India’s informal workers who build cities brick by brick and who help maintain these are often denied a roof of their own.
Moved by this realization, Brother Varghese Theckanath of the Montfort Brothers of St Gabriel took it upon himself to organize urban poor dwellers and informal workers.
Unmindful of the filth and squalor in the slums, the religious brother lived in a shanty in Musanagar on the banks of Musi River in Hyderabad.
“My congregation welcomed the move as it was perhaps the first of its kind by the Church in India,” said Brother Varghese who now heads the Montfort Social Institute.
“In my ten years’ stay in the slums, I was evicted five times,” he said.
His efforts, however, resulted in the establishment of the Slum People’s Federation. He was also able to start the “Campaign for Housing and Tenurial Rights” of the workers through collective action.
Brother Varghese’s work has borne fruit after the state government allocated five percent of the city for informal workers. The government is now building 100,000 two-room units for poor workers.
Syed Bilal, vice president of the group Human Rights Forum and a community leader, said the religious brother is the slum dwellers’ “savior.”
In 1997, the state government came up with a project that required the demolition of the slums, but Brother Varghese organized the “Musi Bachao Andalon” or “Save the River Musi” movement.
“So strong was his advocacy that we have stayed put in the area for the past 23 years,” said Bilal, adding that the religious brother has been helping the the people with legal aid.
According to a 2011 census, one-third of India’s population lives in slums, with the state of Andhra Pradesh having 36.1 percent. Hyderabad alone has 1,450 slums.
In his work, Brother Varghese takes comfort in the words of St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort who said that “those whom the world rejects must move you the most.”
When he became the provincial superior of his congregation in 2009, the brother started the Montfort Social Institute that aims “to protect human rights, provide sustainable development through grassroots activism, advocacy for policy reform, and education for transformation.”
During the pandemic, the institute collaborated with UNICEF to create awareness about COVID-19 and promote the vaccination program in the slums.
“COVID patients in the slums have not been able to isolate due to the small size of their dwellings, resulting in the infection of the entire family,” noted the religious brother.
His institute was able to provide 17,000 families with food and essentials during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020 and through loans for workers who lost their livelihood.
A skill development center for transgenders — Transgender Entrepreneurship Centre — in Hyderabad was set up to help them become “independent entrepreneurs.”
Community members started making and marketing pickles and ginger-garlic paste that became popular.
Meera Jasmine, a transgender, described Brother Varghese as “godsend” especially after landlords started throwing out tenants who could not pay their rent.
The religious brother also became instrumental in organizing a “children’s parliament” in the slums of Hyderabad “to promote democratic culture and awareness on governance.”
Brother Varghese also launched a mediation and legal aid helpline dubbed “India Labourline” that provides legal aid for unorganized workers, supporting them in disputes related to wage, worksite accidents, harassment. and bonded labor issues.
The religious brother has become a recipient of national and international awards for his work, including the “National Teachers Award” for work in the field of education for establishing 27 schools in the slums.