On a quiet lane in J.P. Nagar I Phase, a whirlwind is at work. Amid colourful piles of handmade paper, Saraswathy Ganapathy, project director of the Belaku Trust, is answering phones, scribbling notes, directing volunteers, and scrutinising a turtle-shaped stuffed toy that, to the women that made it, is a means to a better life.
Her energy is contagious and her passion for Belaku, a non-government organisation that aims to improve the lives of the villages of the nearby Kanakapura taluk, is unlimited.
“Just 15 km from Bangalore, women were slapped in local hospitals for making sounds during labour, were terribly undernourished, working yet feeding babies, and being deprived of a responsive system and birthing advice owing to changes in the traditional family. It was so inequitable,” Dr. Ganapathy says, remembering the late 80s and the 90s in the taluk.
A trained paediatrician herself, birthing practices and women’s healthcare became a major concern for her. Armed with initial funding from the World Health Organization, Belaku began work in 1995, and went on to deal with local superstitions, a deluge of social and healthcare issues, political apathy and interestingly, its own struggles. “We discovered that we didn’t have all the answers and that it was all about learning from each other.”
Seeds for Belaku
For Dr. Ganapathy, it’s been a long journey to Belaku: from a childhood “lived across India” with a doctor mother, to going to medical school she “never wanted to”, a 15-year stint in New York City, life in Mumbai, which she “disliked”, to finally settling with her husband, playwright Girish Karnad, in J.P. Nagar (a wilderness in the late 80s) because of “a beloved rain tree whose branches covered the entire plot”.
And, she says, since then, feeding, birthing and health practices in Kanakapura taluk (connected to J.P. Nagar by the winding Kanakapura Road), have improved, and Belaku itself has grown.
Three income generation units — Ushe, Deepa and Kirana — owned and administered by the women of the taluk themselves, make stuffed fabric toys, trendy recycled paper jewellery, embroidered and block printed pouches, stoles, and Belaku’s highly successful handmade paper stationery.
The women earn Rs. 75 to Rs. 180 a day, working six days a week.
Importantly, women have been trained as ‘ gelatis ’ (friends), mentoring others in basic health and birth care practices.
Young women watch their mothers being successful, working women and negotiate for a college education instead of an early marriage.
“At the end of the day, you realise how health is inextricably linked to everything else — caste, women’s status, education. But the system grinds along and doesn’t seem to acknowledge that it is there for the purpose of serving people. Things may not change in my lifetime, but at least there’s a glimmer of hope.”