Profile of a humanitarian worker: Dr Shailendra Awale

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Compassion must drive you."

Dr Shailendra Awale has been praised from many sectors for fighting for Indian people whose rights and voices are trampled into the dust. But his greatest accolade came just recently from an unexpected quarter.

“One day my daughter came home from school complaining that the children of army officers were getting preference in the classroom. When I told her that their parents took care of our nation, she turned around and said ‘but dad, you take care of the rights of people of our nation as well.’ Well, I was just so proud and joyful,” Dr Awale said of daughter Soumya Rachel, 12.

The humble 46-year-old, who coordinates the Church of North India’s Synodical Board of Social Services (SBSS), moved from the doctor’s surgery to health management when he saw that authorities were denying large sectors of people health care simply because of their caste and class.

Talking to Dr Awale, his enthusiasm for his work - and particularly the people he works with - is nothing short of energising. His first public health scheme was to train church congregations in basic medical care and send them out to communities. “Until then, they thought that medicine was a technical issue but now they realise it’s a social issue.” The programme continues today, helping more than 70,000 people. “If I could build a story of my life, that story would come very close to me.”

Shailendra Awale - World humanitarian day 2Without a political voice
Discrimination, however, went beyond the fact that scores of people were missing out on medicine. The very basic rights of tribals and Dalits, of people forced off their land and of the untold others who did not have a voice politically, were being ignored. The defining “India Shining” slogan of seven years ago that held the promise of a new future for all glossed over the realities for a large chunk of the population: 70 percent of Indians earn less than $2 a day, 30% earn less than $1 a day. People are dying of hunger, being displaced from their land. “In the one billion population of India, it’s a huge mark. People are denied, impoverished, displaced. Poverty here is structural – embedded in caste and class."

Dr Awale’s ability to motivate and mobilise people into large protest marches, has seen him move his field of practice from medicine to all areas of social justice. He appeals for equitable health care distribution, campaigns against rights for small-holders, and protests proposed steel plants. He has irritated politicians from local government to Parliament. Occasionally, the SBSS’s work has upset authorities to the point staff have been forced to go underground for a while.

The SBSS works in 2000 villages, assisting between two and four million people. Being part of ACT Alliance gives SBSS a larger forum for advocacy work – it is the hope that someone is listening, someone is caring, he says.

At home with the people
It’s when Dr Awale is with the people he that he really feels at home and doing his best work as a humanitarian. “I can meet Dalit and tribal people directly - talk to them, support them, develop a partnership with them, speak out with and for them. I am defending their rights. Sometimes we cry together, sometimes we celebrate. I participate in their hope.”

One “tremendously frustrating” area of his work is seeing that government efforts to introduce policy friendly to the rights of the poor often ring hollow when the money does not reach proper people.
Work is integral to his life. He concedes his biggest challenge – and failing – is time with wife Mini Varghese, a health development worker, daughter Soumya Rachel and son Sourabh Caleb, 8. “I need to give time to my family. That is challenging and an area I have failed a little. I have not been so supportive. My wife carries a lot of burden. Time with my family is an unwinding process.” How many hours a day does he put into his work? “It can not be less than 12 or 14 hours.”

Dr Awale’s views on the ideal humanitarian worker are clear. They should not be driven by competence alone but by compassion. “Skills and knowledge can be developed and cultivated but the feelings for the people you want to reach must drive you. Yes we need to be professional and our knowledge should be adequate but that should not replace core values and strong compassion.

He is hopeful that one day Dalit and tribal people can stand and fight for things to fall in place. “My staff can fight in front of government officials, go into prisons to fight for their rights. When I go to villages and excluded people start dictating agendas, I am hopeful.

“It’s about the willingness to go on. We can bring required change. When there is peace in every corner, every individual will sing.”