Building trust in the North-East

They are all children of course… chirpy, smiling and with shining eyes, at the Lyzon Friendship School at Khomunnom village in the Singngat block in Churachandpur district of Manipur that D Ravishankar, President of RC Bangalore Orchards, RID 3190, has built, investing over ₹40 lakh in the cheerful and spacious building. And at the Happiness Home that a good Samaritan, Brother Rama, runs in the same district. Here too, as in the Singngat school, smiling children greet us with flowers, and sing and dance for us.

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But the difference is that many of these nearly 100 children housed in both the Happiness Home and the nearby Mercy Home, that is run by the Sisters of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC), are infected with HIV and AIDS.

Manipur is infamous for drug addiction and for two decades now it has engaged the attention of health professionals from the rest of India, as sharing needles while injecting drugs has resulted in a high infection rate of HIV/AIDS. Ravishankar, who wants to do something substantial for the North-East people, particularly after he travelled extensively over the region along with Colonel Christopher Rego (retd), CEO of the Sunbird Trust that is sponsoring the education and other welfare activities for the children in the region, has helped build two gender segregated toilet blocks for the Happiness Home.

As he has already donated/pledged ₹1 crore for building a school in Khomunnom village in the Singngat block, and a water tank for a hostel in the Ijeirong village, “I requested my partner B S N Hari from our company Hara Housing to consider the children’s request for separate toilets for boys and girls. He said I will give whatever you say, but I said don’t do it for me. Visit this place, see for yourself the conditions and the needs here, and then take a decision. He came with me, was convinced and donated ₹11.2 lakh to make these beautiful toilets,” says Ravishankar.

The mindset of the older generation, who have seen so much of conflict and violence is already set, but we now have a chance to work with the younger generation.

Brother Rama of the Happiness Home is a man of few words, but Col Rego explains that he started taking care of children with HIV and orphans of parents who died of AIDS, after the tragic loss of a close family member. He converted his own home into a residential facility and later expanded it by buying some adjoining land.

 

Their dreams

Here I find two teenaged sisters — Diamond and Ruby, appropriate names for residents of a State that literally translates to ‘the land of jewels’ — who have been living here for 12 years, along with their younger brother. Dressed in traditional Manipuri costume for the entertainment programme they have prepared for us, complete with beautiful headgear made with bamboo and flowers, Ruby tells me, sans any emotion, indicating she has told this story several times before: “My mom died in 2012, and my Dad passed away in 2018. My brother and I take our medicines daily; my sister doesn’t need any medicine.” She is 19, has been living here for six years and says, “Life here is good.” Her dream is to become an air hostess, while Diamond, 16, wants to become a fashion designer.

Children trek to school across knee-deep water.
Children trek to school across knee-deep water.

Col Rego reiterates that not all children in Happiness Home or Mercy Home are HIV afflicted; “they also take in orphans who have nobody to take care of them. For those who are infected, Medicines sans Frontiers provides the required medicines; it’s a strict regimen and they monitor it regularly. You saw the children sing and dance; their enthusiasm and energy levels. And with time, newer and better medicines to treat this infection will come,” he says.

Sister Annie Porunnonil, from FCC, who heads the Mercy Home, says that it started in 1996 at the province where she was attached as a nurse at its dispensary. There were four sisters with her and some of them taught the children in the community and also carried out immunisation. She distinctly remembers their participation in polio immunisation around 1980. “There was no cold chain in this region then and we used to carry the polio drops in a flask filled with ice.”

In 1996 came an ugly bout of ethnic clashes and around the same time drug addiction was on the rise. “We found drug addicts in the field, and they came to us with bouts of cold, cough and fever and we treated them. Many men got HIV infection through shared needles and we saw women turning widows, as the men died, but left them infected with HIV,” she sighs.

The self-help kids cooking their own food in a portion of a hut.
The self-help kids cooking their own food in a portion of a hut.

The nuns were mainly concerned about young children getting affected by HIV/AIDS and dying early. So, they gave shelter to the infected children who were also orphans. “We now have 50 children, and thankfully not all of them are infected with HIV.”

On funding, Sister Porunnonil says the FCC has about 180 sisters, who get a monthly allowance and from this each of them contributes ₹200 a month to run the Home. Local people help too; “only this morning a kind lady gave us a donation of ₹2,000. And Col Rego’s Sunbird Trust gives Mercy Home ₹10,000 every month for nutritional support — mainly for milk and eggs for the children, who are on the drug regimen for their infection and need to take protein-rich nutritious food,” she adds. On that visit, Rego carries with him 60 blankets and sheets for the children donated by Kurl-on, the mattress company.

 

Self-help kids

Rego next relates a story that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming; it describes the harsh conditions under which some of India’s young children live, and reiterates the length to which people in the North-East are willing to go to get the most basic education for their children.

Col Christopher Rego and RC Bangalore Orchards President D Ravishankar with women SHG representatives.
Col Christopher Rego and RC Bangalore Orchards President D Ravishankar with women SHG representatives.

“Many villages are located in hilly areas, and when you have 40 huts in one village and 60 in another, you can’t have schools everywhere. So there is a central school and children from adjoining villages have to trek down the hills, cross streams, brave leeches, heavy rain, slush etc and then walk into the school.”

To avoid this, families living far deeper in the forests or the hills have to find a hostel close to the school to house their children. “But a hostel is expensive and unaffordable to most people, who often trade bananas for rice. And hence was born the self-help kid. His parents will try and get him some corner in a hut of a villager that is close to the school. The kids, most often they are siblings, all of 6, 7 or 8 years in age, will be given a small place, usually outside the house, as a rudimentary kitchen.”

What Rego says next wrenches your heart… most parents can’t afford to pay rent so they give the hut owner rent in kind — a sack of rice, some vegetables etc. They have little money to give the kids either, so they leave behind a sack of rice, some firewood and maybe some vegetables. “The kids frequently have to manage their food on their own. They’ll buy a few potatoes and onions, maybe catch some fish or snails from the stream or dig out some roots or mushrooms from the forest and rustle up a meal before going to school,” says Rego.

There was no cold chain in 1980 in the North-East to preserve the vaccines and we used to carry the polio drops in a flask filled with ice.
– Sister Annie Porunonnil (who has helped in Polio immunisation)

 

A request from locals

In the background of such thirst for education, and the constant struggle to find children homestay nearer the school, one fine day Rego, while he was still in the Indian Army and serving with the Border Roads Organisation at Imphal, was surprised to get a request from a Naga village in Manipur, called Ijeirong, about 80 km from Imphal, but which takes about three hours to reach by road, to build a hostel for school children. Apparently, they had heard about Rego’s work in the region (carried in the Feb issue of Rotary News), and sought his help. But the village was deep inside a forest and Rego had to negate the possibility of some trap being laid for him, a serving Colonel of the Indian Army, in a conflict zone where the local people are often caught between the Army and the insurgents.

“For them to request me, an Army man for help, was strange. With the help of some local friends who guaranteed my safety, I went to the village and simply loved it. The village chief then pledged to donate the land free and provide all necessary help from the village. In the initial days, given the dangerous security situation, Rego had to be extremely careful and he would often sneak away without informing anybody “because I had to travel through thick forest to reach the spot and if anybody fired at you, you wouldn’t even know where the bullet had come from! Often, even my driver wouldn’t know where we were going.”

Left: Actor John Abraham greeting the children and Col Rego at a Indian Super League football match in Assam.
Left: Actor John Abraham greeting the children and Col Rego at a Indian Super League football match in Assam.

The village contributed a large patch of land and wood for the construction. “We needed stones, and the transport cost was exorbitant,” smiles Rego.

Come to the rescue the village kid-sena! They went to far-flung farms to dig out stones from the fields and these were used for the foundation of the building. Assam Rifles helped to transport cement and construction material from Imphal and “a very kind Brigadier gave me over 300 pre-painted tin sheets for the roof.”

Thus by becoming a “professional beggar”, Rego started the project in Feb 2014 in this tiny village with just 45 families, and within six months a beautiful hostel came up. The villagers put in the labour for which they were given a fair wage, “because they are extremely poor, subsistence farmers, and grow only enough food to last them through the year. If there is a drought they starve, and you will find in every hut, over the chullah, vegetables, roots, herbs etc.”

Girls dressed in traditional Manipuri costumes for an entertainment programme.
Girls dressed in traditional Manipuri costumes for an entertainment programme.

In no time the hostel filled up with 45-odd children and they cooked for themselves in the tiny kitchenettes given to them initially. Later he managed to get donors and “we built a kitchen and a dining room; a classmate of mine gave a solar system and for the first time these children started studying under light bulbs!”

One person gave a guitar, another donated a computer and the place filled up with music and happiness.

 

A sea of children

Very soon word spread and the “self-help kids thronged the hostel and by the next year we had 150; the number had trebled.”

The third year, 2016, tragedy hit in the form of an earthquake, with one of the neighbouring villages being the epicentre. With the villagers asked to relocate to a new place, 60 children from that village landed up in this hostel overnight, and the number of children swelled to 247.

Col Rego, Ravishankar, his business partner B S N Hari, Sunanda Hari and Paola Ravishankar at the inaugural of the water tank in Ijeirong hostel.
Col Rego, Ravishankar, his business partner B S N Hari, Sunanda Hari and Paola Ravishankar at the inaugural of the water tank in Ijeirong hostel.

At this point, Rego put his foot down and told the school management you can’t have such a crowded hostel with so many children as this compromises their dignity, and they need both space and privacy. “But the villagers emotionally blackmailed us saying if you don’t allow our children to come here and study, they may be compelled to join militant organisations later on. What space and dignity are you talking about? They never had this kind of comfort. You don’t worry about toilets or water, let them stay here, they will manage,” recalls Rego.

He adds that a traditional hostel model will not work in these tribal areas. “You may make a hostel for 60 children, but knowing the tribal people… they have no separate blankets, sheets, mattresses, for each child. Two siblings or even three will be together and share it. And hence your hostel for 60 becomes a hostel for 120 or 150!”

To overcome this challenge, he once again put on his begging hat (in 2016, after rigorous diligence he was declared an Ashoka Fellow, a label that helps in raising funds) and with help from friends extended the hostel using just bamboo and accommodated the extra kids. Seeing the goodwill he was generating, Assam Rifles extended all support, as it was the best way for the Indian Army to show the locals that it cared for them and their children.

But soon there was shortage of water as the hostel was overcrowded, and Ravishankar came to the rescue to build a water tank with 75,000-litre capacity at a cost of ₹6 lakh. “Next we wanted an adjoining patch of land from a farmer to grow food for the children organically. And Ravi said: ‘Buy it’ and gave a cheque for ₹4 lakh for that,” says Rego.

 

Chipping away at mistrust

Rego explains that with limited employment opportunities in Manipur, only some manage to get jobs elsewhere in India. Those who fail to get employment “either go to militancy hoping to become Robin Hoods, get a pay and even a rank from the parallel army; their main compulsion being no food at home. Or else they go to the Myanmar border and get into drugs, crime or worse, human trafficking. It is mainly poverty and no jobs that drives them into this, and siblings’ education is a driving factor.”

Col Rego with children at the Sunbird Friendship Hostel in Ijeirong.
Col Rego with children at the Sunbird Friendship Hostel in Ijeirong.

To dent the perception that rest of India doesn’t care about the North-East, he sought support from people outside the NE to educate these kids. “Once a child is educated and gets a good job, he/she is empowered to lift the entire family out of poverty.”

As he worked and interacted with the locals he realised that the angst, anger and resentment with the rest of the country was present much more in Manipur than Mizoram, his earlier posting. So he partnered with Assam Rifles to take kids from Manipur to Bengaluru, his home town, to help them connect with the rest of India. He gave the 35 kids, mostly from high school level, “a terrific experience in Bengaluru. We took them to the Infosys campus, the Army took them for horse riding, etc.” At the end of one such trip one of the girls said: ‘I don’t know why my people are so stupid! I now find that Bengaluru also belongs to us. The hills, the sea, everything belongs to me, I can go and settle or work anywhere in India. Then why do our people want something that is so much smaller?”

Manipuri youth visit Infosys, Bengaluru.
Manipuri youth visit Infosys, Bengaluru.

Says Rego, “This was a revelation on how her mindset has changed. The mindset of the older generation, who have seen so much of conflict and violence is already set, but we now have a chance to work with the younger generation.”

 

Sustainability

Rego says people keep asking him how he will make his school or hostel sustainable. “When you work in areas where the poorest of the poor live, there is no question of forcing them to pay the money. I’ve tried to be strict sometimes and said okay the child will not be allowed to write his exam unless the stipulated fee is paid, but have found that two or three children dropped out of school, with one joining a mechanic’s shop. This hit me very hard and I accepted that these are children of poor farmers and we have no choice but to sponsor 70 to 80 per cent of them in one way or another.”

When we tried to limit the number of children, the villagers emotionally blackmailed us saying if you don’t allow our children to be here and study, they will all go and join the militants.
– Col Christopher Rego

Rego has tweaked his definition of sustainability; “when this little fellow gets a job and pulls his family out of poverty, 10 or 15 years later, that will be sustainability.” He has put together a compelling presentation making a strong case for the rest of India to reach out to the underprivileged children of the North-East and help is coming in various forms… for building, computers, mattresses and blankets. “Ideally the parents should put in something to make this a sustainable operation, but they are so poor that they can’t even afford to pay ₹250 as tuition fee.”

After seeing one of his videos on Facebook that got 3.5 million hits, Vijaylaxmi Poddar sponsored a hostel. He feels it is best to keep the children in the hostel to ensure their proximity to school. “If they are with us for the entire year, we can work on their mindset and knock off the negative baggage they have been carrying from the past.”

Aliasgar Janjali teaching children at the Ijeirong school.
Aliasgar Janjali teaching children at the Ijeirong school.

Another advantage of having a hostel is that through one hostel “we can get children from 10 or even 12 villages and start building bridges of friendship. Our ultimate goal is to make the hostel a hub of the larger community where there will be a healthcare centre, an organic farming activity, some livelihood training and so on.”

Rego is lucky in that both the government and the Indian Army are favourably disposed towards his Sunbird Trust. “They see us not engaging in any political, religious or other nefarious activity. But shaking up the government machinery to get funds is a big challenge.”

In this context, an “angel investor” like Ravishankar is a godsend to him!

 

Building trust

Rego adds that after three years’ rigorous work by the Sunbird Trust “people have now begun to trust us, which is not easy in these parts. Because all that they have seen are guns and violence. We say: ‘We have no agenda and have come here as your partners to help you, work with you. When they see their children being sponsored, schools and hostels coming up, they jump in. Particularly when we say that we are working on a humanistic platform.”

Girls perform the traditional bamboo dance.
Girls perform the traditional bamboo dance.

Proving this is his team. “Aliasgar Janjali, who was the vice president of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has joined us as the School Leader at the Ijeirong school. He gave up the corporate world to come and work here. Similarly, Sonal Sethia, an M Tech from IIT Bombay, with a doctorate from Glasgow University, threw up immense employment opportunities and is now the School Leader at the Singngat school,” says Rego. Similarly, Ashwathy, a BITS Pilani graduate, and Bipin Dhane, an IIT Kharagpur PG, who runs the school at Majuli in Assam.

In conclusion, he adds that he has helped 21 children to graduate and these include three doctors, a lawyer, an MBA and a Hotel Management graduate. “Each child who graduates is an ambassador of what we are doing, and the word of mouth spreads. We make it a point to explain to them that somebody from somewhere in India cares about your child to pay for her education. We do our due diligence through the villagers, self-help groups etc and also dispel their fears that we may be giving information to the Army. Nor are we here to take their land or forests. In no time the entire village is with us and from village to village our trust base has expanded, we are today sponsoring 2,300 children from 23 pockets covering almost 100 villages.”

But adds Rego, “None of this would have been possible without the immense support of my wife Myrna and children Rahul and Rhea. Myrna gives tuition to our children in Bengaluru.”

Ravishankar says the “trust and confidence that Sunbird Trust has obtained in the conflict zone should be leveraged by people from around India to bring peace, stability and development in the North-East.”

 

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and Ryan Lobo from Sunbird Trust

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