DEVENDRA KUMAR, who grew up amidst extreme poverty in a crime-ridden slum in Delhi, has a mission: to build a safe, gender-neutral and inclusive society. To achieve this, he founded Ladli Foundation Trust which runs several community outreach programmes focused on empowering vulnerable women and children of the marginalised sections of society.
Over the last decade, Ladli Foundation Trust has established itself as a grassroots organisation known for its highly impactful social initiatives to uplift hundreds of thousands of people living in urban and rural slums.
In a chat with Give, Kumar talks about his early years, life before and after the founding of Ladli Foundation Trust and much more.
Give: How difficult was life growing up? What was it that kept you going on the right path?
Devendra Kumar: Yes, it was tough. My parents abandoned me with my younger sister when I was just two and she was only three days old. Some of my relatives helped us during our early years. Because of extreme poverty, I started working when I was eight, selling balloons. Earning at a very young age made me much more independent and responsible, which played a vital role in my growth.
Once I was brutally beaten up by a gang of drug addicts, and they snatched my money. That incident made me think about what wrong I had done and why they had beaten me. Later, I got to know that they were habitual substance abusers. Although I was very young, that incident played an important role in keeping me away from these types of boys.
But unfortunately, every third boy in that area was into substance abuse. As I had lots of free time and little study, I played on open grounds and roamed around here and there. At that time, I realised that many boys who were not into sporting activities were into substance abuse.
I started convincing or motivating the addicted boys to play kabaddi and cricket with my friends. After some time, the boys who had several addictions started reducing their drug intake or quitting substance abuse altogether. Parents of these boys appreciated my efforts. Slowly, their appreciation for me converted into concern, and they started caring for me, my education and overall wellbeing. I believe these things kept me on the right path.
Give: Tell us the story behind the birth of Ladli Foundation Trust.
DK: When my parents left me and my sister, it gave me a chance to play the role of mother to her, and I am very close to her. Due to poverty we both couldn’t complete our schooling. She left school after class six and I left after class 10. I never realized that an uneducated girl is seen as a huge burden, especially in the marginalized sections of the society. Dowry demands are higher and women who are illiterate also face several atrocities.
My combat against the social evil of dowry and trafficking started after I saw the problems I faced during my sister’s marriage. That motivated me to work for the upliftment of uneducated girls and women and the patriarchal mindset of the society. That ultimately led me to establish the Ladli Foundation Trust. I started involving communities to support underprivileged girls to make them skilled through free computer training and organizing mass weddings and verifying prospective grooms.
We have also assisted in the liberation of thousands of women and children from sexual abuse and exploitation and empowered them to become self-reliant.
Give: Tell us about Pathanshala. Was making education accessible difficult during the pandemic?
DK: Yes, it was difficult to continue our Pathanshala classes as most of our team members were busy arranging food and relief materials for the affected. But gradually, we developed a mechanism where our volunteers started involving the parents to use their mobile phones to let their children take part in Pathanshala classes through Zoom.
Give: Reports say drug abuse and addiction soared among slum children during the pandemic? How did project ‘Josh’ handle it?
DK: We had to stop a few of our projects during the pandemic as they involved connecting in-person and physical training. But we tried to be in touch with our beneficiaries and involved them in regular yoga, home-based physical activities, etc.
Give: What are three things that help you stay active and motivated?
DK: My action research projects and regular interaction with beneficiaries always motivate me to find better solutions for holistic and sustainable development. Conceptualizing a new initiative, its impact assessment and positive results makes me more passionate. Every time something works out, I feel that the purpose of my life for which I have been selected is getting fulfilled. Every time I see any of my beneficiaries smiling gives me immense satisfaction and the energy to work harder.
Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan
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