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How A 22-Year-Old Is Helping Migrant Workers

Posted by Shriya Garg in My Story, Society
January 10, 2017

Naresh Sijapati, a 22-year-old, has done what most of us only dream of our entire lives.

Born in the year 1994 in Ahmedabad, he migrated to Nepal to live with his grandparents as his parents eked out a living as labourers in the city. Eventually seven-year-old Naresh also came back and started school. It didn’t take him long to understand that money was scarce, adding to that, his father was an alcoholic. It was also a challenge to fit in a strange city, with parents he’d not lived with in years, and a language he didn’t understand. Moreover, despite studying in a government school, he frequently needed money for odd things, and with a family income of  ₹4,000 asking his parents was not an option.

He decided to be entrepreneurial and earn his own living. It started with picking trash from railway tracks, where he’d make ₹1 or ₹2 a day, but stopped when his father found out, and ordered him to stop. But Naresh was stubborn. He immediately found another job in a tea shop, where he made up to ₹20 a day, and eventually in a biscuit factory. All of this continued alongside school, where he would leave at 6 am in the morning, and sometimes not get home until midnight.

Soon, he started to work at a restaurant where he worked as a waiter, the owner there became a huge source of support, and Naresh ended up working with him for over two years. Once he graduated from school, he enrolled in a B. Com course, and also joined the National Cadet Corps (NCC) as well as Aajeevika, an NGO that works with migrant labourers, where he pulled evening shifts. Through Aajeevika, he worked with labourers from Rajasthan, Nepal, etc., and helped them open bank accounts, worked on the awareness campaigns, and skill development programs.

While Naresh’s career was on fast-track, he felt that he really needed to learn English to grow at the rate he wanted to. One day, in the restaurant that he was sitting in, some fellows from Teach For India waled in to eat. Naresh said, “I heard them speaking in English, and started interacting with them. Eventually, I was hired as a part of their administrative staff, and I’d sit in on their training sessions, and try to pick up as much as I could. On my ID card, I wrote – Please only speak to me in English.”

Teach for India also gave him the inspiration to do something more. He started “Panah” in 2015, where he continued what he’d learned at Aajeevika, with the vision to create a one-window centre for migrant labourers to provide solutions to their problems.

“Panah” supports labourers to seek jobs, organize themselves as collectives, avail savings and credit facilities, link themselves to government or quasi-government welfare schemes and social securities, thus enabling them to become smart labourers. They also run a newspaper called “Panha Times” to keep the labourers up to date.

At such a young age, running an enterprise such as this was overwhelming for Naresh, but fortunately for him, someone connected him to the School for Social Entrepreneurs, India, which mentored and equipped him to run “Panha”.

93% of the labour force in India work in the unorganized sector, 60% of which are doing menial jobs with very little scope for skill development. Keeping this in mind, “Panah” aims to have at least 2,000 registered members, and impacting at least 5,000 people through their programmes. With over 600 registered members, with 23 team leaders in different areas, “Panha” has been able to link many migrant workers with job opportunities, health services, and various other services that help them become smart labourers. They have formed 4 self-help groups, and hundreds of kids have been mentored and enrolled by “Panha” members. They define “smart” as someone who is “skillful, can mitigate risk, is aware, resourceful, and can provide timely support”.

We wish Naresh all the best with his ambitious goals, with hope that he will more than surpass them.