10, Jun 2021 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh
Churki Hansda’s family had to leave their home in Gopalnagar village of Kasba panchayat in Parui in Birbhum district, because they were accused of ‘witchcraft’ by the villagers. They weren’t just blamed for every mishap that happened in the village, but even attacked with sticks and stones.
Slurs of ‘dayan’ or witch, followed them everywhere, till one day the family of six packed up their meagre belongings and moved to Bolpur city. Churki Hansda, now 26, remembers it all as if it was yesterday even though it has been over 15 years since they moved to the city.
Her father worked as a daily wager and the family somehow managed to survive. However, Churki Hansda, felt safe in Bolpur, no one called her a witch, and the best part was that she could continue to study. Churki had by chance, met members of a social organisation called ‘Soochna’ who helped her study. After graduating, she soon joined because she wanted to teach children from socio-economically weaker families. For Churki, an education is the biggest weapon to end poverty and deprivation.
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The brightest one in her entire clan, Churki says she was lucky to come across people who helped her study all she wanted. Today she is a graduate, and is giving back to society.
“I grew up suffering, so I understand human suffering. That is why I am helping others, and standing by the people who once helped me, as much as I can,” says Churki. “Years ago, no one stood by my family. I can’t forget how I felt as a teenager,” she recalls as she bravely dons a PPE kit. She drives the NGO’s vehicle to deliver oxygen to the neediest people, in areas even medical staff are reluctant to go.
Once accused of being a witch, Churki is today a corona-warrior! She can drive, and operate the O2 cylinders, monitor parameters of the patients and get them to a hospital or get a doctor to them when needed. Recognisable from a distance thanks to her PPE uniform, she is greeted with respect and affection wherever she goes.
The eldest of the family, she has two brothers and one sister and the family sets off each day, PPE kit ready and responds to emergency calls for oxygen cylinders and medicines. She used to be a teacher, and learned how to drive the van at the NGO-run school. A skill that made sure more students got an education as the ‘school’ and teachers came to their areas, all thanks to driver-didi Churki. Once the class started, she transformed into teacher-didi.
Churki’s father Badal Hansda gets emotional when he recalls his daughter’s journey, “Once upon a time, the villagers had chased us away on false charges. But that does not mean that our humanity is lost. Churki is serving the people as much as she can in this situation, and I am proud of her.”
However, when the lockdown was announced, the school too had to close, but Churki was quick to figure out a solution to continue helping. She soon started helping with Covid relief work in the area. Her driving skills as well as her people skills were well known and soon, she met up with members of the Bangla Sanskriti Mancha who were active in helping Covid affected families with rations, medications and oxygen.
Churki learnt how to operate the oxygen tanks and concentrators from the volunteer medics, and began driving those to the homes of those who needed it. The NGO ‘charges’ one rupee per tank or concentrator usage per family.
“I consider myself blessed that I could help people in this situation,” says Churki as she drives deep into slums, and areas outside the city limits. Soon, Churki will be driving an ambulance gifted to the organisation, and also continue delivering food from the NGOs community kitchens. All ‘thalis’ cost Rs 1.
“People are pleasantly surprised as she is a young woman who wears a PPE kit and reaches corona patients who are even shunned by family,” said a colleague. “Churki di is so brave… the people love her… I have never met such a brave lady,” is the refrain wherever she goes. “Even the boys in our area don’t know how to drive a car. She has inspired many young women and men to approach the NGO as volunteers,” added another of Churki’s many ‘fans’.
According to Manisha Bandyopadhyay, who is in charge of the Bolpur branch of the Mancha, and works directly with Churki, the young woman has “grown up fighting the odds and now the way she has stood by people in need, is an inspiration.”
Churki and her colleagues of the Mancha have so far reached around 6,000 people with O2 supplies till date. Now they have plans to use social media to spread the word, and once the Covid-19 situation stabilises they will resume driving their mobile library and computer labs to teach the children. Next step for Churki and her colleagues is to set up blood donation camps, a need they foresee.
This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by researcher Ripon Sheikh, who is travelling around rural Bengal, tracking and documenting social and cultural movements of indigenous people.
Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh
This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.