Ratna and Varinder Bhalla sacrificed a vacation.
By The American Bazaar Staff
NEW YORK: Ratna and Varinder Bhalla, a Long Island, New York based Indian American couple are proving to be a beacon for the community when it comes to philanthropic, humanitarian causes: recently the couple sacrificed a vacation to Disney World in Florida, to buy a boat for needy children in Gujarat, to help them commute to school.
The Bhallas are no strangers to charity: they founded the charity AWB Food Bank in 1991, a Delhi based charity which has distributed over 10 million meals to needy children in the past 23 years.
The mission to Gujarat came about after Varinder Bhalla, a mechanical engineer by profession for the last four decades in the US, read a report in The Indian Express about children from several tribal villages in the Chhota Udepur district swimming across the raging Hiran River every day during monsoons to reach school in Utavadi village in Narmada district; some of them carrying a gohri, a 20-litre brass pot that they hold onto to stay afloat as they cross the 600-metre tributary, according to a press release issued by the Bhallas.
Ratna Bhalla set aside her annual vacation from her job at Nassau County, Long Island where she currently serves as Deputy Director of Emergency Housing, for a family trip to Disney World in Florida. Instead, she ended up in Sajanpura, a tribal village in the state of Gujarat, first flying to Delhi, then onto Vadodara and finally traveling over 60 kilometers via a dusty and bumpy road.
“Mr. Bhalla was restless till he connected with the news reporter, Aditi Raja, who in turn put him in touch with the villagers and the school authorities, to discuss possible solutions to a nightmarish situation faced by the parents who would watch their kids swim cross a turbulent river, while praying for their safety. I shuddered at the prospect of putting my daughter in a choppy river to go to school and therefore, readily agreed to accompany my husband headed for India”, says Ratna Bhalla.
“We toyed with several ideas – from opening up a school in Sajanpura or renting a bus that would pick up the children from the villages and transport them over a bridge 20 kilometers away – but finally favoring a more practical and immediate solution – transporting the students across by an inflatable motor boat we carried from New York with life jackets and all its accessories”, says Varinder Bhalla.
The Bhallas trained the village elders to navigate the boat, with safety and precautionary measures, stressing the need to wear life jackets. On the chosen auspicious morning, they launched the boat in the river with the kids; starting with distribution of sweets, breaking up a coconut as per the age old Hindu ritual, while a village elder prayed for success of the mission.
The kids’ eagerness and excitement knew no bounds as they would embark upon their first ever river crossing in a motor boat. The nightmare of the kids finally ended and the villagers heaved a sigh of relief.
“For me and my wife, it was one of the most fulfilling days of our lives,” says Varinder Bhalla.
“And it was as good as going to Disney World”, a jubilant Ratna Bhalla chips in.
The kids consider the gift of boat from the AWB Food Bank charity as a loan from a bank and committed to return this debt when successful in life by similarly helping others in need or distress.
“Crossing the river with the help of a brass pot was fearful experience and time consuming – it would take almost 45 minutes to reach the other side; and then having to walk for almost an hour through the muddy and slushy paths to reach school; and many of us sitting through our classes in drenched clothes,” Piyush Kumar Kanubhai tells his tale of woes and recounts the experience of over 100 other teens from 16 tribal villages – Sajanpura, Chamarwada, Angadi, Kukreli, Nandpur, Sitaphali, and Dharmapura among others.
“Now our time is not wasted. We are not risking our life. With the motor boat, we cross the river easily in a couple of minutes without wetting our clothes or wasting our time. Now we reach the school on time and can better concentrate on our studies. This motor boat is their debt on us, which we will pay back by extending a helping hand to other needy people like us,” he said.
“I am indebted to Mr. and Mrs. Bhalla who came all the way from New York to our village and solved our problem. I will pay their debt by serving the poor people, not only in my village but the surrounding villages as well,” says tenth grader Arunaben Baria, who used to walk five kilometers after swimming across the river during monsoon months. “As Swami Vivekananda said, service to mankind is service to God,” she added.
Navnit Kumar Babubhai, also a tenth grader who wants to become a Class I officer said he would help the needy students and thus repay the debt I owe to the AWB Food Bank.”
“Earlier, we were frightened by our daily experience of crossing the river but now we enjoy the boat ride,” an eleventh grader Sajanpura resident Tinkal Vikrambhai Baria said.
“Bhalla Sahib and Ratna Ben descended on our village from America like God sent angels to help our teenage kids who for years were going through a life threatening ordeal to reach their school,” said Narpat Singh Chauhan, an elder from the Sewada village.
In addition to the motor boat, the Bhallas also gifted life jackets and raincoats for the boat journey, and bicycles for those who had to walk to school after crossing the river.
“Thanks to the boat donation by the NRIs, kids are now reaching school in time, in dry clothes, having done their homework,” says Kantibhai Baria, Principal of the Sri Mastram Vinay Vidya Mandir, the school attended by the village kids.
When asked about criticism in a section of the media about the failure of the Gujarat state government to remedy the situation, Varinder Bhalla had this to say: “No government in the world can and should be expected to solve all problems of the society. We need to inculcate the spirit of volunteerism in India so that people blessed with success and financial resources come forward and solve such problems.”
The Bhallas left New York alone for their rescue mission in Gujarat. However, in India, they were joined by volunteers of Bhagwan Shree Lakshami Narayan Dham, a charitable and spiritual organization, who came from Mumbai, Delhi and Vadodara to support our mission. They also donated a battery for the motor boat, which we were not allowed to carry in the aircraft from New York. Upon learning of the Bhallas’ mission, the management of Inphynyt, India’s leading manufacturer of automotive and industrial batteries, also lent their support by donating a costly marine battery.
The Bhallas are back in New York but keep in touch with the villagers and the children in Gujarat.
(This story was revised on December 15, 2014)