The sons of Don Bosco have always been socially conscious, following the example of their Father and Founder, who wanted to educate not only good Christians but also honest citizens! The first Salesians who landed in Thanjavur on 14th January 1906 were seen on the streets of that city within a few months, organizing a public demonstration and awareness programme for the education of the oppressed and the lower caste people.
In the field of social ministry several of our missionaries have left us heroic examples. Names like Mantovani, Maschio, Schlooz became synonymous with Christian charity. Father Mantovani, for instance, would go around the city in search of the abandoned dead to give them an honourable burial. He founded the Beatitudes Social Welfare Centre in one of Chennai’s worst slums. ‘To work for the poor,’ he used to say, ‘is a mot beautiful form of prayer’.
Following the footsteps of such pioneers, the Salesian social ministry took myriad forms, depending on the situations of this vast and varied land.
History reveals many positive factors of our social ministry. Here below are some of them:
n The Salesian history in India has been one of closeness to the poor. Among them, the poor youth have always taken the centre stage. This was true not only in our educational institutions but also in social work initiatives. In the initial years, the numerous orphanages, technical institutions and boarding houses were their way of showing social concern. All the Provinces had orphanages and other similar houses for poor youth.
n Our confreres began their mission mostly in neglected rural areas such as North Arcot in Tamil Nadu and the tribal areas of the North East. In the cities they searched out mostly slum areas where the poor lived.
n Employment of young people has been another intense concern of the Salesians. Even now, all the Provinces have special initiatives in this regard. Career Guidance centres have cropped up. One of the best experiments in employment and entrepreneurship-oriented education, recognized even by the Central Government, is that of Bro. Mathew Thaiparambil in Mirpara, in Kolkata Province.
n Starting from the early 1980s, all the Provinces have developed in a significant way our mission for the Young People at Risk. Starting with the first beginnings of this work by the theology students of KJC, Bangalore, and Sneha Bhavan and Anbu Illam of Chennai, Ashalayams and the Snehalayas of Northern Provinces and the Shelters in Mumbai have multiplied all over India and South Asia. Now there is a national level commission for the young at risk, coordinating the mission. The main targets of this concern are the street children, child labourers, bonded children, refugee children, sexually abused youth, school dropouts, juvenile delinquents and the like. In collaboration with the Government and other NGOs (e.g., BOSCO in Bangalore), our confreres working in this area are doing a recognized and laudable ministry, of which Salesian South Asia today is proud. Child protection initiatives, such as Childline India, are worthy of mention.
n Realizing that India is largely agricultural, initiatives to empower and organize agricultural labourers have been taken up in the last few decades. Particularly worthy of mention is the PARA movement by Fr. Thomas Pallithanam, in Andhra Pradesh.
n The work of Bosco Gramin Vikas Kendra (BGVK), pioneered by Bro. Alex Gonsalves at Ahmednagar in 1989, is a highly successful experiment in sustainable rural development. BGVK’s ‘Integrated Water-shed evelopment Programme’ has become the preferred model of rural devleopment in several water-scarce regions in the country. No wonder the work has received much recognition and awards, incldung the 1999 Vanashree Puraskar award from the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and the Cardinal Pimenta Worker Award in 2002.
n Total literacy drive is another social ministry of considerable importance. The majority of the Houses have taken up such a ministry in their neighbourhood. Many Provinces collaborate with the literacy mission of the Government. Attempts at mass education of the poor have been taken up. The Province of Chennai was a pioneer in this effort.
n Recent foundations in all the Provinces have been in the rural and most neglected areas. This may be the outcome of the consciousness that we Salesians are branded as city confreres running prestigious schools for the elite.
n Salesians are known for technical education of the poor. Rather than large engineering colleges, the Salesians mainly started ITIs because that is from where they could reach out to the poor youth and the dropouts of the educational system. We have over 120 technical institutions (formal and non-formal) in India today.
n All the Provinces have gone through the process of Participatory Strategic Planning. It has raised the social consciousness of the confreres and made our mission more community-oriented and related to the larger issues of the people.
n Community Colleges are a new phenomenon for reaching the unreached. Similarly other attempts to reach the dropouts such as transit schools and national open schools have been taken up by many Provinces.
n All the models of developmental work such as charity, institutional and empowerment models have and do exist among Salesians in South Asia, although it must be admitted that the charity and institutional models are still dominant. Confreres have risen to the occasion in times of natural calamities in many parts of our country.
We salute the valiant confreres who work in the midst of oppressed people, without looking for immediate results. The call of Don Bosco to his sons is to dream great things for the poor. It is not enough for us to say that we are doing much or all we can, and stand watching millions of youth in South Asia caught in the clutches of poverty, illiteracy, exploitation, religious fanaticism, superstition and moral degradation. We need clear strategies for reaching out to larger numbers with greater impact.