Unmesh Visit Project: Unmesh Child Protection Center Visit date: 23 December, 2011 Volunteers: Somesh Roy and Amit Arora, AID Penn State In coordination with Dr. Sreelekha Ray, Executive Director of Voluntary Health Association of Tripura (VHAT), we had planned for a day-trip to Agartala for this site visit. We reached Agartala around 10am in the morning. Dr. Sreelekha Ray and her husband Dr. Dilip Ray received us from the airport and took us to their city office near Kunjaban. We went through documentation and background of the project. Later, we went to Unmesh Child Protection Center (Unmesh) along with Dr. Sreelekha Ray around 1:30 pm. We were there till the evening around 5:30pm before we took our return flight. Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI) has chapters in many states of India. VHAI's work primarily, but not limited to, focuses on providing better health services. All the seven states of the North-east India, except Mizoram, has a chapter of VHAI. VHAT started its operation 1988 in remote hills of Tripura with a project to provide basic health facilities to Chakma tribal. Soon they expanded their work to education as they realized without any facilities of education it is very hard to fight off other hardships. Now VHAT has a remarkable array of projects in various parts of Tripura covering various sectors of services. They also have a very big network of NGOs and individuals working in similar fields. They work as a facilitator to these NGOs and conduct various workshops and training for them. The list of all these members are given in their annual report. The head office of the VHAT is a place called Kunjaban near the center of Agartala. They own two buildings at this place. One of the building is rented by Bangladesh Visa Office. This rent is one of the main sources of their income that supports the regular staff and logistics. The other building houses the office of VHAT, office of Childline, few guest rooms and classrooms, a library, and a kitchen. The classrooms and guest rooms are often rented out for various class and workshops organized by other organizations and VHAT Regional Community College (RCC ). VHAT RCC is run in collaboration with Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). The support staff for Childline reside in the same building and attend to 24-hour helpline for Childline. The guestrooms also provide temporary shelter for any kid rescued by Childline. Childline receives on an average 800-900 calls a month, but most of the calls are either prank or abusive calls. Roughly 50-60 calls per month are actual distress calls. While we were there, a call came from grandparents of a kid regarding some medical emergency. The support staff went out immediately to attend the situation. We looked at their documentation at the head office. Dr. Ray handed us annual reports and financial documents for last four years. She also told us the history of the Unmesh. Unmesh was started in 2005 as Anwesha Child Protection Center (ACPC). It was supported by the Childline India Foundation (CIF) for first few years. Recently with support of CIF withdrawn, VHAT asked for support from AID. AID has started supporting this project from 2010. For bookkeeping purpose and to keep old CIF grant account separate, the project was renamed as Unmesh. Physically Unmesh and ACPC are the same facility.
We went to Unmesh in the afternoon. The facility is near to the airport and almost 30 minutes away from the head office. The facility is built on the compound of the VHAT Eye Hospital. The compound is quite large and is bounded by a wall. This hospital was established in 2001. The original eye hospital building was built with keeping future expansion in mind. Unmesh has separate facilities for boys and girls. The girls' rooms are at the second floor of the eye hospital building. There are two dorms for the girls. The supervisor and caretaker for the girls also live in the same dorms. There is a second building which houses the boys' dorms and the kitchen. There are couple of classrooms and medical rooms and one store room and one office on the second floor of the eye hospital. There is a vermicompost tank near the entrance of the compound. There is a play-field in between the two buildings. On the one side of the field there is big kitchen garden. On the other side there is a small room for poultry, a second vermicompost tank, and a room for tailoring training. Beyond this, the rest of the land is unused with occasional banana, some flowering plants and other trees. Jayanti, a trained paramedic, is the supervisor for this project. She has been with VHAT for a long time. She is the overall in-charge of the project. Sanchita and Asim are her helping hands. Sanchita is the caretaker for the girls and Asim is the caretaker for the boys. Pradip is the gardener and Gouri is the guard employed in the project. All these people live in the same compound. Other than them, there is one cook and some other people who live there as part of the hospital staff and helps with Unmesh work. VHAT runs a B. Sc. (Hons.) programme in Optometry and Ophthalmic Techniques under IGNOU. Students from this course also live in the same compound. The day we visited Unmesh was a sunny day after couple of weeks of cloudy and rainy weather. Everyone was in a good mood. The schools were over for the year and some of the kids went to visit their families. Most of the kids were in the facility as they had nowhere to go! When we went there, the kids were playing in the field. We met Jayanti, Sanchita and Asim. Jayanti gave a brief rundown of the status. She and Dr. Ray showed us the dorm rooms. They also showed us the store rooms where a bunch of stuff donated by local people and organizations are kept for future use. Dr. Ray mentioned that local people are very helpful and often donate stuff to Unmesh. Also nearby there is a military establishment, who provide Unmesh support. During summer when drinking water becomes scarce, they supply water to Unmesh for free in the military trucks. The dorms are equipped with bunk beds. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the rooms are very spacious. In fact, to be honest, our college hostels were probably more cramped than these dorm rooms! Dr. Ray said that they feel these kids need more space around them to get adjusted to the new life. She also mentioned that VHAT does not want to put more beds in these rooms just to increase the capacity of the facility. After our initial tour, Jayanti called the kids to one of the classrooms and introduced us. Kids sang some songs to us. We had takes some chocolates for them. They loved the chocolates. After some songs and dances kids went out to play again. Dr. Ray took us to show the vermicompost and poultry facilities. Out of the two vermicompost tanks one is working now. They use the compost as manure for the kitchen garden. Then Pradeep gave us a little tour of the kitchen garden. The garden is quite big and can provide vegetables for at least quarter of
the year. The hospital building has three rain-water harvesting tanks. The water from these tanks are used in watering plants. After this we interacted with some of the kids. Naturally, they were more interested in playing than talking to us! We met Bulti, who was one of the first kids to be in Unmesh. She is in class (grade) nine now and is doing well in her studies. She is a child of a single mother. Priyanka, an orphan, is also of Bulti's age. Unfortunately she had not been to any school before coming to Unmesh. She is now attending class three. VHAT has opened a bank account on her name and deposits some money from time to time to help her in future. They have taken similar steps for another boy, Keshav. We didn't meet Keshav. He doesn't stay at the facility anymore, instead he helps the staff the head office. We met some more kids. Everybody seemed happy and playful. Looking at them play, it was hard to imagine the trauma most of them have gone through. Care provided by Unmesh has really helped them heal. The report sent by Dr. Ray contains history of each kid. We would like to mention just one particular case -- Sheemul, a girl rescued couple of months before our visit. Sheemul was rescued from street and was wounded with a dog-bite. Before rescue, she had been living on the streets with her brother. They were living of food collected from trash. Her brother died of dog-bite. She was really traumatized and mentally unstable at the time of rescue. Now she has recovered a lot but not completely. Dr. Ray told us that it takes quite some time for them to heal. Once in a while VHAT provides counseling, but Dr. Ray commented that the most effective therapy, as per their experience, is the company of other kids. Sheemul is still very possessive about her stuff, doesn't play with other kids very often. But she has progressed a lot since she came in the facility. She now have friends! Dr. Ray mentioned that initially when Unmesh started, they had some difficulty in managing and counselling kids. But once the number of kids reached a some sort of critical level, new kids get adjusted much faster. There is no better remedy than good friends. Dr. Ray mentioned another instance of rescuing an infant from street. Even though Unmesh isn't equipped with sheltering an infant, he was kept temporarily at Unmesh and then at the head office of VHAT.In cases like this, adoption is the most viable option. Unmesh registers orphan kids to the government adoption agency. In fact two kids, Mangalpada and his sister were to be adopted by a foster family very soon. Due to government regulation, Unmesh cannot know the details of the foster family. But the selection of foster family is well scrutinized process and falls under the purview local government. Not all the kids in Unmesh are rescued. Some of the kids are sent to Unmesh by their single parents. Some such kids from Unmesh has also gone home after intervention, sometimes the mother or father have been able to find a stable life and have taken the kid back. Sometime Unmesh talks with the parents on these matters, too. At the same time there has been instances, where kids came back to Unmesh after getting back with their parents for while. One girl, Nandini, has been in Unmesh on and off for various such reasons! It was clear from what we saw that the intervention brought on by Unmesh is vital. In fact Unmesh is one of the very few shelter homes in the North-east India. In Tripura, any case of missing child, child trafficking, street child is referred to Unmesh by the local authorities. Local
police forces also, in effect, relies on Unmesh and Childline for handling any children related matter! Sometimes it becomes difficult for VHAT to manage this workload. Also due to lack of manpower and capital cost they have not been able to expand the facilities at Unmesh. They had applied for government grants for expansion of the building, but no responses have been received yet. Unmesh has become a well-known facility in the neighborhood, too. The local people are in general cooperative. However, they still have some stigma about kids of Unmesh. For example, in school, for any kind of misdemeanor, the first suspicion falls on the "kids from Unmesh"! There always been a discrimination between "kids from Unmesh" and other kids! For this reason, Jayanti and others do not allow the kids to play outside the compound. We left Unmesh around 5pm in the evening. The kids were watering the kitchen garden under guidance of Pradeep then. Our experience at Unmesh was very fulfilling. Looking at the happy faces of the kids we felt how important Unmesh has been in their lives. Their happiness was infectious. We wish we had more time to be with the kids. May be next time we will.