These Sisters toil that the poor Dalits may have life, and life in abundance
A lush area of hills, valleys and forests, the Bastar region in the state of Chhattisgarh encompasses seven districts covering more than 15,000 square miles. More than a third of the population is considered Adivasi, an umbrella term for India’s many native tribes and ethnic groups, which for centuries have been marginalized, exploited and impoverished.
In 1972, the Carmelites Missionaries (CMI) established their first mission among the poor of the region. Father Thomas Kollikolavil who directs the eparchy’s social service wing says the Naxalites entered the region in 1980, positioning themselves as saviours of Adivasi villagers, devastated after years of abuse and subjugation by landlords and government officials.
Most Naxalite leaders were educated urban youth disillusioned with the unjust social system, says Sister Julie who is a member of the Deen Bandhu Samaj (“Friend of the Poor Society”).
In this volatile region, more than 400 sisters and 90 priests serve some 3 million people, 60 percent of whom are Adivasi. Rooted in the Gospel and in Catholic social teaching – which focuses on the dignity of every human being, the imperative to advocate and correct social injustices, and the church’s preferential option for the poor – they have begun programs to teach traditional farmers modern agricultural techniques; founded schools and youth clubs; started hundreds of help groups, most geared toward the needs of women; and established parish communities to nourish souls with the word and the sacraments.
At the forefront of many of these apostolic activities are the Deen Bandhu Samaj and Snehagiri Missionary Sisters, who reach out to families, to the sick and elderly. “We met the expenses of our services with our own labours, while educating Adivasi villagers about their rights.”
According to Noorul Hassan, who coordinates the Snehagiri Sisters’ Harama Hak (“our rights”) project, before the sisters’ arrival, villagers were largely unaware of the many legal benefits to which they were entitled.
One key example is Gram Sabha (“village council”), designed to help and protect tribal and low-caste communities. In resource-rich India, commercial projects to tap into the supply of natural resources in traditional Adivasi lands require the approval of the local community. Villagers also utilize such gatherings to discuss common problems and seek ways to address them, including working with local municipal offices.
“We conducted awareness campaigns, organized rallies and street plays, displayed posters and made public announcements to teach people about the importance of the council meetings,” says the coordinator of the public awareness campaign. Yet, fewer than a tenth of the locals attended the first meetings hosted by the sisters, and most of them were women. But as women became more involved, their husbands grew curious about the sisters’ work.
“My wife would attend and tell me what happened there. I became curious and started coming,” says Dhaniram Kashyap, one of the few educated men in Kesapur village, who has become a leader within his community. Mr. Kashyap says he has learned much from these meetings, and now shares this knowledge with others.
The Snehagiri Sisters also reach out to villagers through health care projects, chiefly through the Maria Bhavan Health Care Centre, a dispensary outside of Jagdalpur.
Sister Sincy Pattathil, who manages the clinic, says the infant and maternal mortality rates in the area were high when they arrived some 20 years ago – nearly twice the national average. Now it has come down to zero. She says maternal deaths occurred mainly from anaemia, infection and unhygienic delivery that led to septicemia. “We have rushed to many houses and had to bring the woman to the clinic. We send serious cases to government hospitals.”
In the past two decades, Sister Sincy has seen great changes in the villagers. “When we first came, people would run away from us. Now they are our best friends and protectors.”
The sisters of Deen Bandhu Samaj, founded in Jagdalpur in 1978, work largely in remote areas with an active Naxalite presence, says its Superior Geeral, Sister Jancy Vattakanal. Focused on the poor, the Deen Bandhu Sisters serve as witnesses to the Gospel, while respecting the State’s laws against religious proselytization.
Many villages speak different dialects making communication a challenge. “People appreciate when we can speak their language,” says Sister Eugene. Transportation was another problem. They walked long distances through dirt roads and even swam across flooded rivers, before bridges had been built.
The sisters managed to win over the villagers through home visits and dispensaries that greatly expanded access to modern health care and improved the quality of life for communities neglected by the State. But their impact has gone far beyond medicine.
Where school enrolment and literacy rates were once low, children in their school uniforms are now a regular sight in all villages. Student dormitories host Adivasi children from remote and conflict-affected villages. Sisters have erected primary schools in all their centres to give children a good foundation.
Sister Eugene also points to hygiene and health education, noting that villagers used to practice bleeding to cure illnesses. “They would bite their own bodies to draw blood. It took us many years to convince them to go for proper treatment.” They plan to open a hospice and palliative centre for the poor – especially those suffering from cancer, tuberculosis and other diseases.
However, the sisters have been forced to restrict their village visits and health care services as conflicts between the government and Naxalites have intensified. Sisters are considered poor friendly by the Naxalites.
However, they are always exposed to risks and dangers. Once they had to close a mission after Naxalites imposed unreasonable demands. “I can’t say what would happen,” Sister Mary Tresa says. “But no sister working in such remote centres has asked for transfers so far.”