An Interview with Ms. Paramjit Kaur, Director of Ashraya Adhikar Abhiyan

Ms. Paramjit Kaur is the Director of Ashraya Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA), an NGO associated with the rights for homeless people. The organization, based in New Delhi, has been involved in ground-breaking work in upliftment of these people. Be it providing ID cards, ATM cards or savings accounts for the homeless, or fighting the government for their rights, AAA has been up to the challenge. Under the under able leadership of Ms. Paramjit Kaur, AAA has made a marked difference in the life of these desolate people. Here are some excerpts from a telephonic interview of Ms. Paramjit Kaur, as she speaks of the problem of homeless, role of judiciary and importance of youth in this social cause.

VP: Madam, please tell us something about yourself, and any such incidents in your life that encouraged     you to take up such a cause?

Ms. Paramjit Kaur:  Well, I am a qualified advocate. I have practiced in the bar for some time. Also I have been involved in areas of work involving demographic and population studies.  I have worked for over 11 years in the rural areas but much of my work has been done in the urban areas. Altogether, 25 years of social service behind me. Since beginning, I had this sense of personal commitment to do something productive and useful for the society. It was to prove that women, at any given moment can do something for the society. There are women activists who are interested in causes involving the female population only. But, I, as a single woman, am working for the rights of the men folk also. Still, there is a long way to go, and lots of work left to do.

VP: Madam, this is really motivational for all of us. Your organization Ashraya Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA) is an NGO which is working for the homeless in Delhi. Please tell us, how the idea for this organization, took shape. Because, as they say, every big idea has to start from somewhere. So how, exactly did it all start?

Ms.PK: AAA has been active since 2000, with direct funding from ActionAid. Now it is an organization with a team of committed people. For now, I am the face of AAA, but the real face is that of the workers who are relentlessly working behind the scenes. We have been under the funding support from ActionAid for 10 years now; we are soon to become an independent organization.

VP: Your NGO has been fighting for the rights of the homeless people in our capital, New Delhi. With people looking up to you for inspiration, how do you see your organization in the coming 5-10 years?

Ms.PK: So far we have been concentrating on the New Delhi region. But we hope to replicate the model in other state capitals and in the Class B townships also. So in 5-10 years, we plan to spread out, and plan to make it a nationwide campaign. The model, if successful in other states, will send a message to other people to follow our model. We hope to create a nationwide network of organizations to take up the cause of homelessness. In Delhi, we have a network of 70-80 organizations who work very enthusiastically for the cause. It is not a one-man show; many members of the society are involved in our cause. It’s a 24×7 job, and keeping a sustained effort is a challenge in itself.

VP: With the CWG’10 coming up in New Delhi, the preparations are in full swing. Do you think this is being taken as an excuse for evacuation of homeless people? They don’t have anywhere to go and the administration is doing plain little to do anything for them. Do you think that it is helplessness or plain carelessness on the part of our administration?

Ms.PK: I do think that the Commonwealth Games are a threat to the poor people. The welfare of the homeless people has been completely neglected in the name of the Games. The problem of the homelessness is far beyond the boundary of the urban poverty. Their problem is of basic identity, they don’t even qualify for the BPL cards. Absence of any concrete provisions at the policy level is what is disheartening. Even with the recent SC guidelines, many provisions are missing. The homeless people have to go from place to place, many of them men folk, who have come here in search of livelihood. A more holistic approach is required for the problem. I believe that only during winter the government wakes up to the problem of homelessness, once the winter goes, everyone forgets about the problem. We need shelters with basic amenities, especially for women, children and ill people.

VP: Your NGO had taken an initiative for providing ID cards, savings account, ATM cards to the homeless. Many of them even got their voter ID cards, thanks to your organization.

Ms.PK: Exactly. The entire credit for the ID cards goes to our Director of Operations, Mr. Sanjay Kumar. He is the main force behind the initiative. The general myth is that the homeless are a burden upon the society, that they are useless people, criminals and what not. Many of them are labourers, and they go to work. With the savings account, many of them have left boozing and started saving money. A multi-fold approach is required for these people, as mentioned earlier.

VP: So, the main aim of this project was to provide dignity to the homeless people.

Ms.PK:  Yes, but the aim was also to provide identity. These people are undergoing an identity crisis, with numerous programs like NREGA, old-age pension scheme, widow pension scheme; these people don’t even qualify for these programs, just because they don’t have an identity. Once the identification process is completed, the dignity factor automatically follows.

VP: Recently, the Supreme Court ordered the Delhi Govt. to immediately find shelters for the homeless people. What came into view is that the government has to be reminded of its duties by the judiciary. Even with the NGO’s doing their bit, it is up to the judiciary for reminding the administration. Your take?

Ms.PK: This issue was not visible earlier; it’s only 2-3 years since the problem is being looked upon seriously. Before, we had to remind the bureaucracy of the problem in the capital. Now, every winter the govt. tries to provide shelter for the homeless. Yes, the SC order has hastened up the process, but the NGO’s have to work together also. Social service doesn’t mean slogan shouting or protests only. We have managed around 50-60 shelters in the capital, this time. The Delhi Govt. has asked the support of NGO’s for management of the homeless shelters. Sustained efforts are required to mitigate the problem. But yes, judicial activism has helped a lot in our cause.

VP: Your organization holds a Mahapanchayat every year, what is the concept behind this?

Ms.PK: We hold the Mahapanchayat in the last Sunday of February with the help of ActionAid. It is for the homeless people, a sort of show of political strength. They come together for reviewing their past achievements, preparing a future course of action and they come up with a memoranda, which is shared with the policy makers, bureaucrats and media.

VP: With this wonderful work that you are doing, how do you see the role of the youth in supporting your cause? Do you run any awareness program targeting the youth?

Ms.PK: The youth has a very important role along with the civic society. First, the youth needs to come forward and be sensitive to the cause of the less privileged brethren. We need a hardcore team of workers at the ground level and do require the support of youth in our cause. We have a fleet of about 120 volunteers, but most of them are from the homeless community itself. The college students prefer ‘softy’ volunteer work, which won’t help the cause. They have to put some serious work into this, so that these people live a dignified life.

We do run some programs in various institutes in Delhi, through NSS or through various organizations in colleges, and in the police administration also.

VP: The youth of our country are more goal –oriented, they want a secure financial life. Also they want to help out in the causes concerning our society. How can they help out even without actively involved in an NGO?

Ms.PK: They can start at the grassroots level, they can start from the places where they study, they work, or they live. They can open debates and discussions, and address the needs of under –privileged people. They can mobilize the resources, and help the NGO’s through their references. They can create a network of people who are committed and realize that they have a social responsibility too.

VP: Any message for the youth of our country?

Ms.PK: Don’t wait for personal recognition, and be committed, work hard. If you are convinced for a cause, go for it, keep going. Don’t try to hog the limelight. We have a team of committed youth, one of my colleagues left his bright career, at the age of 28 years, just to help in our cause. Above all, Gandhian values have to be incorporated in our youth.

Compiled by:

Manas Ranjan Kar