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Standing with the community 

Santosh Koshy Joy

Banwasi Seva Ashram (BSA) is a legendary name in the galaxy of Indian voluntary organisation and what makes it distinct is the fact that it has a history as long as that of independent India and was formed on Gandhian principles to serve the regions of eastern Uttar Pradesh. Founded in 1954 with its primary work area in South Sonbhadra, formerly called South Mirzapur, the organisation has a golden past of standing by the masses in times of crisis like severe famine and spread of diseases. The person who leads this organisation is Shubha Behan, the secretary of BSA and a mother figure to hundreds of villages in the region. 

“The mission of the Ashram and its community is to ensure Sarvodaya, the development and rise of all humans irrespective of their caste and creed. We work with the villages under their leadership as ownership is most important in any Gandhian endeavour,” Shubha Behan says. 

The Ashram is a living testimony of Gandhi’s idea of Gram Swarajya. It promotes productive cooperative self-sufficiency and self-reliance at the village level with the involvement of the beneficiary rural community.  Banwasi Seva Ashram’s work strategy involves developing rapport with the indigenous community to understand their basic problems of living and help community members work out the models that can be managed by them with appropriate training and support service. 

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation with the British Government, and under the leadership of Acharya Kripalani, a group of 25 students led by Vichitrabhai left their place and laid the foundation of the Ashram. Gandhian Karan Bhai was the first secretary and the responsibility was passed on to firebrand Gandhian disciple Prem Bhai from Meerut, who looked after the Ashram for more than two decades and after his demise his wife Dr. Ragini Prem, continued the mission till 2014. Her efforts in providing quality healthcare in the remotest areas of the region saved many lives and helped many youngsters select healthcare as a career to serve others. 

Dr. Ragini and Prem Bhai’s legacy of Gandhian service is being driven passionately by their daughter today in the villages of Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Shubha’s sister Vibha, who is a practising doctor is also a partaker in the mission and both sisters live in the Ashram with the community. 

Repeated occurrences of drought and famine and fast degradation of forest and scarcity of water has made the mission of the Ashram more challenging. The problem of the bondage with moneylenders of land and person still remains a big issue in the region. “It’s time for like-minded researchers and volunteers to join hands with the Ashram to work towards a solution for the needy masses of eastern Uttar Pradesh. Gandhian principles of Sarvodaya can be a reality if youngsters take up the mission,” says Shubha Behan. 

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