We reached the very clean and quiet station of Ahmadnagar at 8am, all refreshed after our peaceful sleep on the overnight train there from Bombay. This is really the most comfortable way to get to Ahmadnagar – by road, the drive can get too long. Thankfully a cloudy day greeted us. Being a drone-prone area, Ahmadnagar faces quite a few dry and hot days through the year. Infact, Meenatai, Snehalaya’s Public Relations Officer, who is also in charge of ensuring visitors to Snehalaya have a comfortable stay, told us that the region had experienced a poor monsoon this year as well as the last. She said, “It’s certainly inadequate but at least we won’t be facing a drought-like situation, as has happened in the past.”
So the short 20-minute drive through this sleepy (and rather clean) town brought us to Snehalaya’s seven-acre campus. The sprawling campus houses hostels, residential centers, vocational training centers, a clinic, a hospital, a school, the organisation’s administrative offices as well as a dining hall that can seat staff and beneficiaries using all these facilities! This is clearly a hub of activity.
Not surprising for an organization that’s almost 25 years old. The organisation was set up in 1989. While it’s a recognized institute locally, it shot to fame nationally in 2012, when it was featured on Satyamev Jayate. Infact, the organization has such a reputation locally that even the poor wish to support it. There have been many an autorickshaw-driver and farmer who have donated as little as Re. 1 to the organization simply because they wanted to be a part of it!
The Satyamev Jayate tag, proudly-so, is visible when you visit the premises. The building which houses the main dining hall, administrative offices, women’s rehabilitation and vocational training center has been named after the television show, and displays interesting sketches of Amir Khan and others from his unit. Like all other buildings on the premises, there’s an interesting tale behind it. Work on the building commenced in the early 2000s but came to a halt as funds dried up. It was finally completed with the Rs. 6 crore funding that came through support from the television show. Thanks to these funds the kitchen staff can feed 220 people at a time today; instead of the 3-4 sittings it took earlier to feed Snehalaya’s staff and beneficiaries. Also, with all the administrative teams/offices under one roof now, coordination and meetings between teams have become easier. With the spread and scale of activities that Snehalaya is involved in, having everything under one roof really makes a difference!
Currently, the organization supports 400+ homeless destitute children in residential homes, provides shelter and vocational training to 60+ women in distress, educates 900+ children in slum based Bal bhavans, empowers and rehabilitates over 2,100 commercial sex workers, provides medical treatment to 6,000+ HIV positive men and women, manages a 24×7 call center for children in distress, and facilitates the adoption and placement of hundreds of abandoned infants into good families. Phew, that’s a long list!
But it doesn’t stop there. Snehalaya seems to be adding to this list every year. One of the things the organization will soon be venturing into is training of other NGOs. After all, they do have 24 years of knowledge and experience. Despite their grand scale, they’re humble enough to admit that they have limited reach and cannot cater to every HIV+ woman/child in distress. And smart enough to want to transfer/share this valuable knowledge; which will soon be happening via the Master of Social Work (MSW) training center that they are in the process of setting up .
Spend a day (or two like I did) with their team and you’ll be enlighted by many an anecdote. Like, did you know that no funding from the Government has reached HIV-AIDS organizations since 2008 ? That’s when the last pre-determined grant from The Bill Gates Foundation for their HIV-AIDS project came in; and without notice, the Government stopped their support towards HIV-AIDS organizations too! That’s when one becomes grateful for organizations like Snehalaya. Infact, while in discussion with their team, we realized that we were not aware of any other organization that carried out the same kind of work that Snehalaya did.
Snehalaya’s HIV/AIDS activities are designed not only to help those with the disease, but to also check the spread of the same. Their efforts are also directed at encouraging people to accept PLHAs (people living with HIV/AIDS) and not treat them as social outcasts. As Mr. Gujar, Director, Balbhavan project at Snehalaya, said, “Who said untouchability does not exist in India anymore? When society shuns those with HIV/AIDS, that’s a form of untouchability, isn’t it?” And incase you’re wondering, as I was, how/why Ahmadnagar is rampant with the disease – it is one of India’s largest red light areas. Back in the day, it was a major military base, and as happens in the other parts of the world, areas around it were developed so as to offer soldier’s entertainment of a kind that they would appreciate best. So akin to Vietnam-Bangkok, sex trade grew in Ahmadnagar too.
Well, nipping the flower in the bud seems to be the only possible way to check the spread of HIV/AIDS. And the importance of Snehalaya’s work gets magnified against the efforts the Government is making towards the same. Visit their campus and you’ll see how this organization is slowly and steadily spreading its wings. Well, the sooner it happens, the better!