KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Anil and I wanted to visit the St. Alphonsus Social and Agricultural Society (SASAC) in Kurseong before leaving the Darjeeling area. This community was founded by Father Abraham, a Jesuit missionary, over thirty years ago after he had worked for many years as the principal of the St. Alphonsus School. The school was established to teach the "poorest of the poor" children and Father Abraham made several trips to Canada to raise money to build a new school when the original building was near collapse.
Our good friend, Barb Moreau, had worked at the school as a volunteer for a year, in the late 1960s. She invited us to meet Father Abe while he was in Edmonton in 1984. We had been looking for a way to support education in India for some time, and were only too happy to make a commitment to Father Abe's work by signing his Book of Life. He asked only that our family agree to give up Friday night desserts and donate the money saved to feed, clothe and educate his poor students. We received monthly newsletter during all the subsequent years and learned of all the work that was being done by this dedicated man.
I visited Kurseong with our daughter Adia and her friend Terri Hron in 1995 and was even more in awe of the work that Father Abe has done during his 59 years in India. I was eager to have Anil visit SASAC and the school to see for himself. I have included a link to the website so that you may read more about this incredible place. There is a history of SASAC written by Father Abe under the SASAC home dropdown menu.
We drove down the mountain road to Kurseong, about half-way to the plains from Darjeeling. I was astounded at the amount of development that has taken place since my last visit. The population crunch has meant that hundreds more homes have been built hanging off the edge of the narrow road - many doorsteps are virtually on the edge of the asphalt. I can't imagine what it must be like to live so close to this major artery into the Himalayas. Dust, pollution, noise and danger just outside your door.
We were met by Sudhir, one of the young people who was instrumental in working closely with Father Abe to develop SASAC after completing his schooling at St. Alphonsus Secondary School. We had spoken to him by mobile phone and he was expecting us. He had invited us to spend the night so that we could spend some time with the many children living at SASAC; they were busy at school during the day. Unfortunately, we were not able to stay, but our visit lasted much of the day and we were able to meet many of the children before leaving. The children are not orphans, they come to stay at SASAC during the week but return to their families in the neighbouring villages each Sunday and for the school holidays.
We learned from Sudhir that Father Abe had recently returned from Kolkata (Calcutta) where he had been hospitalized for two months following major surgery. This, and much more, had happened since we left Canada in the late summer. We were so pleased to learn of his remarkable recovery but were saddened to learn of the dire financial situation faced by SASAC during the past year.
Canadians and other foreigners who wish to donate funds to support Father Abe's work in India contribute through the Jesuit Office in Toronto and the funds are transferred to the Jesuit mission in West Bengal. The Indian government has become quite concerned about the possible misuse of foreign funds by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and took the drastic step of freezing the accounts of over 8,000 NGOs in India. This may have been caused by reports of corruption relating to the hundreds of millions of dollars that flooded into India following the 2004 tsunami. Whatever the reason, SASAC was caught in this mess. We learned that none of the money that has been donated to SASAC in the past twelve months has reached Father Abe.
This has meant that SASAC has not been able to pay the wages of the 350 poor workers who have supported their families by working on SASAC projects. The small businesses that provided materials for the recently constructed Training Centre have not been paid and Father Abe has had to resort to selling off most of the animals in the dairy and piggery just to pay for the food requirement of the sixty people that make up the SASAC "family". They lost their income from the sale of poultry and eggs some time ago when they slaughtered their 13,000 chickens to avoid the possible spread of bird flu to their workers.
I was saddened and alarmed to see that the thriving community I had visited in 1995 was just a shadow of itself. For some reason, we had not been receiving the monthly newsletters for most of 2006, so we were in the dark about this financial crisis. The frustrating thing is that the funds that people contribute are languishing in the bank accounts of the NGOs, and there is no telling when this situation might be sorted out. Luckily, SASAC grows much of its own food but cash is still needed for school fees for the children, electricity for the buildings, fuel for the vehicles and the other countless things that only money can buy.
We left SASAC with heavy hearts, Friday the 13th had indeed been an inauspicious day for us. However, we learned of SASAC's plight for the first time and were able to make a cash donation to help them through the next couple of weeks. We have to hope that the government will soon see that the work that Father Abe has been doing has been exemplary but unfortunately his file is probably buried deep within the 8,000 other NGO files on some bureaucrat's desk. A bribe would probably speed things along, but SASAC is loathe to start something it has never resorted to in the past. Let's hope for the best for all the 60 members of the SASAC family and the 350 workers who rely on the projects for their families.