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Sunil gets excellent support from Jennifer (Jenny) who hails from a Kolkata-based Chinese family. “If I have helped built the house called the ant, Jenny is the one who has made it a home,” says Sunil.

Dr. Sunil Kaul did his MBBS from Pune’s Armed Forces Medical College in 1983, and served as a doctor in the Indian Army for 11 years. While in the army, he came to feel that his medical training could be put to better use if he could work for the rural people in far-flung areas. Rajeshree Deka writes about the man and how he is winning the trust of the Bodo people in Assam through his efforts to empower them

I was somewhat amused to learn that an organisation named the ant was doing colossal service in a remote area of Assam. Amused because it was named after the ant — small but always busy! It was even spelt in small letters! What was even more fascinating was that it was founded by a husband and wife duo, with roots in Kashmir and China, and who were bringing up their only daughter like a traditional Bodo girl.

Curious, I decided to go there and find out for myself. Accompanied by my brother, I undertook the initial journey from Guwahati (145 km) by train, and thereafter to Rowmari (8 km) by shared autorickshaw. Once there, it was easy to locate the place as almost every person in the area knew about it.

In fact, whenever we asked the local people for directions, their faces beamed with a welcome smile as though we were their personal guests too. 

Green Surroundings

The campus ‘Udangshri Dera’ (meaning freedom) is a green heaven. It beautifully blends with the serene surroundings, as the houses are mostly built with local
material like bamboo and thatch.

We finally came face-to-face with the man himself, Dr. Sunil Kaul. He and his wife Jennifer founded the ant (an acronym for The Action Northeast Trust) in 2000. “We are working with the strengths of the weakest,” Dr. Kaul said, explaining the objectives of the organisation.

Sunil and Jennifer were both working earlier in upper Assam where their senior colleague was killed by insurgents, and the group was asked to leave the region. However, their attachment to the Northeast was so strong that after a year they decided to return and work for the development of the simple rural folk.

Humble Beginning

Sunil directed us to various department heads, starting with Rajesh Basumatary. the ant is a voluntary organisation registered as a public charitable trust at Rowmari village in Chirang district of Bodoland Territorial Administered Districts of Assam (BTAD). According to Rajesh, its main focus used to be health: to bring succour to the rural population affected by malaria, diarrhoea, and other water-borne diseases. It initially trained the local people in handling 30-35 basic medicines, and laboratory testing of diseases like malaria, diarrhoea, etc. Within a short time, the trainees became so adept in handling medicines and testing that they came to be called ‘Barefoot Doctors’.

 

Apart from creating awareness about different issues, the ant encourages women to learn cycling as a means to self-reliance. Thereafter, they are given cycles by the Jagruti Cycle Bank. This has increased the mobility of
women.

Of the 11 barefoot technicians that were trained between 2006 and 2008, eight continue giving excellent treatment for detection of malaria. The National Institute of Malaria Research cross-checked their slides to find 95% correct identification. They all run their independent laboratories.

Man with a Mission

Dr. Sunil Kaul (48) did his MBBS from Pune’s Armed Forces Medical College in 1983, and served as a doctor in the Indian Army for 11 years. While in the army, he came to feel that his medical training could be put to better use if he could work for the rural people in far-flung areas. In 1990, while still with the Army, he started working in the villages of Rajasthan. He later decided to devote his full time to the voluntary services sector. Initially, he worked with Urmul Trust in Rajasthan.   He has been a consultant to national and international NGOs both within the Northeast and outside and is a recipient of the Eisenhower Fellowship from the United States.

the ant is also a part of the People’s Rights Forum that attempts to play a watchdog role on food-related government schemes for the poor in Assam. This followed the appointment of Dr. Kaul as Advisor to the Commissioners appointed by the Supreme Court in response to a public interest litigation.

Sunil gets excellent support from Jennifer (Jenny). An alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, she hails from a Kolkata-based Chinese family. “If I have helped built the house called the ant, Jenny is the one who has made it a home,” remarked the doctor, adding that Jenny now looks after the day-to-day administration.

Direct Rural Action

The organisation has many full-time and part-time volunteers. It identifies committed young people interested in working with the village communities, and gets them fellowships to enable them to follow their passion. It promotes sustainable and holistic development of the rural and voiceless communities in this region. It is working directly at the village level in about 100 villages across nine Village Council Development Committees (VCDC, equivalent to a gaon panchayat) on issues related to health and awareness, women’s empowerment, besides alternative income opportunities through weaving, agriculture, etc.

 

the ant is also a part of the People’s Rights Forum that attempts to play a watchdog role on food-related government schemes for the poor in Assam.

Weaving Hope


The weaving work, most common in Bodo homes, has resulted in the formation of a weavers’ organisation called Aagor Daagra Afad (aagor means ‘design’ in Bodo language), which is selling garments and upholstery through handloom retail shops, and exporting a small quantity too. the ant participates in exhibitions and also conducts programmes highlighting the traditional crafts of the Northeast.

Empowering Women

Trying to reach a state of awakening or Jagruti, the ant has organised women in groups. Apart from creating awareness about different issues, it encourages women to learn cycling as a means to self-reliance. Thereafter, they are given cycles by the Jagruti Cycle Bank. This has increased the mobility of women. One group produces ‘desktop’ products from the cloth leftover from the weaving programme. Another buys paddy from its poor members to cushion them from the low prevailing rates, sells it at a higher rate in the market, and redistributes the profit among them. Others are into poultry, pig-rearing, silk-rearing, etc. The organisation has also tried to popularise solar LED technology among the poor.

Through the ant, rural people now avail of good health services; they are confident enough to take up social issues and solve their own community problems. The women have specially benefited by becoming self-reliant and enjoy a new sense of freedom. “Our biggest achievement,” said Dr. Kaul, “has been to win the trust and acceptance of the Bodo people and a grudging respect from the local government.”

Indirect Work

the ant has played a supportive role in other parts of the Northeast through training, consultancy, publications, giving fellowships, and building awareness about the region. Its published material has been translated into various languages. Among the publications are: A to Z of Malaria ... and more (English, Assamese, Bodo); Your Medicine Box, a manual on 27 essential drugs; Health Diary cum Manual, utilised to train village health workers.

       In 2007, the Institute of Development Action (IDeA) was started as a centre for training community workers from NGOs all over the Northeast in health, social analysis, leadership training, NGO formation and management. the ant has joined hands with youth organisations to usher in a culture of peace and honesty. On Gandhi Jayanti day in 2009, some of the local organisations, that were known to use violence during the Bodoland movement, took a public pledge in the presence of veteran Gandhian Natwarbhai Thakkar to follow ahimsa (non-violence).

Sunil and Jenny’s daughter Aman, meaning peace, also has a Bodo name Gwjan, which too means peace. She goes to the Bodo-medium school in the village. They did not just name her ‘peace’ but have actually worked towards making the area an oasis of peace.

We need many more Sunils and Jennys in the Northeast, to make this region, gifted with the bounties of nature, an abode of peace and prosperity. I finally understood that the organisation has been aptly named as the ant — a salute to the indomitable ants, which silently and collectively work to achieve objectives far bigger than their miniscule size.

the ant,
Udangshri Dera, Rowmari,
PO: Khagrabari, Via Bongaigaon,
Dist. Chirang (BTAD),
Assam 783380
Phone: 03664-294043
e-mail: 
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
website: www.theant.org

 

This article by Rajeshree Deka ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)  first appeared in CfB’s print edition, October-December, 2010

BOX ITEM

Beyond coffee, beyond crafts

the ant has a store in Bangalore. Sales at the store help provide livelihood to scores of underprivileged families, and relieve many illiterate housemaids from lifelong drudgery.

A man of major achievements, the good doctor stands out for his humility. During a visit to the Garden City, he had hosted an interaction with the eminent author and historian Ramchandra Guha, under the theme, ‘Northeastising the Mainstream’.

Crafting Traditions

The store displays the traditional craft of India’s northeastern states, with a dazzling range of apparel and accessories, furnishing items and handicrafts. Exhibitions promoting traditional ware are held on special occasions. Around the World Environment Day in June, the store showcased natural fibre products, handmade soaps, terracotta jewellery, puppets, and other items meticulously crafted by skilled artisans. “We used a loan to set up this store,” said Dr. Kaul.

Smitha and Pradeep lead the work here. “We have merged traditional designs with modern sensibilities through Aagor cottons and Endy silk products,” said Smitha. “Our weaving enterprise is based on fair practices and yet we strive to be sustainable,” explained the couple.

 

Naga Food Fest at the ant

Creating Awareness

the ant, however, is much more than a shop. The cafe above the store is not just a popular hangout, but a venue for weekend events that highlight the positive aspects of the communities in the Northeast. On one occasion, author Jahnavi Barua introduced the sights and sounds of Assam to the audience through her collection of stories titled Next Door.

Return of the Song Bird — a fascinating documentary on Khonoma village in Nagaland — left the audience spellbound during a screening here. On another occasion, documentaries on Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram led to absorbing discussions on the changing culture of the border states. “We attempt to bring positive stories from the Northeast,” said Thomas, who coordinated the event.

While Food of the Nagas introduced the cuisines of Nagaland to Bangaloreans, another fest brought the Flavours of Mizoram to India’s Silicon City.

The store and cafe stand out amid the hustle and bustle of one of Bangalore’s busiest localities. Tucked away just off Indiranagar’s 100 Feet Road, it has become the forum for bringing to the fore the best of Northeast India. From Bongaigaon to Bangalore, Dr. Kaul’s dreams have travelled a long way.

Pravir Bagrodia in Bangalore
****

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