Pune – Maharashtra, India
We drive into an empty parking lot in front of a seemingly abandoned building painted a suspicious shade of teal green. As Clayton and I step out onto the gravel from the back seat we are ambushed by man larger than life, vigourously shaking my hand before I’ve even gotten both feet on the ground. George Swamy is the Director of the John Paul Slum Development Project, an NGO involved in programs from HIV/AIDS Awareness to Shelters for Street Children. George wears a head of black curly hair and a bushy moustache which seem to shake with excitement to emphasize his speech. The gaudy green building in front of us used to be John Paul’s base of operations, he explains to me, until it was reappropriated by the Indian Government for its strategic position in combating the Swine Flu epidemic. This whole area was originally designated as an infectious disease control zone by the British for its convenient location which is within walking distance to the train station. For over half a century people have come here for treatment of malaria, different fevers, and even the bubonic plague.
Out of the parking lot and onto a path of rubble and broken slabs of concrete, we are lead across an overgrown grassy field to the entrance of a much smaller brick building that has been around for as long as the ugly green one, but boarded up for years until George asked the government for it when he was forced to relocate. They granted his wish, free of charge, and it has since been renovated and now contains a small reception area, a training room equipped with stacks of plastic chairs and a whiteboard, and a large office in the back complete with desks and computers for the staff.
After a round of introductions and cups of chai, we get a detailed overview of the responsibilites of the organization’s peer educators, who are trained to educate and counsel sex workers about HIV/AIDS and other STIs as well as distribute condoms, and the NGO’s outreach workers, whose efforts support programs to prevent the transmission of HIV from infected mothers to their newborn children. As each of the staff presents his or her responsibilities, George elaborates in his bellowing voice on their accomplishments and efforts essential for the success of each projects.
Moving into the training room, we finally greet the group of outreach workers (ORWs) that have been waiting patiently to meet us. They are the cogs and gears of India’s Prevent Parent To Child Transmission (PPTCT) of HIV program, whose governmental funding has run dry since last March. Clayton and I introduce ourselves and our host and translator, Sumedh, from India’s Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS), the company that plans to get those gears turning again. We dive right into our line of questioning and receive energetic responses from nearly each of the thirteen ORWs in rows of chairs in front of us, but no response more energic than those coming from the side of the room. If Sumedh hesitates in his translations for just a second, George is ready to pounce, interpreting our questions and the ORWs responses with vigor. He will tell me later at lunch that he is a lover of languages and jumps at any chance to exercise his foreign tongue.
The following day we head North on a three hour excursion to Sangamner of Maharashtra’s Ahmadnagar district to meet with another group of ORWs and another dynamic NGO president. Dr. Arun Ithape first started Priyadarshani in 1992 with a total of nine employees. It has now grown to over 180 full-time staff members and includes ORWs and other volunteers that number in the hundreds. His booming voice projects across the room in a way that dominates over all other sound and noise. When he speaks, others listen.
He tells us later of how he secures funding for his health projects: when the state’s chief minister comes to the district for any type of public function, regardless if it has to do with healthcare or not, he and hundreds of his volunteers and supporters will sit and wait for him. The minister simply can’t say no when Arun asks for a word with him. With this energy rallied behind him he is able to build awareness about the problems in his district and get better state support for the projects aimed to solve them.
These two organizations and many others are fighting fire with a squirt gun, attacking difficult health issues in impoverished communities with limited funding and unstable government support. But even against the odds they’ve managed to grow, drawing in organizations like IL&FS and Dimagi to help build momentum. How do they do it? Carry a big stick, but don’t speak too softly.