It was a sweltering day in May, and Patna city was in the throes of the second wave of the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Sister Dorothy Fernandez PBVM , the only Presentation sister in the state of Bihar, was knocking at the doors of the home for the destitute women in Padre ki Haveli. The home is run by the Missionaries of Charity, commonly known as the ‘Mother Teresa Sisters’.
Sister Dorothy sought refuge for an old woman, whose only surviving daughter and support had died. She telephoned the sisters, but was in for a shocking revelation.
“In the course of conversation, I discovered that the sisters had no food-grains, because 12 of the sisters had corona virus,” she says.
The Mother Teresa home in Padri ki Haveli has some 120 inmates – destitute and mentally challenged women, and orphans – in separate wings. The strict lockdown and the sickness and fear all around had dried up whatever local support the nuns could muster.
Sister Dorothy , who is on the advisory board of the social wing of Patna archdiocese, lost no time in addressing the challenge. “I got in touch with Father Amal Raj, [ the diocesan director of social work at the time] and alerted the sub divisional officer, and together they ensured that enough food would be supplied to the home.”
Crisis management is part and parcel of the mission of the 69 year old nun from Orlim, Goa, who made her first profession to the congregation of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVM) on the first of January 1973.
Her love story with Bihar began almost 25 years ago.
“In 1997, at the request of the director of Navjyoti Niketan, the regional pastoral centre of Bihar, I was called to Bihar to teach social justice and women’s empowerment at the institute, she says.
During the three years spent at Navjyoti, Sister Dorothy played an active role in the setting up of an ‘non-formal education’ outreach programme for children of the poor in 25 villages of Maner block, some 30 kilometres west of Patna.
It was in Patna that Sister Dorothy engaged with the urban poor, and felt called to work among the construction workers, the petty vendors, and the homeless communities who lived precariously in makeshift shelters in slums with no amenities and little sanitation.
That was how ‘Aashray Abhiyaan’ a campaign for housing rights for the poor took shape, a constant struggle to empower the workers in the unorganized sector .
Reaching out during the ‘Second Wave’
The challenge of the ‘second wave’, with increased infections, hospitalizations, oxygen shortages, and deaths, brought untold misery to scores of the urban poor.
Sister Dorothy and her team of staff and volunteers linked the poor and destitute with the nearest available ‘food kitchens’.
They network with generous people and civic organizations to help out some who were in dire need of oxygen. They pack and distribute food kits to the urban destitute.
Her team ‘Aashray Abhiyaan’ seeks out the most marginalized of the city. They work in 24 locations, in 10 wards of Patna Municipal Corporation.
The far greater challenge is the way in which the Bihar government has used the cover of the lockdown and the pandemic to systematically evict hundreds of ‘squatters’ from their living units, to get on with the ‘development’ and ‘beautification’ of the proposed ‘smart city’ of Patna.
In mid-June, even as heavy rain lashed the city, some fifty women, children and old people watched helplessly as the administration razed their shanties. Sister Dorothy was at ground zero with a couple of her team members, trying to negotiate.
“The main problem that I face working with these communities is the callousness and insensitivity of the government and the administration. Bihar is riddled with class and class divisions, and the poor are not considered worth looking after,” she observes.
It’s a relentless campaign and an endless journey.
“Many interventions of personal meetings with the Chief Minister, the principal secretary of the Urban and Housing department, the Chief Secretary, the Patna Municipal commissioner. We have tried to raise the issue of housing and livelihood. Unfortunately, what we receive are mere assurances. Yet, like Jesus and like Nano Nagle, I do not give up,” she says with a smile.
The nun closely works with her team of lay people.
“I have a band of very committed young people from Bihar belonging to all faiths. We believe in a secular country and we try to respond to the needs of the people.”
“What inspires me to continue in these difficult times is the cry of the people who are continuously left poor. While my work for advocacy and liaisoning for shelter rights, food rights, and livelihood is the main focus, I draw my inspiration from the person of Jesus, and Venerable Nano Nagle, our foundress, who was at the beck and call of the service of the people thrown on the margins.”
Since 2011, Sister Dorothy is also the Chairperson of the Women’s Commission of Patna Archdiocese.