“If you judge people, you have no time to love them,” says Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The truism of this assertion of the Saint of the gutters as she was widely known was in evidence when, at the close of the Season of Christmas 2021, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) named ‘Seva Dham’ reached out to hamlets of brick kiln workers on the outskirts of Bhiwandi, which is an hour’s drive from Thane, a suburb of Mumbai in India.
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord challenged the NGO to live up to its Christian commitment to bring the baptism of succour to the needy—an act that continues ad nauseam, cutting across seasons both weather-related and liturgical alike. With harvesting done in October, the rice fields turn into brick kilns where tribals from Ahmednagar, Shahapur, Murbad and other areas, who have laboured in their village farms during the monsoon season, are brought here in truckloads for work. In the brick kilns, they use the straw of the rice stalks to build neat, tiny houses and the husk of the threshed rice, to fuel the kilns. They will then be reloaded like cattle on the trucks again in the month of May to be returned to their lives of virtual bonded labour.
They deserve better, surely
What drives these families to migrate, allow their children to be denied formal schooling, live under the harsh glare of the Sun, exposed to the vagaries of the weather? The need to make a living! What meaning does Republic Day which the country celebrates annually on January 26, or even Independence Day on August 15, hold for them?
They merely exist outside the ambit of India’s constitutional guarantees. Delayed monsoons or floods often ruin their chance at farm work. Long-standing compounded debts are the burden they carry from generation to generation even as they are paid a meagre Indian Rupees 1000 (USD 13.33) as weekly wages for the entire family’s work.
With loan sharks always around to collect their share, the money left is barely enough for their provisions. At the end of the month of May, they are given their remaining wages calculated according to work done. As for how their earnings are calculated, they don’t get paid for their labour if the bricks get ruined by untimely rain. Logbooks are maintained but to the illiterate, they can be meaningless.
Are they satisfied with what they get? Clearly not! But something is better than nothing, food and hunger being daily battles. Children have to babysit the younger kids while parents and older siblings are at work in the kilns, so education remains a distant dream. Even those youngsters who study up to Standard VII or VIII abandon their books as life catches up, the need for sustenance and survival paramount.
Good Samaritans to the fore
Seized of the anomalies faced by these hapless rejects of society, Volunteers at Seva Dham - John D’Sa and Augustine Crasto of Saint John’s Parish, Thane, and Chris Chokar from Holy Cross Parish, Kurla is fully energized by the task in hand: to dry the tears of God’s people.
Today it could be distributing blankets or biscuits to the children in Bhiwandi; tomorrow they could be dishing out 1800 kilograms of piping hot mid-day meals (thanks to generous sponsors) to the homeless who live under flyovers and bridges in Mumbai and Thane or to the colony of the visually impaired at Ambivli near Titwala and the Adivasis around.
At other times, they help the Kashmiri migrants at Bandra and the cyclone-affected at Mahad. Before the Lockdown, it was Nights Out, addressing the needs of pavement dwellers all across Mumbai, arranging for counselling and organizing events at several prisons in the western region of Maharashtra or sharing festive events at the Mental Hospital at Thane.
Often they’ve been accompanied by our church leaders. Father Thomson Kinny, Bishop Allwyn D’Silva and Bishop Barthol Barreto have all journeyed with these volunteers to witness and be witnesses to the marginalized.
Allwyn D’Silva, Auxiliary Bishop of Mumbai, recollects, “When I wrapped a blanket around a pavement dweller in Thane, I revisited my own experience, cold, frightened and abandoned, as I slept outside Pune Station to understand homelessness.”
Barthol Barreto, Auxiliary Bishop of Mumbai, too is full of appreciation: Seva Dham’s work is exemplary. It’s like walking in the footsteps of Jesus, who has taught us to go out to the periphery and interact with the poor and the marginalized. In ministering to these people, I have seen the merciful face of Christ in my brothers and sisters.
What is significant is that in this effort, there is seamless coordination between Seva Dham and another NGO, Prem Seva Mahila Mandal (PSMM).
At Bhiwandi, Geeta Patil a social worker from PSMM tirelessly took us from shack to shack reaching out to almost 200 people with our blankets. PSMM ministers with its team of 25 teachers-cum-social workers to offer non-formal education to children and social and economic empowerment for women in several villages, cooking and distributing mid-day meals for 500 children every day.
Women of substance
Both NGOs are run by dynamic women—Seva Dham by Bernadette Pimenta of Saint John’s, Thane and PSMM by Stella Moraes of Our Lady of Lourdes, Kalyan. Both are Catholic and they both selflessly live out their Christian calling to bring the Good News to the poor - and how?
While both entities are occasionally financed by sponsors, they have to sustain often and support their ventures entirely themselves. Nothing exemplifies the Power of One as distinctly as does the boldness of these two women steeped in mission: each singlehandedly inspires outreach and action for the homeless and needy, rag-pickers and pavement-dwellers and those living under flyovers, construction workers and brick kiln labourers…
Indeed, while Mumbai’s leaders dream of glitzy skyscrapers and a Swachh city, Mumbai’s urban poor dream of tomorrow’s ration and a night without fear of being molested or run over. As for Seva Dham and PSMM, they dream of making God’s kingdom of love, peace and justice a reality on Earth.
Any reader sharing the enthusiasm for and vision of humanitarianism and desirous of experiencing life on the margins may please feel free to contact John D’Sa on +91 9819552282.
With inputs from Marcia D’Cunha
Radio Veritas Asia (RVA), a media platform of the Catholic Church, aims to share Christ. RVA started in 1969 as a continental Catholic radio station to serve Asian countries in their respective local language, thus earning the tag “the Voice of Asian Christianity.” Responding to the emerging context, RVA embraced media platforms to connect with the global Asian audience via its 21 language websites and various social media platforms.