In 2018, Shirol Taluka in Kolhapur, Maharashtra reigned the headlines for a considerable time, for a highly concerning reason – the cancer menace. Cancer spread like an epidemic with one or more patients in almost every family. While the government introduced schemes and strategies to combat the imminent hazard, the villagers in the neighbouring Hatkanangale Taluka were crippled with fear. They dreaded a similar scourge of cancer in their own homes.
While the adults turned to the supernatural beliefs for safety, the children of Hatkanangale took up the onus of probing the reason behind the cancer epidemic. Guided by fellows of non-profit foundation Insight Walk, these kids were already well-aware about how harmful chemicals in food can lead to cancer. Talking to their own parents, who were all predominantly farmers, they found out that modern farming resorts to a lot of toxic chemical pesticides and fertilisers, unlike traditional farming which was completely organic. Their grandparents corroborated their findings, as they shared how diseases occurred much less in their times, due to organic farming practices.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
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Children turned organic farmers after school hours
The children then decided to start organic farming on their own. Securing small vacant plots here and there, or perhaps a small corner of their family land, they tilled the land after school hours and sowed seeds. Using bio-manure made from their household waste, they nourished the tomato, aubergine or marigold plants until they bore healthy fruits and vibrant flowers. They even insisted their school cooks to use these vegetables in their mid-day meal.
“After their successful pilot, now in the summer holidays, they will roll out organic farming in an entire field and at the same time encourage other farmers to pick it up,” Sanket Jain, co-founder of Insight Walk, shared in a Facebook post. Each of the kids used their own acumen and passion for contributing to the project. While the aspiring painters drew comics and sketches demonstrating the procedure and results, the would-be writers jotted down the entire experience to help others learn about it in details.
About Insight Walk
However, it would be a misnomer to say that this organic farming project is one of the most successful ones conducted by Insight Walk. The organisation has been actively working in eight villages in Kolhapur trying to mentor the children, providing them with the best of life skills, extra-curricular activities and practical on-hand experience with textbook concepts.
“We work with children in the age group of 6 to 14 years. Most of them hail from lesser privileged families in villages which lack even the basic facilities. Early marriage, child labour, dropping out of school are common as age-old patriarchy reigns above everything,” shares Subodh Jain, co-founder of Insight Walk, in a conversation with Efforts For Good.
Insight Walk fellowship chooses leaders among marginalised women
Insight Walk works in a fascinating way which makes them stand out in the domain of community development. “Each year, we select Insight Walk Fellows from among the women in these village communities, each of whom plays a key role in the activities doled out for the rest of the year. However, unlike conventional practice, our selection procedure for the fellows does not have education, age or leadership quality as hardcore criteria,” shares Subodh.
Intriguingly, women of all ages comprise the batch of selected fellows for a particular year. Most of them are victims of patriarchal oppression, often domestic violence. Most have never had a chance to complete school, let alone aspire for financial independence. But, the thing all of them have in common is an indomitable grit.
“Each of our fellows has expertise and experience in something or the other, be it farming or pottery, teaching or stitching. So, we coordinate with each individually and design specific courses to train the children. Then they are assigned to lead the Community Centres in the villages, where the children are groomed after their school hours,” informs Subodh.
There was a time when life for the children was riddled with hardships. Girls would join school well-aware that they would never get to graduate. Their aspirations were cut short by societal and financial constraints, which compelled them to drop out early on trivial reasons.
“Sometimes, they would stop going as they outgrew their uniform or cannot afford a school bag. We could have easily helped them out with crisp new uniforms or shiny new bags. Instead, we decided to introduce them to stitching. Now, they can easily design their own dresses and stitch beautiful cloth bags. Since the blanket ban on plastic bags in Maharashtra, these kids are most enthusiastic about making cloth bags and spreading the idea among the village elders as well,” narrates Subodh.
“Once popular notion was that boys never do womanly work like stitching on knitting. We have successfully dispelled the stereotype and taught the boys who perceive the craft as just another life skill. Now you will find them excitedly mending tears on their clothes or sewing buttons,” he adds.
The Innovation and Passion Lab
The community centre is like a dreamland for the kids. They make toys, innovate makeshift machines, practise art – everything with locally available resources. Recycling as a principle has been deeply inculcated in these young minds, so they do not let even a small item go to waste. Instead, they turn it into something beautiful, useful and worth cherishing.
The Innovation and Passion Lab is an interesting addition to the community centres where “children learn multiple skills based on their interests with the help of local mentors and rural artists.”
Traditional artwork adorns the walls of these community centres, painted by village artists who have spent a lifetime mastering the craft. Children, who are passionate about art, learn from the local maestros and assist them in projects at the community centres and embellishing their own homes.
Rural poets, musicians, singers, writers, artisans etc. partner with the Insight fellows to mentor the children in the rural heritage and culture that is dying out slowly.
Efforts For Good take
Rural kids are deprived of wide-scale exposure to knowledge – so goes the stereotype. Insight Walk proved how India’s rural communities hold a treasure trove of knowledge on life skills and a self-sustainable way of living. The children under their ambit are growing up with an amazing blend of wisdom – where tradition meets modernity. So the girl who dreams of becoming a police inspector someday can easily tutor someone in the nitty-gritty of organic farming. Efforts For Good applauds the incredible efforts of Subodh and Sanket Jain in shaping childhoods into ideal future citizens.
A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.
My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.
About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss.
My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.
However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.
Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.
As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.
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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed.
This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.
What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation.
Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.
Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds.
Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma?
First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.
Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB?
The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment.
Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.
A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.