Born In A Slum, This Activist Seeks To Create Change From Within

Born In A Slum, This Activist Seeks To Create Change From Within

FPJ Web DeskUpdated: Friday, October 27, 2023, 12:40 PM IST
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Deepak Sonawane, founder of Bhakar Foundation |
Dr Vaijayanta Anand, associate professor, College Of Social Work, Nirmala Niketan

Dr Vaijayanta Anand, associate professor, College Of Social Work, Nirmala Niketan |

Sonawane named his Bhakar Foundation after the Maharashtrian flatbread, the common man’s food. His organisation works on hunger alleviation, nutrition and menstrual hygiene.

Mumbai: Raised by a single mother in a slum in the suburb of Goregaon, Deepak Sonawane has a first hand understanding of the issues he now deals with professionally. “Several non-governmental organisations worked here, helped us, and even helped me personally,” he said. “But why can't an organisation from within the community grow and do the same for its own?”

Sonawane started Bhakar Foundation in 2019, to address issues of those worried about their “don velyachi bhakar” (twice-a-day bread).

Only a few months after Bhakar Foundation was established, the Covid-19 pandemic struck and the latent need for an organised mobilisation of aid  within the local community became apparent. “We started distributing food and meals to the locals as well as to the migrant workers stuck here. We followed up with them and also started counselling services,” Sonawane recounted. 

Currently, Bhakar foundation works towards building awareness of  menstrual hygiene, improving food security and transforming the nutritional index of the area. Additionally, Bhakar Foundation works to create a safe community for young people, spreading awareness on sexual  abuse. “We are also working on building a children's community through the collective joy of learning, playing and food,” Sonawane said. 

The 30-year-old credits all the work that his foundation has managed to do to the ground research and outreach by his team. “We started giving protein-rich diet to the kids whose growth and weight were not proportional to their age,” he said. They continuously monitored these children and found out that some were suffering from tuberculosis. “The monitoring also helps us in identifying which child might need our intervention for a longer period,” he said. 

Inspired by his mother who still works as a domestic worker, Sonawane pursued a law degree after completing a bachelor’s degree in social work. 

"My mother was always ahead of her times. She was pregnant during the riots of 1992, but would still go to work. She used to bring old clothes, food and other items for her less fortunate neighbours. She was the only one who stood by my sister when she married a man of a different religion. It is because of her that I am working for our community,” he said. 

Dr Vijayanta Anand, associate professor at the College of Social Work, Nirmala Niketan, said Deepak was her student some years back, but she got to know him better around 2019 when he was mulling the idea of setting up Bhakar Foundation in Goregaon's Bhagat Singh Nagar while she was working on a field action project for senior citizens.  

Social work students are taught about a model in which a community takes responsibility to resolve its own issues, where a community centre becomes a point of convergence for services, skill training, etc. "All components of the community become empowered and skilled in such a model," Dr Anand said, "and I was amazed that this was his approach too."

During the pandemic, overwhelmed by the amount of aid material he was receiving, he would contact Dr Anand for help in planning and prioritising, and in order to be proactive to get particular kinds of aid. 

He started with readymade food packets, then began to get and distribute rations. "He was particularly sensitive to the needs of those who may be neglected by families, such as senior citizens, disabled, etc," Dr Anand said. "He began to ensure that special kits were given directly to abandoned women, trans persons, senior citizens, and others."

More than just bail people out of a situation of distress, he also tried to help the most needy groups, such as malnourished children, for a sustained period of time in order to ensure real impact. 

Dr Anand said Sonawane also has deep connections with non-binary people, including young people struggling with their identity. He used his networking skills to use the tempo network within the community, then worked at the ward level with aid for people outside Bhagat Singh Nagar, he connected other non-profit groups, and ensured that Bhakar Foundation runs through its volunteer youngsters, even when he is not himself present. 

"He has a childlike enthusiasm," said Dr Anand. "There is a real  need for organisations like Bhakar Foundation, which are run by individuals who know best what the community needs, and where the community knows best what the organisation must do for them."

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