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Old task, new place: Father Thomas Pallithanam at the UN

By John Tharakan
Fr Thomas being felicitated by the Sunday Catechism Class children during the Golden Jubilee Celebrations at Don Bosco Mission, Ravulapalem.
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Hyderabad, Oct. 10. On Sunday, 7th October 2018, after 32 years of continuous service for the cause of the dis-advantaged people, Father Thomas Pallithanam was given a tearful yet joyful send off at Ravulapalem (Andhra Pradesh, India), launching him into his new assignment at New York. Earlier, his work at PARA had brought him and the children of the Human Rights Clubs to the corridors of the United Nations. Now from New York and the UN platform he will be able to reach out to more than 130 countries as he now represents the International Forum of the Salesians of Don Bosco at the UN. The send off was combined with the Golden Jubilee celebrations of his Religious Profession as a Salesian  of Don Bosco.
The worst floods in living memory in Konaseema, the delta of the mighty Godavari River in August 1986, brought a voluntary group of young Salesians to Ravulapalem, the gateway of Konaseema. Among them was Father Thomas Pallithanam who was permanently transferred there in 1987. He continued to work from Ravulapalem till this day.

Seeing that the poor, especially those of scheduled caste origin who constitute more than 30% of Konaseema, were the most affected, Father Thomas initiated the People's Action for Rural Awakening, popularly known as PARA. Its aim was to find a more lasting solution to people affected by disasters, natural as well as of human origin. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the works of PARA increasingly embraced more the victims of disasters of human origin. His involvement had led to him being arrested and cases being foisted on him. Following human rights and participatory approach, the activities gradually moved from immediate relief to addressing the prevalent discrimination and oppression. Human Rights violations such as atrocities on dalits and women, non-payment of adequate wages, forced alienation of land, abuse, violence, and sexual harassment were addressed significantly. People can vouch for a significant reduction of atrocities and growth in respect for and appreciation of Dalits in the Konaseema region.

Following a right based approach, the activities of PARA have coalesced into a comprehensive approach to social transformation by promoting the empowerment and participation of the most dis-advantaged people. Cultural action along with Human Rights education was taken up as part of a new socialisation of the young. At present there are over 600 schools and 43,000 children who are participating in Human Rights Education and are members of over 1000 Human Rights Clubs.

Over the past 32 years, PARA has continued its work through various institutional setups like Ekalavya Training Centre (empowerment, advocacy, documentation) Ekalavya Children's Home (care and protection of children at risk), Surakshita (home for girls and women in distress), the District Childline 1098 available to children in need night and day and informal structures like the Child Friendly Cities Initiative - Rajahmundry. An inclusive approach leading to the active participation in the decision making process of every stake holder, be they children, women, Bahujans or people with disabilities, has been the noteworthy characateristic of each of these undertakings. Fr Thomas was also the moving force behind a network of organisations working for the rights of the unorganised rural poor. He was also the national coordinator of the 'Wada na todo abhiyan' as part of the Millennium Development Goals 2015 which today is pursued through the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

As a person always concerned about others and shunning privileges and personal attention, he was in for a huge surprise on Sunday. During the Mass there was a natural outpouring of joy of a people, especially those who were helped as children and now have children of their own, to thank him for being part of their life.  More than a round of praise and exaltation, it was a joyful recollection of the work and service of a life lived 50 years for others, especially the young.  Later in the day all the PARA staff, past and present, came together spontaneously to express their joy for the Jubilee, and grief at the loss of their mentor and leader because of the transfer. The scene was emotion filled with the participants sharing their moments of life and work, learning and sharing, during the past 32 years. This was also a time of expressing gratitude and reconciliation, and various emotions not expressed sufficiently till now.  The 6th and 8th of October saw the gathering together of knowledge leaders from different professions who collaborated with Fr Thomas as friends and as members of State Advisory Committees (SAC) of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana on Human Rights Education. This was an occasion to introduce the new PARA team to these professional friends. They in turn gave assurance of continued advocacy with the governments and civil society organisations for carrying forward the mission of PARA for a new Socialisation through Human Rights Education and Human Rights Clubs.

Father Thomas took off on 8th October for New York, where he will represent the Salesians of Don Bosco at the UN.  For Father Thomas, the task remains the same, the location and scale is new!



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