We are one drop in the ocean, but every drop counts, says Father Noel Maddhichetty, leader of one of the leading charity organisations in India

Father Noel Maddhichetty is the leader of the Salesian Order of Don Bosco in India and the director of the Bosconet platform, which is one of the biggest charity organizations operating in Southeast Asia. In this interview he openly speaks about the socially vulnerable and marginalized, the fight for women's rights and equality, the necessity of education, the climate change, and his mission to enable dignified living for everyone without any exemption. A strong interview indeed. 

India is facing challenging times: after the first wave of Covid in 2020, the intense second wave is more massive and more dangerous to human life. The rapid spread of the virus leading to a shortage of oxygen and an overstressed health care system has aroused concern worldwide, and every country, including the Czech Republic, has come for help. Unlike the first wave in 2020, people are more scared now. Also, the government is in a more complicated situation than the last time. Borders are closed and resources are scarce. Fortunately, the epidemiological "reproduction factor," showing how quickly the virus is spreading is going down. Great! And there are also angels: people and organizations that bypassed traditional structures and support the sick, poor, people from slums, and women from the countryside.

One of the largest non-profit organizations in this area is Bosconet, the resource mobilization unit of Salesians of Don Bosco, well-known monastic order of the Catholic Church. Bosconet runs hundreds and hundreds of schools, agriculture collectives and health centers. It enables underprivileged children to get quality education, supports gender equality or empowers villagers how to establish micro-businesses and become self-reliant. It actively promotes technology everywhere and also established Green Alliance to fight climate change. Now their key activity is, of course, to defend people against Covid. Not only their health but also their livelihood and dignity. To achieve all of that, Bosconet is a massive organization, connecting almost 3000 Salesian brothers and sisters, 50000 collaborators and 354 Salesian NGOs.

The leader of this vast charity is Father Noel Maddhichetty, former  Provincial Salesian order from Hyderabad and CEO of Bosconet. He oversees operations in India and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Gulf Countries, and his work directly supports 3 million individuals. Great having you, Father!

Happy to be here.  Thank you for allowing me to talk about our work. Let’s start first by telling you who we are. Our organization, Don Bosco Network  South Asia - Bosconet, is a part of the global platform of Don Bosco Network, which is present in 134 countries and is divided into eight regions. India is part of the South Asian regions. Don Bosco Network South Asia primarily consists of the large sub-continent of India, along with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. India itself is one of the youngest nations in the world with about 65% of the population coming under the age group of 35. While this ‘demographic dividend’ offers great opportunities against aging developed nations, this also poses challenges to stabilizing the economy which can offer and sustain appropriate education, skills and all-around development of the youth in India.

This is not just about economic stability, but about inclusive development and honourable living. That is why, in India we run 500 Don Bosco Centres focused on youth services of empowering education for the marginalized youth, training on skills for sustainable livelihood, and higher education centres. The signature work of Don Bosco mission is for vulnerable youth, like street children, child labour and marginalized youth. Our founder Don Bosco began his mission to reach out to homeless youth, neglected by the society at his home in Turin, Italy. Continuing the mission of Don Bosco our mission today is, forming young people to be self-reliant citizens of the world who will responsibly contribute to care for our planet earth. The target group of Don Bosco are children, youth, women,  people living in slums, people in rural and tribal regions in a vast spectrum of marginalized situations and vulnerability

What is your history in India?

Wow, that’s really a huge structure, somewhat similar to large corporation.

The Don Bosco mission began in 1906 when the first expedition of members of Don Bosco Society set foot on Indian soil at Tanjore, in Tamil Nadu State. The year 2006 marked 100 years of service of Salesian of Don Bosco in India. In over 110 Years the Don Bosco movement in India has weaved into a variety of networks of youth services.

Don Bosco Network has been empowering youth since 1906 with a presence across 350 districts, with beneficiaries in over 30,000 villages. We have 72 cities Don Bosco “Young at Risk” centres rehabilitated 59,500 street and missing children. Over the years we have opened 267  formal schools which offer integrated, quality education to 240,000 students. We also run 112 technical schools and 400 short term skill training centres, given opportunities to over 800 thousand youth from below the poverty line and ensured employment through 52 job placement centres. Being aware of the gender imbalance in India we have also formed over 9,600  women Self Help Groups to enable gender justice and socio-economic upliftment for over 110 thousand women.

Overall we have a massive network with infrastructure and human resources of 500+ institutions across 186+ major cities. We also have a very strong intervention dealing with climate issues. We have DB Green Alliance international movement, which networks all initiatives against climate change. Disaster preparedness and management are major interventions. In India cyclones, floods and typhoons occur annually and now we have the unprecedented health disaster of the COVID pandemic.

The motto of our founder, John Bosco, is to make youth, true believers and good citizens. Walking in the footsteps of Don. Bosco, the mission of Bosconet is to develop and mobilise resources, collaborate with all the existing Don Bosco Networks and resource sharing partners for the upliftment of marginalized youth. This makes the slogan of Bosconet as “partners for empowering self-reliant people”. In order to achieve this goal, around 2,800 Don Bosco fathers and brothers are engaged in the Don Bosco Mission in South Asia. While Salesians of Don Bosco render our service to both boys and girls, we also have 1600 Don Bosco sisters’ congregations working with girls only. Apart from fathers and sisters, we have a huge number of laypeople: we have around 50,000 collaborators. So, we are a big family.

It's really a massive organization, almost 2800 brothers and  1600 sisters, 50,000 collaborators, networks of youth services. How do you feel about being a CEO of and running such a platform 360 NGOs?

I would not assume to be the CEO of the Don Bosco. This is the first time I have been addressed as the CEO (smile); Bosconet being a faith-based organisation, operates differently from a corporate structure. We have a good internal structure and system to coordinate. The role of Bosconet and my role would be one of managing the network of 360 NGOs. Most policies and plans are processed in a participatory manner in the perioding Don Bosco Network meetings. It gives us visibility to be one large Don Bosco Network. This image of a large network gives bargaining power to mobilise and develop resources from foundations, corporates, donor agencies, individual donors, other networks and government agencies. Networking and giving visibility to Don Bosco works is the key to keeping our vast organization running and fulfilling our purpose.

In our resource mobilisation drive with corporate partners, we got in touch with Home Credit last year. Home Credit was the first partner to reach out to us with a great spirit of solidarity towards people in dire need during the first wave of COVID 19. We were able to join forces and did some charity work feeding the poor in Delhi.

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You mentioned one very important thing. Don Bosco and the Salesian brothers are well known for empowering children. Your schools are renowned all around the world. But what's interesting is that now you have the second pillar of your activities: climate-related issues. Can you tell us a little bit about how this happened? How did Catholic monks get involved in fighting climate change?

To begin with, our mission was only to help build a world, where everyone lives in dignity and peace. Therefore, this means dignity and quality of life for everyone, especially for vulnerable people. And part of this world-building is also protection of our planet Earth which is our home. Caring for the environment has evolved more over the past few years when Pope Francis wrote impact making letter “Laudato Si,” giving a strong message to the world to protect Earth.  So now, I would say that our mission is to create dignified life for everyone and live in harmony with nature. We want to be productive citizens while preserving our environment.  Keeping to the UN objectives of sustainable development goals and the climate change concerns, Bosconet networked all the green initiatives in the Don Bosco Network South Asia and launched the movement of Don Bosco Green Alliance, which has now snowballed into an international movement.

Are you really running climate protection programs?

We have several initiatives, which are taking place under our Don Bosco Network promoting climate care programs. The Don Bosco Green Alliance website showcases all the green initiatives of Don Bosco in the world. We have a whole range of interventions to promote green energy, conservation of water, waste management, growing the green cover,  organic farming. Our ambition is to turn all the Don Bosco centres into green campuses. While there is a whole program of education and the formation of eco clubs in schools, there are also development programs to reduce carbon footprint. We are also building small hydropower plants and promote solar power. In the states of Andhra and Telangana in India, all the Don Bosco Centres are powered by solar energy. This is a trendsetting model for the whole Don  Bosco world and others. We are very interested to promote initiatives to reduce the CO2 in all our developmental programs.

You’re almost a tech company...

Yeah, we do a lot in terms of energy. But, we are continuously working on other issues, like plastic and waste management. We also promote organic farming with our women groups. We now have many agricultural projects, where we try to bring in organic farming and stay away from fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture. We also do a lot of green farming education, promoting it among farmers as much as possible.

From what I have read on your website, you are also involved in micro-entrepreneurial area.

Most of our women's groups are somehow connected to entrepreneurship. Previously, we only focused on young people in an isolated manner living out of families. However, over the decades, we have realized that solely focusing on young people in a country like India is not enough. If women are not empowered, we run the risk of children falling into a neglected state or a state of danger. Therefore, for the past three decades, we are promoting economic stability and equality for women and marginalized communities. These micro-business programs, financial literacy programs and leadership program empower the women to build their families on sound footing having access to resources to obtain economic stability.

For example, our goal is for women to obtain a healthy diet from their small gardens and then sell the surplus products on the market to make some money. We believe in technology: mechanised planting of crops, drip irrigation, hydroponics, vertical farming and organic farming. We even educate our people on how to grow herbal plants. It's going to take a long time, yes, but many initiatives are now being tested pan India to push these micro-business activities forward.

You mention the role of women a lot. You say they are an important pillar of Indian society. How do you see their situation in India nowadays?

This is a very complex and challenging topic. In 2012,  a young girl was tragically abused in a moving bus in the night in Dehli the capital of India. This dastardly event captured the attention of the nation and triggered public demonstrations and people have voiced their opinions on the safety and protection of women. Following this event, Bosconet launched a concrete initiative of gender equality education program to change the mindset of the teachers and students. However, equal treatment of women in India still poses many questions despite new stringent laws and all the awareness programs. There may be some sort of equality emerging in metropolitan cities. Yes, there has been improvement in job opportunities and political representations, but it is very, very slow. There needs to be a shift in the mindset of Indians when it comes to equality and respect for women.

This brings us back to the purpose and mission of Bosconet and our Order. Women and children are the victims of every tragedy and disaster. It’s a huge concern. So Salesians and Bosconet strongly promote human rights education in all our schools. We have influenced the school syllabus of some states to include human rights education, gender justice program. We also educate educators on these matters. However, we have a long way to go, to achieve gender justice.

You are a Catholic monastic order, part of the Catholic Church. And you are living and working in a very multi-cultural and multi-religious India. You have Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Protestants and many others here. How do you personally see this intercultural dialogue here in the country?

Christianity is deeply embedded here in the cultural ethos of India. It has been here for over 2,000 years, starting from Saint Thomas the Apostle, who brought the good news of Jesus, to the Indian soil. Christians are a minority of hardly 2%,  in the huge population of 1.4 billion. But having said that, I would like to emphasize that Catholic or Christian organizations have enormously contributed to the education, health sector and social development of this country. Everybody knows that and even top genuine leaders of the country acknowledge this fact. It is not only about having premier, high-quality institutions in the metropolitan cities, but about having Christian organizations and charities which reach out to very remote, tribal areas, backward areas and slums to bring literacy, health above all social upliftment of the vulnerable people. This is being a light in the darkness and a leaven transforming whole dough.  

The dialogue with other faiths continues and we hope for more secular ambient. We have a good record of many of the nations’ leaders, educated in our good Christian institution. They know that we not only cover the high-end education but that our mission is mainly to help vulnerable people.
You can even see it now, during Covid, when many of our churches and schools are opening their doors and establishing Covid care centres. For example, we have offered our schools to become Covid care centres and vaccination centres. This is our way of dialogue. It is not an aggressive way of going and preaching, but all know here that Christianity or Catholics are very much open to and secular in thinking and promote peace and harmony. Therefore, if you go to any of our institutions, the maximum number of beneficiaries will either be Hindus or Muslims or any other religion. There is a very small minority of Catholics or Christian beneficiaries.

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When listening to how passionately you advocate your mission among the poor... do you think that Christianity is actually stronger here, in the emerging country than in Europe or the US? Pope Francis also spoke about faith being stronger among the poor in Africa, among the Latinos, and in South East Asia.

I believe that faith can be very, very strong no matter where it is. But what the Pope says is true. Christian roots are deeply embedded in India and the faith is strong here. Being a minority and reaching out to a huge need for education and poverty alleviation in this country is a great witness to humanity, this is the result of our faith being strong.

Poverty is a big problem all around Southeast Asia, even though governments have been doing their best in the past years to really bring people out of poverty. Now, during Covid, poverty is on the rise yet again.  

Yes, unfortunately, I have to say that the situation with the poor is getting worse. Even before Covid, the economic trend in South Asia was already on a downward spiral. The recent economic measure promoted in India have not been very detrimental to the economically lower start of the society and even to the middle-class segment of the population. Covid 19 is an unprecedented disaster that has disrupted every rung of society, on all dimensions. The consequent greater tragedy in India would be economic regression and a huge population deep-diving into poverty.  It would require few decades to get back to where we were before the covid pandemic. I am very concerned about the youth from 18 to 29 age group. India has 400 million youth. It is the biggest youth population in the world. You can call it the biggest workforce in the world. Unfortunately, they don’t have a future. They would be unemployed, with no real stable economic life. What would be their future? Can they even dream of a dignified life?

A new wave of Covid has hit the country quite hard. How would you assess the situation?

The first wave last year was already bad enough because of the lockdown. You must have seen the story of the migrants, millions marching, many of them lost their jobs and India was hit hard. This first wave already left us battered in a bad situation of the economic crunch. Now there is a second wave and people are frightened and scared. I would call it a silent tsunami that is taking away thousands of lives. I would even go as far as to say that people are in great panic. Social media aggravate this fear by promoting half-backed information. Should people earn their livelihood or protect themselves against Covid? Should they quarantine or not? This is the dilemma of the people. If they go out, they are not sure whether they'll come back safe without infection of COVID. There is no choice for more than 40% population who are daily wage earners. They have to go out to earn their bread and butter.

The vaccine was finally rolled out and people are interested. I looked at the status this morning and only 4% of the population seems to at least have got the first dose. There is a long way to before the whole population gets vaccinated. It is a tragic situation for India the pharma centre of the world and has the highest production potential of the vaccine has a huge shortage of vaccine and a lack of cold chain to cover the last mile to vaccinate everyone. And with a population of 1.4 billion, I believe it’ll take another year or two, to vaccinate the whole population. So now everyone is hoping that Covid will go away soon. This is people’s hope and consolation because the medical system has totally collapsed. Doctors and nurses are totally exhausted overload of work. Doctors are making a desperate appeal to people on social media to stay at home, if there’s another wave, we won’t be there to save you. So it is very frightening and grim situation for all of us.

You mentioned the situation of India’s healthcare system. I understand that health care professionals, doctors and nurses are super tired after being on the front lines of this pandemic for so many months. Moreover, the media keeps on telling us that there is a problem with oxygen in India.

Yes, the government, NGOs and businesses are working very hard to provide medical services. Many people are trying to open extra facilities to either care for affected people or to keep people isolated. Even Don. Bosco Network partners, though not health-competent NGOs,  are setting up quarantine facilities, COVID care centres. Bosconet has launched the program COVID 19 Action and Relief Efforts.  We also distribute medical kits with food ration supplies to poor families.

We have set up online and helpline advisory for people, we provide at-home care, treatment and distribute nutrition. The government is also trying to get oxygen to the most critical places, either by train or plane. So, hopefully, it reaches the destinations in time. It is very challenging, but people are working hard to reach out to people in trouble. I am glad to acknowledge and place on record the spirit of solidarity manifested by Home Credit to support us again and stand by the people in need in the Delhi region.  Also from Mr. Duvieusart, your CEO, who himself has contributed a generous grant to Bosconet for COVID relief works. To my knowledge, this is a unique act by a CEO of major company to contribute personally to Don Bosco in India. 

You mentioned that on the one hand, people are in panic mode, agitated by social media. And on the other hand, people aren’t really complying with Covid-related rules - hand hygiene, wearing a mask and their willingness to get vaccinated.

People are confused and many have misconceptions about Covid. They are not educated enough to understand, but there is panic. In addition, the restrictions imposed during the first Covid wave forced the majority of the population to tighten their belts. Many have already spent all their savings. Now that the second wave is here, poor people and a large segment of the middle class find it hard for daily living. The unemployment curve has spiked high. Therefore, they have to go out, to earn some money. Given such circumstances, how many people would follow the Covid regulations? People are even confused about the vaccine. Will it truly help them? It was rushed with proper testing. People are unsure. Even educated people are unsure about it.  

Do you think that the government is doing enough to promote health education and to promote the vaccine?

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I know that adult literacy is also one of your pillar activities in South East Asia.

There are many awareness programs in place. For example, if you call someone, the ringtone on the mobile phone always prompts Covid protocols and regulations. There are many warnings on social media and TV. There are warning posters all over the place.  However, it is still very challenging for the government to convince people who have to make choice a between safety from COVID infection and earning the daily bread.

There was a huge opportunity to strategically plan the prevention of COVID in India, as it enters months after China and the western countries. The foresighted and informed planning was missing. Our healthcare system which inadequate and inaccessible in the normal situation is just not robust enough to handle such a pandemic.  Only about 60% of the people in India are educated. People living in villages and rural areas will not get the necessary awareness and health care system to face the challenges of this pandemic. We also need to focus more on adult literacy to promote basic knowledge among adults.

Yes. We are working on it with the help of  corporate partners like the TATA group. Scaling literacy is possible thanks to digitalization. A lot of our activities are now being run digitally, including online schools during the lockdowns. But I am worried that digitalization is only a partial answer. If things don’t return back to normal soon, youth will not get the proper education and training. This will result in a widening literacy divide and unemployment soar high. Joblessness of huge segment of the population with have a chain reaction and economic degradation in the country.

How many people have access to online education in India?

Hope I am right if I say 30 % of the children have access to on-line education. However, despite having good digital tools, online education is not ideal because children don’t understand half of the concepts being explained, with their limited concentration on the digital screens. And what about the rest of the young students, who don’t have access to online education? This will create a huge gap in education and training, which will in turn impact employment. This digital inequality isn’t only in India but it’s a huge concern for the whole world. Children are desperate and frustrated

You mentioned digital literacy and digitalization. These topics are even popular for the country’s leadership, including Prime Minister Modi. Do you also believe that technology can be the key to rebuilding India post-Covid?

I strongly believe that technology is a very good tool that can bring about change. But how many people have access to technology? Internet access is very limited and unsteady even in cities. In rural and remote regions there is no digital access. Technology should be beneficial and accessible to those in margins of the society. When there is no access it would be another tool to promote vast division in the society.

Bosconet bridges the digital divide by expanding the digital footprint to young people everywhere. We want to give them the opportunity and access to good education and a sustainable livelihood. Wherever possible, we are trying to bring technology into our own interventions so that we can reach vulnerable youth groups, children and women in order to give them the opportunity and access to resources through technology. This would make them self-reliant citizens. That’s why we are trying to create our own innovative ways to broadcast education. For example, via radios, TVs and if there is one cell phone or laptop in the group, we bring a group of children together and televise classes for them, even in slums.

Let's conclude with one, a final question about the future. As a leader of a large organization supporting so many people, what do you think the future has in store for India after Covid?

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. We are a drop in the ocean of need, but every drop counts. And our task is to stay innovative to be able to reach out to more and more people. Our mission is to mobilise resources to facilitate equal access and opportunities to vulnerable people so that they have a dignified life and become productive self-reliant people to care for our planet Earth.

About the author

Jan Ruzicka is Chief External Affairs Officer at the Home Credit Group, the world’s leading consumer finance provider. He now works and lives in Hong Kong from where he is running company networks in the US, Asia and Europe. Before that he lived in Beijing, Cambridge and Prague and for ten years he worked for the Czech government, advocating and shaping the health reform as Director-General at the Ministry of Health. At universities in Asia and Europe Jan teaches Behavioral Economy and the Disruption of Finance and Healthcare. He is especially interested in how innovation can create financial inclusion and health equality.

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