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
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.
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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