Journeys Of Three Young Achievers Who Are On The Path Of Catalysing Change

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“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” Powerful words by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi that reflect the potential of a human being to bring about change he/she wishes to see. Bringing about change is not a matter of resources only, but of grit and determination, however small the scale, and whatever be the cause. Sarah Berry explores the journeys of some go-getters, who have started out young on the path of catalysing change. 

Nilay Wankhade hails from a small town in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. He is currently pursuing his studies in public policy. Post his Automobile Engineering, the young lad took up a job, for a year, with Tech Mahindra, which is when he found his calling in the form of the Ideosync UNESCO India Fellow (IUIF) programme; here he worked at Mann Deshi Tarang Vahini, a grassroots community radio station in Mhaswad, Maharashtra, followed by a job at the radio’s parent organization, Mann Deshi Foundation, working for the cause of economic empowerment and skill development  of women. “During my work in the IT sector, I realised that my skills are not making the impact I would have wanted them too; I felt I could add more meaning by working with a grassroots organisation, thereby, directly impacting people’s lives. It was then that IUIF happened, through which I chose Communication for Social Change (C4SC) as my area of interest. During the fellowship year, I got a chance to revamp the documentation structure of the radio station and focus efforts on increasing listenership, for which we took up various community engagement initiatives, including social media outreach. An important outcome of the fellowship was an Andriod app, developed for the radio station, to enable community members listen to their favourite content, anywhere, without the need of a radio set. ”

 

Post-fellowship, Nilay joined Mann Deshi Foundation. Though most of the work was documentation related, he got the opportunity to design a digital financial inclusion programme for rural women entrepreneurs in Satara district. This was a great opportunity as no such programme existed and everything needed to be built from scratch. Over the span of the programme, over 5,000 women entrepreneurs were trained to use digital payments methods such as debit cards, UPI, internet banking, POS, etc. The programme taught him the importance of localisation of solutions and its effectiveness. Many women who were unbanked, now use smartphones to make and accept payments.

Journeys Of Three Young Achievers Who Are On The Path Of Catalysing Change

Adds Nilay: “Having worked in digital financial inclusion, I realise the potential of FinTech and want to utilise my understanding of the sector to make such programmes more effective, countrywide. My other interests include environment and technology, as I firmly believe that technology can provide solutions to the most challenging issues faced right now. Through my study as a public policy scholar, I expect to secure a broad understanding of the policy space in various sectors. I believe that all social issues are interconnected and can’t be fully addressed by focusing only on the superficial aspects. After my course, I want to gain experience in an organisation working towards address environmental issues with the help of technology, build networks and leverage them to take up an initiative in the environment and agriculture sectors in the Vidarbha region, to where I belong.”

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Shreeradha Mishra grew up in Cuttack, Orissa. She completed her graduation from Miranda House, University of Delhi and her post-graduation from Azim Premji University. Shreeradha began her full-time career in Varanasi, as a district coordinator for the Child Welfare Committee, with the Aangan Trust. One of the aspects of her role involved working on the repatriation and rehabilitation of survivors of child trafficking, along with the sensitisation of the district police towards the rights of children, vis-à-vis the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences (POCSO) legislation.

“When I started working with survivors of child sexual abuse, it was very difficult for me and I felt guilty for making a child relive the trauma of abuse while trying to document the cases. One day, a child I had been working with told me how it had been so liberating for her to speak about what had happened with and not be judged in the process. I always carry that moment within me.”  Her parents raised Shreeradha to be deeply empathic towards the needs of those less privileged. This prompted her to start volunteering at homes for special children when she was just fifteen. After that, there has been no turning back. “The cause of child rights has always been something that has been particularly close to my heart, the affinity I have had towards the cause also has to do with my story of being a survivor of child sexual abuse.”

Though relatively young and new in the field, Shreeradha does acknowledge that there is still a lot for her to accomplish. Over the course of her work, she has realised that working with communities and towards systems change is an up-hill climb, with more of challenging moments and fewer rewarding ones. “During my work with Leher, an organisation that works towards child protection and systems change, I co-authored a District Need Assessment study that highlighted the status of child protection mechanisms in two districts of Maharashtra; this helped inform district level policy interventions around the same.”

Journeys Of Three Young Achievers Who Are On The Path Of Catalysing Change

She cities a number of challenges though in the domain: the impetus given to child rights. Shreeradha cites an example for this in how the union budget for 2019 stands at just 3.29% for children (who comprise 40% of India’s total population), whereas the National Plan of Action for Children recommends an allocation of at least 5%. Another crucial challenge, which also stems from a lack of awareness regarding child protection, is the absence of a nuanced understanding of child protection issues when drafting laws and policies. “As far as solutions go, there is no unidimensional solution given the complex nature of these issues — they require multilateral strategies and collaborative efforts. A stable community is the first and foremost requirement for creating a safe space for children to grow and thrive in. There have been some excellent community-based interventions to illustrate that this is possible. Perhaps it is time to think about how some of these good practices could be made scalable. Another solution that has also been stressed on a lot, but not enough, is building the capacities of the grassroots child protection institutions like District Child Protection Units, Child Welfare Committees, Juvenile Justice Boards, shelter homes, and the police.”

Shreeradha hopes to take her study in public policy, coupled with her professional experiences to work on social issues at a multi-dimensional level. “I hope to work alongside the Government, in a position where I can influence the designing and implementation of public policy.”

“It was in 2016…I was working with UNICEF Chennai as a young professional for the WASH Programme. During the course of my work, I found that my home district – Nagarkurnool – ranked last as far as the Individual Household Latrine Application or IHHL was concerned. This led me to take an important decision: to work for the district I hailed from. Luckily during that time, I got the opportunity to work for the Telangana State Swachha Bharath Mission as the State WASH Consultant on behalf of UNICEF Hyderabad. Six months into my service, I applied to TATA TRUST and the MoDWS programme for the post of a ZSBP or Zila Swachh Bharat Prerak, says Sharath Babu

Journeys Of Three Young Achievers Who Are On The Path Of Catalysing Change

There was no looking back for Sharath thereafter. Post his selection, he got to down to work immediately, only to realize that there were a number of challenges: the Swachh Bharat Mission was not really considered a priority programme in his home district. Addressing the challenge, he arranged a district level convergence programme, the first of 21 he organized during the course of his assignment, at which diverse stakeholders were invited to commit to the cause of improving sanitation conditions, including commitment to a carefully planned action versus time plan approved by the concerned lead officials. A cascade approach training programme was also planned and executed at the district, block and gram panchayat levels. “Before I joined, there was not a single training programme conducted for key stakeholders of the Swachh Bharat Mission(SBM). This had to be changed if communities needed to be mobilised for the cause. Local media, junior and graduation colleges were targeted to begin with, as the latter are the future decision makers of the country. Thousands of students have been motivated to join the Swachh Bharat Mission in some form or the other, especially via the Swachh Bharat Summer Internship, which saw nearly 1400 college students registering for the same. Not only students, but also principals, teachers, lecturers, among others, were offered training, setting the field for more active participation, also via the concept of Swachata Ambassador/Swachhgrahi. The Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) initiative has, in addition, helped bring about the much need behavioural change as regards open defaecation. Self Help Groups, focussing on the involvement of women, served as the backbone of this important initiative, adds Sharath, a student of public policy at the Indian School of Public Policy. 

He adds proudly that when he joined Tata Trust, the percentage of households with toilet coverage stood at 24% but by the end of his term, within a year, the figure rose to 81%!” Sharath emphasizes how the amalgamation of his professional experience and his current study of public policy will serve as a platform for a deeper understanding and addressal of complex challenges that need customized solutions. He wishes to diversify his professional exposure, and make an impact in areas, where his expertise could be put to good use, just as was the case with the SBM. 

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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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.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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