Since 2005, India Nirman Sangh has worked toward women’s development in the villages and hills in and around the Kodaikanal and Palani towns of Tamil Nadu. India Nirman Sangh has distributed basic grocery packs to 2000 women and their families while running a tailoring centre producing free masks. INS is also providing basic income support to those in utmost need. The organization is led by David BarunKumar Thomas, who serves the non-profit as a volunteer.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you get into this line of work?
Thomas: I was working for IBM. When I was 45, I decided to leave that job and go back to a place close to where I was born and do something that I found more interesting, which was working with people. In 2004 I started an organization that worked among the poor, particularly women, and helped them organize into groups to start small businesses, send children to school, and improve their standards of living. Part of our strategy includes distributing microloans, but we also go beyond that with organizing and education.We now have 4,000 women who are a part of the group, and the members of the organization work among them. For the last two years we have also started to work among farmers. Farming in the area is becoming unprofitable, so we are working to bring new technology and methods to improve farming’s profitability, all while remaining organic and environmentally sustainable.
Q: How has your organization assisted with the COVID response effort?
Thomas: We have distributed groceries to more than 2000 poor women in the Kodaikanal and Palani Blocks of Dindigul District in Tamil Nadu. In addition, we have given monetary assistance to 42 of the poorest families in this area. We have also produced more than 2000 reusable masks at our tailoring centre in Kodaikanal and distributed them free to the poor.
We have located poor migrants from Nepal in Kodaikanal and have given them food, groceries and monetary assistance. We have also helped a group of 15 LGBT community members with groceries in Palani.
Q: How does diversity of faith and caste impact your organization’s work?
Thomas: The organization is secular, but about 80 percent of the women we work with are Hindus, 10 percent are Muslims, and 10 percent are Christians. We respect the beliefs of all with whom we work. The people in this area belong to a variety of castes, mainly the lower castes, so roughly about 40 percent of the people we work with belong to the most depressed castes. We make it a point not to bring caste into the equation. Society is still divided along caste lines, but we make everybody sit together, eat together, and keep telling them in various ways that caste should not be important.
Q: Is there also government relief aid, and is it reaching the neediest?
Thomas: The government here is giving free rations to people, and that covers roughly about 95 percent of the people in this area. They get rice, lentils, and sugar. It’s not really enough for a family to live on, but it does prevent complete starvation. In the North it’s not as good, but here they are giving rations to almost everybody. As a supplement, our group has distributed lentils, sugar, tea, and rice to 2,000 people, and this week we are in the process of distributing wheat flour and a form of pasta and spices. For that, we have used all the funds that we had … which came from those regularly supporting our organization. We like to concentrate on the 2,000 who are very, very poor and who have no family members earning income. We would also like to expand to help others who are not quite so badly off, but who are still very poor. We could very much use additional funding.
Q: What gives you hope?
Thomas: How much poor people help each other. They share a lot more than people who are [financially] better off. They have a very informed support system among the very poor. They share the little they have. You see this happening all the time. That’s what really keeps people from starvation; the poor helping the poor. That is something Gandhi used to admire a lot and which we see at times like this.