By Rita Banerji:
I had thought I’d send in Shikha Bhandari’s name to a Times of India initiative that’s asking for unknown, local “heroes.” But when I went to the website I found that an email address for her was compulsory! But Shikha, who is barely literate does not have an email address! In fact she couldn’t even afford a computer. Her husband, a care-taker has a meagre income that the whole family subsists on.
Despite this economic hardship, twice a day, every day, Shikha cooks a giant bucket of food — rice, vegetables and sometimes chicken or fish if there’s any to spare, and walks around her neighbourhood and feeds the street dogs who live there. She stops at certain spots and the dogs immediately come running to her. Then she puts out large steel plates on the pavements, and with a long ladle, puts generous amounts of food for the dogs and waits for them to have their fill.
She has been doing this for 30 years, ever since she married her husband Swapan Bhandari and moved to this neighbourhood in Kolkata. She says growing up in her native village in Bengal she always loved animals and birds. But when she came to the city, she was shocked at how cruel city people could be to the ‘voiceless’ animals that lived on the streets. It pained her to see the dogs, thin and hungry scavenging in the garbage for food, and how people would kick them or throw stones at them, or run them over, and when they died they’d throw them into the garbage, as if they were not lives, but trash.
Shikha not only feeds the dogs, but she protects them from locals. She says at least in their locality no one hurts them or they know she’ll come and fight with them. When I met her, she was asking around for one of the dogs who she couldn’t locate. “He is only 3 years old, and very calm,” she told me worriedly. She is anxious about the dogs getting run over or the city animal control loading them into trucks and taking them away. She also pays from her own funds for them to be neutered, to get shots, and when they die she pays for a proper burial for them in Diamond Harbour, which is a place on the outskirts of the city. Once a year she goes to the grave sites and lays flowers on the graves of these children on whom she has bestowed affectionate names like Lallu, Bulu, Ghonti, Tigli, and Rani.
For me Shikha is not just a local hero, but an important revelation. As founder of an advocacy campaign, The 50 Million Missing Campaign to end female gendercide in India, we are sometimes approached for help. However we are a zero-fund campaign and run entirely on volunteer assistance, and have no funds or means to provide aid. What we do try to do is facilitate assistance through individual professionals, like doctors and lawyers, and through other NGOs and organizations that are set up to provide aid. However, what I often find in the case of organizations whose websites claim that they help women and girls, by providing shelter, medical or legal aid etc. is that when we take a victim to them, often they don’t provide the aid they claim to provide! There are numerous cases where shelters for girls and women have been involved in human-trafficking, or sexual abuse and rape!
There was one particular case of a young woman, Roopa, which had upset me very much. Roopa’s husband and in-laws had pinned her down and force-fed her acid when her parents refused to give dowry. Roopa’s insides were burnt and she couldn’t eat. When I met her, I was shocked at how her skin was hanging off her bones, and I realized if she didn’t get surgery urgently she would die. Her father who was a factory worker could not afford the medical care and surgery she needed [Read about her case here]. For the next week I and all the administrators of the campaign approached every NGO for girls, for women, and for domestic violence in India and abroad. We approached government agencies, and international agencies in India, Europe and the U.S. None of them seemed to have funds! It’s the angriest I have ever been in the 7 years I’ve run this campaign. Here is a woman dying in front of your eyes, and you have money for fancy offices, cars, air-travel, and conferences in 5-star hotels, but you don’t have money to save a life? Eventually many of us from the campaign directly donated to her parents and helped the family through the hospital, the surgery, the after-care and later the legal proceedings.
Sadly, the more I see of NGOs and international aid organizations, the angrier and more disillusioned I get. I find the corruption, the sycophancy, the nepotism and the massive misappropriation of funds by these groups no different from what’s going on with governmental systems in India. An officer of an NGO registration office told me that a majority of NGOs are simply a means for tax-free wealth acquisition. Indeed I believe that it is extremely important for all NGOs to be brought in under the Lokpal ambit because right now there is no systematic accountability or supervision of them, and it is a system that is being rampantly exploited by Indians and foreigners.
For all the disillusionment I feel about NGOs, Shikha Bhandari and people like her restitute my faith in human decency. She has taught me that the ones who really care are not necessarily wealthy. They don’t have to set up NGOs with fancy and dishonest websites. They don’t give lectures at prestigious conferences or receive awards on prime-time television with the media flashing their cameras at them. They live and they give with heart, soul and conviction from whatever little they have. Generosity is not giving away your excess wealth, it is sharing from whatever little you have. Surely the money that Shikha spends on the dogs could help her own family live and eat a little better?
And that is why I believe that it is not thousands of NGOs and aid organizations that will make a difference to India’s many social problems. But the change will come when we, the aam aadmi learn to live with our friends and neighbours the way Shikha Bhandari does, like they are an extension of our family.
If you are in Kolkata or elsewhere and would like to visit or help Shikha, her address is below. I’ve also shared her contact number with her permission, and you can call her if you wish to speak to her.
16/2 Dover Terrace