By F M Britto
Raipur: Some Missionaries of Charity nuns in Bilaspur, a city in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, are on a different mission these days.
Once every month, they travel to the Parsahi mission of Raipur archdiocese, 45 km away, to encourage marginalized villagers to develop themselves through self-help groups.
The work is focused at Bhaisthara village, some 5 km from the mission, where they distribute free food grains to some hundred needy villagers. Instead of merely doling out free food grains, the Catholic mission insists that the villagers use the charity to develop by forming self-help group.
Some 300 odd villagers of Bhaisthara say they do not know when and why they had come here. Some say their ancestors had migrated from neighboring Andhra Pradesh state. The migrants consider themselves Gond tribals; but the local people call them Sabariya, or those who toil with sabar (crowbar).
Most villagers have no cultivable land and eke out a living as daily wagers, working for others. Many live in small mud huts with no electricity. Only recently the government has started aiding them with ‘pucca’ houses with electricity.
A government middle-school is close by, but most children do not attend it. Only a few children come to the government-run anganwadi, says a teacher. They wear soiled cloths and move around with uncombed hair.
The nuns say since their visits began a year ago, the children have started wearing clean cloths after a good awash.
To develop them the parish social animator visits them on tenth of every month. The villagers have formed 26 self-help groups for women and some men regularly participate, says Chedilal Ratnakar, an animator.
“In the beginning they were suspicious and scared to come for the meeting. But now they are very particular on the fixed date,” he adds. “They have elected the officials of the group. Since they have no member (panch) representing them in the local panchayat, they have been motivated to elect one in the next panchayat election.”
They have decided to save one hundred rupees a month by each member and use the amount to help a needy person with minimum interest or open a bank account and deposit the cash, to avail it when they require it, says Sathya Sandey, the president. “Already the preparations are going on to open the bank account,” she adds.
This year more children have started going to the village school and anganvadi, says Savita, the secretary.
Since most villagers are illiterates, the animator proposed appointing a tutor help them read and write. But the villagers said that they felt shy to learn at this age. But a few of them have started to learn to write their names from their school-going children, said Kaushilya, a group member.
The Self-help group has requested the Raipur archdiocesan Social Service Society (RDSSS) for a tuition teacher to assist their school-children with their studies and the anganwadi teacher was willing to give her service to the children in the evening. The RDSSS also provides free games and recreational materials to develop the children through these coaching classes. Though the RDSSS pays for the teacher and materials, the villagers have also promised to contribute toward them.
Since their settlement does not have a common place to hold any meetings or programs, the self-help group also wants to apply for one, says Shyamalal, a villager. “When the political leaders come here asking for votes, we will ask them to install a hand pump and concrete the road,” he says.
Since alcoholism is prevalent among their men, women and youth, the Self- Help group wants to control it, says Rama. “Earlier many used to brew the mahua (local alcohol). But now it is reduced,” he says.
Though non-Christians, they took the initiative to hire a tractor and travelled to Parsahi to visit the Catholic Church on last Christmas day.
“Lots of changes are taking place among them from the time we had gone to visit them,” says the superior of the nuns.