How many times have we seen a child begging on the street and ignored it with a blind eye? Dr Neelam Gupta turned her sympathy into an opportunity to change lives that would otherwise go unnoticed because of the areas they come from.
Aroh Foundation’s CEO, Dr Neelam’s inspirational story is one of grit, perseverance and dedication. Growing up in Delhi, she often saw children on the streets. The imbalance of opportunity and choice in the society pinched her more than the rest of us.
“I once saw this girl begging and shivering in the Delhi cold. She wasn’t wearing anything on top. So, I gave her my sweater. Next day, she was again standing without anything. When I inquired about what happened to the sweater I gave her, she said her father had sold it away because he thought no one will give her money if she’s wearing anything,” says Dr Neelam.
She then firmed up her resolve to do something for this section of the society, which gives them education, skills because no child should be like the one she saw.
Being brought up in an environment that bred generosity, she knew she wanted to do something about this cause one day. With her father being an official with the Ministry of Human Resource Development and her mother often found giving food and clothes to the underprivileged, service for the society was Dr Neelam’s dream.
“It was a long journey till I could finally do what I wanted. My family was not confident about me working for a social cause, so they would often tell me to first earn money regularly before venturing into social service,” she says.
According to Dr Neelam, family is the strongest pillar in your life and you can’t just ignore them and do what you want to do. So she followed their advice and stuck to nitty gritties of a normal job.
Dr Neelam did many odd jobs from designing clothes to writing for embassies. At one point she was also working with the government in strategy and documentation. After working for many years, she started her own printing and publishing business, “I always wanted to be my own boss!” she says.
For 15 years, she slogged till she could finally open up Aroh in 2001. Since content creation was her strongest aspect, Aroh was initially focussed on research and strategy planning to support programs run by the Government of India.
But something was still missing. An inkling in 2008 made Dr Neelam realise that she wasn’t doing enough for the society. “Most of the research would lie on the shelves and I was not getting that job satisfaction of having helped somebody,” she says.
This is when the foundation started working with people and ground work began. Though bigger challenges were yet to come. “I exhausted my funds within 5-6 months!” she says.
She was almost on the verge of closing down Aroh when they got a project from the Institute of Development and another CSR project. She was then able to build a good team and an infrastructure for the foundation.
The foundation has various programmes for skilling,education and empowerment. Which she says, “Is helping people become more capable of handling their lives and getting economic gains. We train a lot of women and youth. So that they get jobs or start their enterprise, in order to fend for themselves.”
Financially, the foundation struggled for 1.5 years. Volunteers were called in from different countries and huge proposals were sent to various organisations.
Grassroot troubles were different. From working heavy naxalite areas to battling climate changes, Aroh has seen it all. “They would tell us things like “2 gaj ka ek gaj karke bhejenge” (which roughly translates to physically assaulting the volunteers). We were getting so many threats. My family wouldn’t allow me to go to such areas. So I would tell them that we are going to a safer city like Bhubhneshwar,” says Dr Neelam recounting her initial struggles.
On top of this, motivating people to work in those areas was an issue, so manpower is always restricted. “You have to get out at 2 pm from such areas, you can’t work after that. You can enter only at 11 am,” she says. In addition, so many areas had network problems that sometimes no report come from a volunteer for two days.
Once the foundation was finally there, they would often get extortion threats. “Once we wanted to build toilets, so they told us we have to give them money in order to do that!” says Dr Neelam.
She says convincing people is a challenge since every state, region, village, family and individual is different. For example, in U.P, women are mostly in veils and won’t speak or come out of their house. While in Bihar, Chhattisgarh or more tribal areas, women were better off.
A gold medalist in Zoology from Delhi University, Dr Neelam’s idea of opportunity and choice is certainly different from many.
“Opportunities and choice are the two aspects that change a woman’s stance in society.The biggest relevant challenge right now is women’s unpaid work. If you look at a village woman, there’s no help from the male members. They do all the work in the fields, then at home. Men expect everything to be done by women. There’s no recognition of her work, not economically. We say 17% of the workforce is women but I say it’s 50%. If a man is earning Rs 10,000 from his work, then 5,000 is a woman’s contribution, because she’s handling all the backend work,” she says.
Dr Neelam lays strong emphasis on how women cannot be called financially dependent in circumstances like these. By constantly calling them dependent, you are forming a generic statement that affects mindsets. “All because she cannot give a child Rs 10 to spend, which only a father can do,” she says. The day women achieve this recognition, the entire equation will change.
According to Dr Neelam, “Education doesn’t mean you need to be useful to the economy. If you’re raising a good generation, if you’re helping run the household, saving money, then you should be recognised for your efforts.”
Her analysis is well informed. These problems are connected and hence remain entrenched in society. She has helped many women become the heroes of their villages. One such girl she remembers was Nirasha, which in hindi means disappointment, sadness. Her father named her Nirasha because he was expecting a boy after having four girls already.
But Aroh trained her in Retails skills and today she works in a mall. Nirasha is from a remote village in Dadri.
After helping lives like Nirasha, Dr Neelam knows there’s still a lot to change and challenge. “Passion is the key if you want to work in a sector like this. Because there will be alot of days of struggle.”