GROWING up in a low-income household with little support from outside, Awadhesh Kumar as a teenager was determined that he would come to help others like him when he grew up. His idea was to set up a social development organisation committed to helping the poor and the disadvantaged. In 2002, together with a few of his like-minded friends, his vision took shape in the form of Balajee Sewa Sansthan (BSS).

The organisation strives for overall development in the life of the underprivileged through various programmes to make them economically self-sufficient, initiatives on health and hygiene, women empowerment, rural development, microfinance, education, livelihood and others in various districts of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Here, Awadhesh tells us about his journey with BSS and how it has made a difference in the lives of people it has touched, and much more.

Give: Tell us the story behind Balajee Sewa Sansthan (BSS). Was there a trigger that compelled you to start this NGO? How do you look back on the journey so far?

Awadhesh Kumar: I come from a marginal farmer’s family. As I lost my parents at a very young age, I had an unstable childhood where I struggled even for three meals a day. There was no support, financially or in kind. In those difficult times, I was not aware of any NGO that could support people like me, and that’s when the idea of starting one when I grow up was sowed.

Balajee Seva Sansthan has been working for women's empowerment in the urban and rural areas of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar
Balajee Seva Sansthan has been working for women’s empowerment in the urban and rural areas of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar

I remember, when other teenagers my age were busy in sports and recreational activities, I used to discuss with my friends how we can help others. Even when I had no money the thought of helping and supporting others remained in mind. After graduation, I got a job in an NGO and started my journey to learn and have first-hand experience of working in the social sector and learned to solve the problems of others.

But one incident that hit me hard was when a very poor widow who was not well approached me for assistance. I was not able to help her financially and also I had my limitations at work. That rankled me for days. It shook me to the core and that’s when I decided to start BSS. In the last 20 years, we have served over 3.5 lakh beneficiaries through different need-based projects.

Give: How has BSS affected people’s lives, and what have been your main focus areas?

AK: I would like to change the word from “affected” to “changed” the lives of people. At BSS, we are always on campaign mode, moving from one need-based solution to another. From the beginning, our approach is “including the excluded and reaching the unreached” through our programmes. And this has motivated us to expand our work area from Uttarakhand to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and other regions.

Our work strategy is unique. We do not impose our project but rather implement people’s projects. And for that, the first and foremost thing that my team does is analyse the community problems, what beneficiaries want and then strategize on how we can support and how they are going to sustain it for a longer period so that they don’t need support or help from anyone.

Our main focus areas are poverty alleviation by doubling the income of small and marginal farmers, vocational training, preventive health (save from HIV-AIDS, TB and ill effects of tobacco use), women empowerment, education, disaster management, emergency response, environmental protection, etc.

Awadhesh Kumar at a anti-tobacco campaign launch
Awadhesh Kumar at an anti-tobacco campaign event

Over the years, we have created 825 self-help groups (SHGs) covering 9,000 families for women empowerment, helped 1,500 farmers and constructed 2,000+ low-cost toilets for very poor families.  Over 90,000 beneficiaries have availed our services on digital financial literacy and we have educated over 1,30,000 school children on ill effects of tobacco. We supported over 15,000 families through dry ration kits during Covid-19. We have also supported over 95,000 migrant families in accessing health services. One of our most active programmes is a campaign across the state on “Tobacco Free Uttarakhand” to save children and the youth from the ill effects of tobacco.

Give: Your motto is: “Things just don’t happen automatically, you have to make them happen.” Can you provide us with a few examples of you making things happen when others had given up?

AK: The motto is close to my heart as well as to my mind and I strongly believe in it. In 2015, I visited a village by the name of Raithal, perched at an elevation of 1,800 metres amidst the lush greenery in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand. It is one of the many villages in Uttarakhand that are called ‘ghost villages’ as the youth have migrated to cities in search of livelihoods, leaving very few people behind.

We thought that these villages could be tourism destinations, but the villagers were not very excited about our proposal. Still, I prepared a proposal and approached Uttarakhand Gramya Vikas Samiti (UGVS) for funding this innovative idea. To my wonder, in 2016 UGVS liked it and sanctioned ₹10 lakh to build a model-based home-stay choosing 10 farmers. We convinced the villagers and with the constant hard work of the BSS team, we developed a model village that has now become a major tourist attraction.  Every year more than 1,000 national and international tourists visit Raithal village and this idea has helped more than 30 farmers earn extra income, and 40 more found livelihood opportunities. Many people are now heading back to the village.

Give: Tell us about your initiatives for the future. Will you focus on any particular area of social development and why?

AK: We want to work in northern India with a focus on Uttarakhand, western Uttar Pradesh, and eastern region of Bihar. Although it would not be possible for us to cover all districts and blocks, we hope to develop model-based work to inspire others. We have plans to create model villages on an integrated farming system and have chosen four villages in Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh. This will directly benefit the farmers and their income shall increase three times within the next three to four years.

We also have plans to establish a ‘House of Hope’ for the elderly in Uttarakhand, an e-learning centre in slums for the children of the migrant labourers and open more vocational training centres for women in slums, semi-urban, rural and industrial areas.

Give: For some of its projects, BSS has gone for online crowdfunding through the Give platform. How has been the experience? Going forward, do you think online crowdfunding will become one of the most important sources for carrying out social development projects by NGOs?

AK: BSS has been implementing many important social development projects from the funds received from online crowdfunding through Give. We understood the importance of online crowdfunding during Covid-19.

Balajee Seva Sansthan has been working for women's empowerment in the urban and rural areas.

Online crowdfunding is becoming one of the most important sources for carrying out social development projects by NGOs. To sustain social development projects and for better reach. Give is a unique and trustworthy platform with no alternatives as per my experience.

Give: Can you share with us any BSS-related heart-touching story that has stayed with you?

AK: We have several heart-touching stories. One is of Manju Devi, an elderly migrant worker and widow living in a rural slum in Bahuwala, Uttarakhand. She was abandoned by her relatives after they came to know that she had tuberculosis. She took to begging and was weak and very ill when the BSS team came to her help. We helped her with one month’s dry ration kit and we supported her to get work as a household help and also with ID proof to receive government support like pension, ration, etc When I visited her again last month, she had tears in her eyes. It was heartwarming to see her doing so well.

Give: If life had not led you into co-founding BSS, what would you rather have done?

AK: Social service is my passion, but if life had not let me start BSS, then I would be working as a chartered accountant in some corporate firm.

Give: If you had to choose between listening to music, watching a film, or reading a book – what would it be? What would you listen to/ watch/ or read?

AK: I would choose to read a book. Maybe Bhagavad Gita, to give me more strength and guidance to serve people around me.

Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan

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