Letters from Sri Lanka – Sarvodaya Catches Those Who Fall Through the Cracks

Part VIII of a series – If you haven’t already, please read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI and Part VII before continuing. This series is part of my work for the Sustainable (R)evolution book project.

I didn’t have the heart to photograph her. It felt obscene to do so. She smiled at me – the strange white man with the camera – as she played with the other children. I did my best to smile back, a challenge to do so, whilst fighting back tears…. This little girl was only about six or seven, I would guess. The right side of her face and body was just like that of any other beautiful little girl, while the other was a gnarled mess of burned flesh that made one wince just thinking of the pain she must have endured, and weep contemplating the pain she will yet feel as she matures and begins to consider her own future.

She was one of dozens of children Sarvodaya was taking care of at one of their many volunteer-run, internationally-sponsored centres – this one a ‘Nutrition Centre for Abandoned and Malnourished Babies’. Children here are either abandoned by desperate or negligent parents, or have been plucked from the same by concerned authorities. This particular little girl suffered at the hands of an angry father who must have brought her to within an inch of her life. The left side of her head was missing all but a few small clumps of hair, her left eye all but melted over, the fingers on her left hand were melted to two or three centimetres shorter than they should have been. Her entire left side was a taut scar. She was a walking tragedy, yet she giggled and played quietly with all the other children – all of whom had their own, albeit less visible, tragedies.

There was the toddler who’d been brought to the centre after being found abandoned under a tree – at an approximated age of 15 days. There was the newborn in the cot, sleeping soundly, blissfully unaware of his own rejection. The list went on and on….

I wondered – who would care for these, if Sarvodaya did not?

A map on the wall marked out similar sites around the tear-drop shaped nation. There were homes for girls, homes for boys, homes for disabled women, elders’ homes, special education units, nutrition centres and transit homes – all forming a net with which to catch those falling through tears in our economic and social fabric.

In another part of the country I entered a Sarvodaya girl’s home – to be greeted with smiles and shy and polite greetings from previously abandoned and/or abused girls. They had just got back from their local school and through translation I tried to bring some interest to their day by answering their questions and sharing some tales – whilst working hard to bury my emotions for the moment. The girls sang us a song before we left, before settling down to do their homework.

The Sarvodaya network includes more than 10,000 volunteers nationwide. Vital projects such as these children’s homes utilise a fair proportion of these.

On this website, via posts and numerous comments, we’ve had some interesting discussions on economic systems. I’ve observed many subscribing to opinions on political ideologies from left to right and everything in between. There are not a few who hold their ideal as being a completely free market, unfettered by the control or constraints of centralised politics. However, throughout these discussions I’ve yet to see anyone spell out in detail, in practical ways, how such a system can succeed in building a win-win-win framework for people and place.

A young girl learns practical skills at a Sarvodaya training centre, with which
she can use to take care of her family and perhaps start her own cottage industry

Whilst I sympathise with all who seek freedom, I’ve had to constantly press the point that complete freedom only works for the betterment of society if it is wielded by an holistically-educated and ethically-minded populace – who understand the connections between elements and functions in our socio-political and literal environment, and who put the rights and interests of others before their own. And, when I say ‘others’, I mean all we share this planet with – both human and non-human. From what I can see, the free market model otherwise degenerates into what we see today – a competition- and greed-based system that inevitably leads to centralising wealth for a few and creating injustices for the rest, whilst the environment, instead of being a treated as a precious gift and a system of life support all have a right to benefit from and a responsibility to protect, is instead looked upon as a commodity to be capitalised upon for short term gain.

The implications from these diverging views on economics are significant. As well as environmental destruction, misapplied economic theory results in social inequalities that lead many into financial distress and personal despair. The last fifty years, for example, has witnessed a massive demographic shift of the world’s population – from rural homesteads into urban slums. An increasingly free market capitalist system has to a large extent facilitated this shift, as ambitious business minded people move into unregulated territory – to then grow their respective businesses and shape society around their need for labour and resources.

In this scenario, people with no skills, no money, no possessions or who are otherwise socially, physically or mentally disadvantaged, have little or no value for the system. If you have no value to The Man, you are ignored by him. You simply fall through the cracks as the wheels of commerce grind on, oiled by the labours of others who can be utilised. The fact that the U.S. now has more prisoners than farmers is a case in point.

Admittedly, support for the unfortunate may come by way of voluntary contributions, but often does so by way of a PR campaign that seeks to whitewash over other social or environmental indiscretions. And, such support ignores root causes – that it is this industrial-economic focus of society that creates the environment of which these unfortunates are often but symptoms.

How do we ensure we take care of those that fall through the cracks?

People often use the term ‘the human family’. In a family we don’t expect the same level of input from all, do we? Your five year old is not expected to labour until dusk – he seemingly has nothing to contribute at this point, economically, yet he is taken care of as well as any other family member. Should society function as a business, or as a family, or with some kind of blend of the two? How do we protect and nurture all in the human family, whilst building an environment that reduces the incidence of social dysfunction?

One of the most significant changes we can make, I believe, is moving towards a more relocalised system. Modern industry, by dealing and exchanging at the greatest distances and with people they have no connection with, are able to easily shirk social responsibilities. Out of sight is out of mind. Bringing social interactions and economic trading back to your neighbourhood brings back familiarisation and recognition, and with it, empathy and increased social conscience.

In the meantime, while we ponder these questions, Sarvodaya is doing what they can.

Continue on to read Part IX




One thought on “Letters from Sri Lanka – Sarvodaya Catches Those Who Fall Through the Cracks

  1. Very heartwarming. And superbly insightful at the same time. Reading articles like this one reaffirms my faith in permaculture.

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