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a way of life
by Bijoy Basant Patro

The Brahmaputra River, the son of Brahma, floods its basin every year in India's north-eastern state of Assam. Its god-fearing people believe they are cursed to live with floods that become crueller with each passing year. The monsoon floods of last year were the worst Assam's people had seen in living memory. One force stood between the disaster and the people of Assam: Indian Red Cross volunteers. Not many people give up a full-time job to volunteer for a humanitarian cause. But, exceptions can always be found.

Dilip Kumar Saharia left a teaching job that made him 500 rupees a month to become a full-time volunteer. "I always wanted to do something for my community because we are threatened by events beyond our control. The opportunity came when I went to the state capital in Guwahati for first-aid and home-nursing training in 1999. Then come the floods and here I am, working with the communities in Assam since the day flood waters submerged their villages."

A group of 40 Indian Red Cross volunteers organized themselves to reach 70 flood-ravaged villages in Mongaldai district, mostly on bicycles. Dilip and his friends, Jayanta and Madhu, took part in this action and worked among the flood victims even though their own families were just as badly affected. In flood situations, snakebites are common and volunteers expose themselves to such risks. Dilip recalls that during the initial days of the disaster, "the three of us administered first aid to almost 1,000 people."

Mongaldai district's Red Cross secretary, Professor Rajen Barua reflects on the sacrifices of people like Dilip, "Some may think that 500 rupees a month is hardly a sacrifice, but here there are no allowances for unemployed youth and 500 rupees can provide some food."

So, how do volunteers like Dilip feed themselves? Dilip, Madhu and Jayanta proudly say, "We have earned the love of the villagers. When we go to a village, somebody always feeds us, even if it is a very frugal meal. We love this."

There was nothing stopping these men. Their personal determination is equally matched by the credibility the villagers give to the Red Cross. As Jayanta says, "The entire village comes around the Red Cross flag."

Today, Assam branch volunteers are active as community health workers and traditional birth attendants in 20 districts. Volunteers are the backbone of a massive health and hygiene awareness campaign. They train children in the villages in elementary first aid and preventive health care, like boiling drinking water to minimize the risk of water-borne diseases.

Volunteers like Dilip bring their skills as teachers to train and inform villagers. They complement mobile clinics of the Federation that reach remote villages where common and serious ailments were treated by faith healers.

Through the local action of volunteers many villagers across the world now have access to basic ealth education and care.


Act locally!

The year 2001 is the UN International Year of Volunteers. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has called on governments to improve the legal, fiscal and political base for volunteering. During the 1990s, the Movement noted a significant decrease in the number of volunteers globally. This prompted a decision to implement a plan of action to develop better leadership, support and structures to improve the recruitment, training, mobilization and retention of volunteers.

Volunteers make a real difference in people's lives. They live in every community and they act locally. The Federation is calling on its more than 97 million members and volunteers to engage in National Society services, participate in designing innovative community-oriented programmes, and make a special commitment to join forces in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

This year the Movement takes the opportunity to celebrate the awarding of the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Dunant, the founder and volunteer leader of the Red Cross.


Since the floods of July 2000, and with support from the Federation, 300 volunteers have been trained. Of these, 40 have qualified as full-time master trainers who go back to their communities and train other volunteers in preventive health care as well as basic information on disaster relief.

These days people like 70-year-old Nabin Daka, who have never left their villages, have access to both basic health care as well as to information disseminated through the local volunteers. As Dr. Jari Vainio of the Federation's delegation points out, "This is where the excellent relations between volunteers and vulnerable communities come into focus. They have brought about a profound change by persuading villagers to visit mobile clinics and receive the treatment they need."

The engagement of new and youthful volunteers has revolutionized the Red Cross's on-going programmes in Assam.

Bijoy Basant Patro
Bijoy Basant Patro is Federation information officer at the South Asian regional delegation, New Delhi.

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