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Disaster has Struck. Again

I don’t really know how to report this. Disaster has struck. Again.  

The shanties in the Topsia Squatter Community up in flames

I have, for better or worse, tied myself to the fate of a handful of destitute communities in central Kolkata. For five years I have been raising funds to support a little grassroots NGO (Tiljala SHED) working to help the members of these communities lift themselves out of the margins of society.   Women’s empowerment; children’s education; livelihood training; microfinance; ensuring that everyone is properly documented so that they can assert their rights and access government schemes. These are the fundamentals.  In tiny increments we see families improving their lives, children advancing through education, women setting up small businesses. It’s a privilege to be part of this and to see the good that can be done.

But it is all so precarious. First, COVID19 arrived in March. Lockdown drove everyone off the streets, depriving most of our target families of the means to survive. So we went to our benefactors and provided food rations.  Then Cyclone Amphan swept through West Bengal and we went back to you and asked for more help. We distributed more food as well as tarpaulins and building materials so that they could repair their shattered homes. Our 12-year-old vehicle fell apart under the sheer strain of carrying tonnes of rice, staff, tarpaulins. So I came to you again and asked for help. You helped. And schools remained closed. The children had no access to education, so we came back to you again and asked for funds to buy smartphones so they can reach their teachers online. And still we distribute food, because hungry children can’t study. Last week I told you the terrible story of 16 year old Fahim whose mother was crushed by a truck on her way home from work as a maidservant. Again, you responded with such compassion.  This week we distributed the phones and planned an exciting new sponsorship programme for the Topsia Evening Class. They were so happy. And all of this was because you responded so generously. Despite the terrible times we are all living through, this wonderful network of donors, friends, well-wishers, benefactors from all over the world, you dug deep and helped out.

Lost homes replaced with tarpaulins

Yesterday, literally the day after the Topsia Evening Class kids got their phones, a fire broke out in the Topsia squatter camp – their home. It ripped through their shelters, destroying the few possessions these vulnerable people had, including many vital documents.  Around 70 homes were destroyed. The relief effort continues: immediate needs are food, tarpaulins and mosquito nets. All of this will come, I am certain, from local sources.

Haibot’s wheelchair is destroyed. A local benefactor has offered to replace it

Unfortunately, this isn’t an unusual occurrence. These families live in illegal shelters. There is no running water. Electricity arrives via a spaghetti of cables wired up to little fans and light fittings, every one a fire hazard. This fire started in a shop which sold chemicals and fuel – an accident waiting to happen. But this community lies on the margins: the shelters are illegal but tolerated. No one is interested in their health and safety. And they are too poor to do anything about it.  But I know they worry about their safety all the time. Few outsiders venture over the bridge into the community. The sewer below stinks – no one crosses it unless they have to. But for 710 families it is home and much of it is now destroyed. I don’t want to ask you again.  I am pretty sure that this community is resilient and experienced enough to rebuild itself. You’ve got to be tough when you are this poor. Local help is now pouring in. Mosquito nets, food, tarpaulins are all arriving. Everyone will set to work again and we will continue to educate the children, empower the women and show that there IS, beyond the stinking bridge, a world that cares.  So please think about Fahim and all the others in Topsia who are picking themselves up, yet again, and trying to move forward, to lift themselves out of poverty, to stay well, to eat every day…  

Please continue to support these families. I am especially concerned about the children’s education –as this is the route out. The whole family’s hopes for a better future depend on the children being literate, confident and determined.  Any one of you who has visited the Topsia centre with me and met the children will know that this is more than possible.  £11 a month enables us to keep a primary child in education. For the secondary school kids £30 a month covers all the necessary books, stationery, extra tuition to ensure that he or she can advance through to higher education, gainful employment and a chance to change their community. I am convinced that the real change for the whole of this community won’t come from government, an NGO or any outside agency. It’s going to come from Saika, Rehan, Saheba, Suman, Bhola, Rina and all the other amazing youngsters of the Topsia Evening Class, present and future. Support them and they will change the world.

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