Read one of the feature articles – on the work of the SVP in India – from the lastest issue of Justice magazine along with subscriptions details.

Creating change

Terry Brown reports on the remarkable work being carried out by the SVP in India

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From most of what we read in our newspapers and see on our televisions, India comes over as a booming country with increasing prosperity. The other side of the coin rarely gets a mention, and when it does, it is usually in some form of tribute to Slumdog Millionaire.

Over the past 16 years, I have visited India six times and seen many changes. In the cities, particularly, there are signs everywhere of a growing middle class, said now to number some 400 million.

The old Morris Oxford-derived Ambassador cars are still there but vastly outnumbered by modern Indian built cars, and motorbikes crowd out the traditional auto rickshaws. Look over a wall or down a backstreet and you will see sometimes desperate poverty, people living on the streets or in very makeshift accommodation but you will find this, to some extent, in every city in the world.

In ‘village India’, where around 72 per cent of the population live, the story is rather different. On a two-hour car journey through the Eastern Ghats in Orissa, we saw several vastly overloaded buses, auto rickshaw based-vans which appeared to be carrying 15 or 20 people, a few motorcycles and pedal bikes, a couple of pick up trucks, lots of people walking along the road and just one other private car. Available statistics give some idea of India as a whole. From a population of 1.1 billion a growing middle of class of some 400 million still leaves 700 million people scraping a living to the best of their abilities. In 2005, the World Bank estimated that 456 million Indians were living under the global poverty line of $1.25 per day (purchasing power parity).

This means that around a third of the global poor reside in India. Although the Indian economy is growing steadily, its growth is very uneven when comparing different social groups, economic groups, geographic regions and rural and urban areas.

Literacy rates are improving but at 66 per cent are still woefully low with the literacy rate for women below 55 per cent nationally and much lower than this in some states.

Members of the St Vincent de Paul Society (SVP) in India, with whom I made a recent visit to Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, are working quietly to improve the lives of the people in their communities. With more than 60,000 members, working in some 6,500 parishes they stand second in the world to Brazil in numbers. As in the rest of the world, SVP members are not the rich helping the poor, but ordinary Church members giving up their time to help those in need as best they can.

In rural Orissa, the Catholic community is found mainly within the tribal or scheduled castes. These people, at the bottom of the social structure, generally eke out a meagre living working in the fields for the landowners. Daily wage rates are usually no more than Rs100 (about £1.40) per day and the availability of work is irregular.

Given the vast size and diversity of the population, inter-religious strife in India is relatively rare but between Christmas 2007 and autumn 2008, the Kandhamal region of Orissa was the scene of major anti-Christian violence. After some problems during the 2007 Christmas season, the troubles were re-ignited by Hindu radical groups on August 24 2008, a day after Maoists gunned down a Hindu religious leader and four of his associates. Although the Maoists claimed responsibility for the killings, Hindu radical groups blamed the murders on Christians.

During the ensuing violence, 100 churches were destroyed, 52 people murdered and more than 50,000 fled to live in makeshift camps. Many are still there, too frightened to go back to their villages. The Church has recently announced an initiative to re-build 5,500 houses in the hope that this may bring communities back together.

For those who avoided the troubles, life is still tough. In the north of the state one priest explained to us that because of climate changes there is now lower rainfall and therefore rice, the main crop, could only be planted once a year rather than twice as had been the case.

“What do they do for the six months when there is no work?” we asked. “They migrate,” was the simple answer, travelling to the cities and other states where they have to sleep rough but can earn a few rupees and keep body and soul together. In contemporary India, these field workers now face increased competition from tractors and harvesting machines. Technology has tended to increase the gap between the prosperous and the poor.

Each SVP group is obliged to identify and assist, on a regular basis, those in greatest need and support them as “adopted families”. These can be families which because of ill health or infirmity have no wage earner but are often the single elderly with no family to support them or individuals, perhaps blind, who cannot work. As in all SVP groups “secret bag” collections are taken at each weekly meeting but the sums the members can afford are minimal (the average collection is about £1 per parish per week). Where then do they find the money they need?

“We beg,” was the simple and brutal answer – not on street corners as there are already enough needy people there but by house-to-house collections, getting a few rupees, here and there, from those that have very little to help those who have much less.

The international twinning scheme, which has been growing and developing now for around 50 years, is a great source of support. At March 31 2009, of the 6,359 parish groups in India, 3,327 were receiving twinning support primarily from England and Wales, Australia and Scotland. Groups in India which have received twinning grants for more than 15 years are encouraged to forego their grant, where they can raise sufficient local support, in favour of a more needy group and there is some internal twinning within India which is now supporting a further 208 groups.

The three elements of the scheme are mutual prayer, correspondence where language permits and what to us is a small cash sum. In the UK this has been set at £10 per month for very many years; a very small sum but it represents an extra member putting in seven or eight days worth of his wages each month. We ask, periodically, if we should seek to increase the sum we are sending but the answer is always the same. We have 504 parish groups approved and on our waiting list (and probably a similar number in the pipeline), please keep the sum the same but find help for those on the waiting list.

The SVP in India also provides support to enable poor students to continue and complete their education. This help starts with school children but can continue assistance up to college level providing support for those training in technical and job orientated courses such as engineering and nursing. A total of 5,793 students were assisted during 2008/9.

As well as regular twinning, a wide range of small community based projects are supported each year, around 100 per year from England and Wales. A typical scheme would be to provide livestock appropriate to the area; in Andhra Pradesh the beast of choice is the water buffalo.

Within the agreed limit on these projects of Rs60,000 (about £850) and a small local contribution, a parish group can purchase five water buffalo. These are given to the most needy families and will produce for them, after associated costs, around Rs1000 (about £14) per month from the sale of milk, a significant boost to their income. From this they will be expected to make a regular donation to the SVP to help support the “adopted families”. The first female offspring will be given back to the SVP and handed on to another family.

There are job creation projects; one we visited was making candles for sale at a local shrine. There are also schemes to train young women in sewing skills and to provide them with a treadle machine, again this is giving families an additional source of income and, at least in some places, they are asked to repay the cost of the machine and the rate of a few rupees a month.

This money is then used to purchase more machines to support more families. As well as livestock and machines these provided petty shops and mobile stalls, drinking water, sanitation, housing repairs, computer training and so on. More major works helped repair the damage caused by flooding which affected several states and continuing schemes run an AIDS hospice and a home for physically challenged girls as well as several homes for the elderly and medical care centres.

I came away in awe and wonder and what is being achieved by a relatively small team of such dedicated volunteers who are quietly working away in their communities, assisting those in need.


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