vicious cycle of poverty,” says Father Pragasam.
A real miracle
When Brother Xavier is asked about the future of the ragpickers in Bangalore, he brightens. “My hope,” he says “is that one day there will be no ragpickers. They’ll be no poor needing bread to eat or a place to stay. One day they will get enough. They will live like normal people. They will live a joyful life,” he says.
For Brother Alex in Ranchi, that joyful life starts with one good meal. “I grew up in a very poor family near Ranchi. I remember going to bed hungry. I know what that feels like,” he says.
Our work here begins with one good meal a day. For the ragpickers, one good meal a day is a miracle — a real miracle.”
In Their Words
The boys from the Marianist Deepahalli Skills Training Centre tell their stories.
Deepahalli Skills Training Centre, near Bangalore, was established by the Marianists in 1998 to provide an environment away from street life where ragpickers and runaways could get training or attend public school. Because many of the boys are addicted to cigarettes, drugs and alcohol, it also provides a much-needed “safehouse” for those going through withdrawal as well as nutritional food, hygiene and regular health care exams.
There are five Marianist brothers in the Deepahalli community, most of whom work at the Centre, along with six staff members. The Centre provides training in welding, carpentry, lathe work, tailoring, electronics, plumbing, air conditioning and refrigeration. The students also receive instruction in math, English, science, history, local languages and social and moral values.
The majority of boys are between 13 and 18, orphaned or from single parent households. Many are not capable of or interested in attending school, but are able to learn a trade. There are 62 boys at the Centre, but that number will increase to 120 this year because of a new residential facility recently built by the Marianists. Since its inception, the Centre has trained nearly 450 students.
Marianist Brother Arokia Doss, REDS program director at Deepahalli, admits that the work is tough, but also very rewarding. “Many of the boys have attention problems. They are not able to focus on anything for long. We try to care for them like a father would care. They look to us for love and respect.
“I especially love being with them, just hanging out together. Once you do that, they really open up,“ he says. “They are very matter-of-fact about what has happened to them — very revealing.”
Here are two stories from the boys of Deepahalli:
G. Antony, age 13
“Both of my parents were alcoholics. They used to beat each other. They also beat me and my younger brother and sister. We ran away from home after my mother died,” he says. “She tied a rope to a crossbeam and hung herself. We were all at home when it happened.
“Because no one in my family was taking care of us, I began ragpicking. I saved enough money to run away to Bangalore with my brother and sister. We lived in a cemetery.”
Antony was found by the Deepahalli staff through a cousin. His siblings are now in other youth hostels. His greatest wish is to get a job and save enough money so that he and his brother and sister may one day be together, get married and have their own homes.
V. Srinivasa, age 14
“I was addicted to drugs and not interested in school. My mother began to beat me. I stayed away from home and began sleeping on the roadsides. I sold popcorn to earn money,” he says.
“I tried to quit drugs, but each time I failed. One day my mother died along the roadside after drinking too much. I never went back home after that. I met a friend name Akhbar. He didn’t have any legs, so I would carry him on my back and we would go begging.“
Srinivasa was picked up by the police in Bangalore and taken to a REDS night shelter and later to Deepahalli. He has been drug-free for six months and has quit smoking, both feats he is very proud of. His hope is to graduate in two years from Deepahalli, find his sister who is living in another youth hostel, and make a home where he can take care of her.