Volume 18 Number 4
Shining a Light of Hope
01 August 2005

Amidst the slums of Pune, Pamela Jenner discovers an organization which is bringing hope to the city’s poorest inhabitants.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said recently that Pune ‘stands out as a great symbol of nationalism and modernization in India’s quest for modern renaissance’. Home to the prestigious University of Pune—known as the ‘Oxford of the East’—its city centre buzzes with western style restaurants, shops and bars.

However, even up-and-coming Pune has its darker side. Mushrooming under luxury flats lie huge slums—squeezing in between new developments and along the railway line.

In the overcrowded alleyways of the Ramtekadi, Bibwewadi and Tadiwala Road slums, I went to find out about an organization called Deep Griha, (lighthouse)—whose dedicated workers are bringing light to the lives of thousands of India’s most vulnerable citizens.

Founded in 1975 by Rev Bhaskar Onawale and his wife, Neela, a medical doctor, Deep Griha aims to empower the women and children of Pune’s slums by providing a range of services: from crèches to adult education, technical training courses to school drop-out schemes and medical programmes.

Like many charities, Deep Griha began as a small organization; operating from a room in the Onawales’ home, with minimal funding.

Dr Neela Onawale, as the only staff member, gave medical treatment to a growing number of slum dwellers. She quickly recognized that malnourishment was a major cause of illness and developed a nutrition programme. Then came crèches and pre-schools, allowing parents to work while ensuring their children received nourishing meals each day.

As the needs of the community developed and changed, so has Deep Griha. Today its social workers meet regularly with the families of the children they care for and self-help groups are available for parents. Interest-free loans are available to help start up businesses, and credit cooperatives have been formed in slums and selected villages.

Earlier this year Deep Griha launched a project for people living with HIV/AIDS, funded initially by the Church of Scotland. The scheme will not only provide access to good nutrition and medical treatment, it also aims to lessen the stigma attached to this disease within the community.

During my visit I took a trip into the countryside to see the organization’s latest major project, the ‘City of Child’. This is a complex where orphans and children from single parent families can live, be educated, and get a taste of rural life. Much of the site has now been completed and includes accommodation blocks; a large modern kitchen and dining area; a farm; and a playground, built by pupils from the British boarding school, Gordonstoun.

The Onawales want City of Child to be a safe haven for some of the most vulnerable in society—a place for children, women and families to come to recuperate, re-evaluate and focus on their future. They are a deeply caring couple who, despite a busy schedule, seem to have time for everyone.

I descended on them at just a couple of hours notice and yet was welcomed with open arms, provided with excellent accommodation in their house for volunteers, and treated like one of their own family. In fact I now feel, after only a few days with them, that I have made lifelong friends, and I suspect many others who meet the Onawales feel just the same.

Pamela Jenner is a British journalist and youth worker with a Diploma in Counselling, who has just spent a three-month sabbatical in India.

Anyone wishing to help Deep Griha can send a donation or sponsor a child through the Aadhar Kendra Sponsorship Programme

To find out more contact deepgriha@vsn.com or visit www.deepgriha.org.


KAMAL DHANERAO is a force to be reckoned with in the slums of Pune.
She runs a self-help group for around 40 women; is a member of a women’s cooperative; battles, on behalf of others, with unscrupulous moneylenders and even takes on errant husbands!

Twenty years ago Kamal was a shy nervous 13-year-old, unable to read or write. Now, however, she is one of Deep Griha’s many success stories.

Learning to read opened up a whole new world for her and gave her the confidence to start a small shop in her home.
She was determined that her own three children, now aged 18 (and studying for a degree), 15 and 13, would stay at school and be educated. Kamal is even teaching her husband to read.

Her work extends far beyond her own family however. Through her self-help group she discovered a woman who was about to commit suicide because of mounting debts to moneylenders.

Kamal tackled the woman’s husband—telling him he was not taking responsibility for the family finances and threatening him with the police if he did not mend his ways. There was a fierce quarrel but Kamal persisted and now the husband is a changed man.

Another woman was desperate when a moneylender threatened to make her homeless because she was in debt and had no job.

Thanks to Kamal and a women’s credit cooperative, started by Deep Griha, she got a loan to pay off the money and start her own business. Within five months she had almost repaid the money back to the cooperative.

‘Once I could not even read the signs on buses,’ said Kamal.
‘Now, because of Deep Griha, I have been able to read and write, learn how to keep my house clean, find out how to budget and also how to be a good parent.’
Pamela Jenner