(Clockwise from above) Playtime on the Ekprantanagar School campus
Remember Father Stephan Kovalski, the Polish priest who lived and worked in the slums of Calcutta in Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy? Metro met one of the inspirations behind the character 40 years down the line as he continues his work among the underprivileged in Howrah, Siliguri and Asansol.
Father Francois Laborde came to India in 1965, first to the south, before arriving in Calcutta, where he lived and worked in the slums of Pilkhana in Howrah, which is where the story of City of Joy is based.
“I went to south India to learn about Indian culture and to understand it but my aim always was to reach Calcutta,” said the 87-year-old French priest who started Howrah South Point, a non-profit organisation working for the rehabilitation of children living with disability, education of underprivileged children and providing health care for them.
What started with eight volunteers and a handful of children in 1976 in the compound of the Mother Mary Girja, off Andul Road in Howrah, has grown to include nine homes, three formal and five non-formal schools, three creches, three specialised schools, vocational training centres and dispensaries and 300 social workers reaching out to over 100,000 people in Howrah, Jalpaiguri and Asansol.
Father Laborde in his office
“Cardinal Picachy insisted on us starting something for the underprivileged in Howrah and we started immediately in the compound of the church where I was in charge,” said the soft-spoken Father Laborde, who still rides a motorcycle (because it gives him freedom of movement and the youngsters in the bus do not want to give up their seat!) and rules with an iron fist.
Howrah South Point caters mostly to those living in the slums of Howrah but also has people coming in all the way from places like South 24-Parganas and Midnapore.
“In a slum it is very difficult for children with disabilities as most of them live in single rooms and there is no scope to develop,” said Father Laborde.
Howrah South Point was registered as an organisation in 1980, and five years later it moved to its own premises at Lalkuthi.
Early on a Monday morning, Metro took a tour of the haven that Father Laborde and his army have built with a lot of love and care.
Asha Neer St. Mary’s Home: Set up in 2004, this is one of the three homes for children living with disabilities as well as some socially and economically disadvantaged children. It has a garden, play area, messes, dorms and therapy rooms and a specialised school for children living with disabilities who cannot be integrated in the mainstream. At present there are 120 students, 86 of whom are living with disabilities.
Pushpa Children’s Home: Housed in the same compound as Asha Neer, this home is dedicated to children suffering from tuberculosis. It is jointly run by Howrah South Point and German Doctors, who serve on six-month rotations.
Creche at BISCO brickfield: A tin-covered small space divided into three classrooms and a separate section with rockers fashioned out of cloth for infants, this creche is one of the three run by Howrah South Point and caters mostly to the labourers in the field. It doubles as a non-formal school where children are taught letters and numbers.
“Most of the people here are migrant workers from neighbouring states and many of them don’t remain in the same place for long. We wanted to make the life of the women working in the brickfields simpler. They now leave their children here and come back to feed them and take them back home once their shift is over,” said Elena Tirkey, one of the members of Howrah South Point.
Ekprantanagar (EPN) School: It’s the first formal education school established by Howrah South Point. Close to the EPN brickfields, this free school caters mainly to the local community that includes a lot of migrant workers. With 706 students being instructed in Bengali and Hindi, the school is much sought-after.
“Our students go on to other schools and do really well. Our reputation has drawn interest even from the well-to-do families in the area but we are a free school and are keener on taking kids from BPL (below poverty line) families,” said headmaster Sudip Baidya.
AIS Training Centre: A non-formal school for drop-outs, here students are taught to read and write to help them return to mainstream education. Students who have been helped by the NGO are eager to give something back. Like 25-year-old Renu Lohar, who taught at the centre while she awaited her college results earlier this year.
Lalkuthi home: The first home to be set up by Howrah South Point, Lalkuthi runs like a well-oiled machine under Agnes Baroi. It also has a vocational training centre where girls are taught handicrafts like batik work. At present Lalkuthi has 52 children. All the boarders study in mainstream government or private schools in the area.
Children being taught at the BISCO creche. Pictures by Sayantan Ghosh
Entrepreneur and t2 columnist SWATI GAUTAM is involved with Howrah South Point. After visiting the Jalpaiguri wing of HSP, she penned an account for Metro
Mariabasti, Jordighi, Mogradangi and Bakuabari. These are four residential homes where children of all ages living with disabilities — and some adults with mental disabilities too — have found a caring, secure space. Situated between Siliguri and Jalpaiguri, Bakuabari and Jordighi are almost on the highway, while Mariabasti and Mogradangi are quite a distance from the main road.
As the vehicle carrying me trundled along, I wondered how The Old Father (that’s how Fr Laborde refers to himself in his communication with me!) must have accessed and then set up these homes many decades back.
Mariabasti was his first stop, given that a small Catholic set-up was already in existence in the village. They graciously offered The Old Father some space. I wondered how Father Laborde would have travelled to and from Mariabasti in the early 1980s. It seems they walked for kilometres and then reached a local train station that would take them up to New Jalpaiguri and then the main line went on to Howrah. Most noble-hearted folks would have given up, but not The Old Pop!
The “big girls” of Mariabasti were waiting for me, home-grown flowers in hand. As I moved in to hug them, I got a dozen or more hugging me back. Moist eyes were difficult to keep at bay.
Also in the group was a beautiful and petite young foreigner in a cotton salwar kameez, barefeet like the other residents, but with glasses framing intelligent eyes. That was Hortense Charignon, a lawyer from France, who was spending six months in this remote location, working as a companion to the girls.
Hortense has picked up basic Bengali words and said she had finally adjusted to Mariabasti after an initial bout of illness. They also showed me the workshop where the residents make jute products and candles for sale.
Jordighi is more sprawling. This home houses boys who need orthopaedic help and also those in need of shelter and education. I was taken to the ortho-workshop, where callipers for kids are made on the advice of doctors (the German Doctors have always been very supportive of HSP and often perform surgeries to correct physical handicaps).
The efficient and smiling Mita didi is in charge of the youngest boys. Mita is from the Sunderbans and said she was happy in Jordighi as it gave her a chance to serve.
Mogradangi was the third home set up in north Bengal by Father Laborde and his team in the early 1980s. On one side of the home is the formal school building in which the children study, along with local kids from the village and beyond.
Bakuabari is the largest of the homes with three different units: Jeewan Path houses adult males with mental disabilities. Anand Dhara houses teenage girls from middle to high school, some from poor families and others living with physical disabilities. Nirmala Niwas houses younger children living with mental disabilities, who form the largest group at Bakuabari.
I met French physiotherapist Pascale Cochet, who comes to Bakuabari every year to train the staff. Pascale showed me the rooms where the children learn and sleep. Each one has a tiny cot with a tiny mosquito net. Outside, I spotted a large clay stove under a shed with some young women preparing large amounts of food. I wondered why they needed to slog over clay stoves and was told that a home the size of Bakuabari requires 16 domestic LPG cylinders a month and with the inflated prices of LPG, they’ve had to resort to firewood fuel for cooking.
Solar panels have been installed in all four homes to heat water for cooking and for the little ones to bathe. But with the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency not extending a subsidy, the homes find it difficult to extend solar power generation, despite having enough land and adequate sunlight.
I spent the night at Bakuabari. Moving through the stillness, I peeped into a room where the older girls were sitting in a semi-circle and studying, supervised by a teacher “didi”. I wanted to take a picture but I didn’t want to disturb them.