Of all the people featured in our Lent series, Serajul has stayed with me the longest. His determination to see the world set right – and the extraordinary perseverance he has in making it happen – inspires me to press in just when I feel like giving up.
Broad-chested and well-muscled, Serajul looks like a bodybuilder from the waist up. His problem from childhood has been his legs, twisted by an early case of polio. Daily life in a subsistence farming community is hard enough, but when you can’t do work that demands walking long distances, it becomes even harder.
Serajul’s disability has meant very few people expected him to contribute to his community. The stubbornness that has gotten Serajul through most of his thirty-some years, however, has made him the perfect person to take on an overloaded system that is too often tainted by corruption.
The government offers disability benefits to people like Serajul – just enough to live on at a basic level. Those benefits, however, are often left unclaimed because illiterate villagers don’t know they’re eligible for them. Those that do try to apply for them are often lost in an overloaded system or pressured for bribes by corrupt officials. Even once someone gets their application through, they may find their allowance cut by 25% or more once distribution officers have each taken a cut.
Serajul’s stubborn sense of justice, fueled by a need to provide for himself and his family, beat the system once on his own behalf. He hounded government officials and distribution officers until his allowance began to arrive unskimmed. His success came to the attention of his local village mayor, who was being encouraged by Chetna staff to look after the needs of the disabled people in his village.
Chetna is a community health and development ministry that trains and encourages local officials to develop their own communities. Serajul attended one of the training meetings run by Chetna. When he heard about the need to advocate for people not receiving their government benefits, his mind flew into action. “I need to know more about that. Give me some more information!”
Eight years later, Serajul carries around a plastic bag full of the forms of people from his village, as well as a neighboring one, all of whom are waiting for their benefits. He leafs through them, pulling out notable names and cases. “This woman,” he says pulling out a form, “was waiting for ten years for the benefits she should get as a widow when I met her. And this man is blind,” he says, moving onto another one. “Can’t see at all. And still they won’t give him his benefits.”
He folds a stack of his case files up before waving them open again in the air, “There is 3,50,000 rupees worth of money in here that people aren’t being allowed to have.”
Eight years of advocacy has given Serajul’s stubbornness an edge of outrage. “We are not beggars,” he says, his finger leveled in lecture. “We simply want what the government wants to give us without anyone taking something from it. Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean people can do this to us.”
Eight years has also given Serajul a list of wins. He keeps a separate file of all the people who’ve started receiving their benefits due to his help. It’s a list well over one thousand names. The most basic entitlement for someone living under the poverty line is Rs4,800 per month. It’s not much – but it will help keep starvation away.
Once Serajul connected with Chetna staff, he received encouragement and training in the advocacy work he’s become so passionate about. Not only that, Chetna also gave him a small loan to purchase tools and initial supplies to open a bike-repairing business. It’s a job he likes and that allows him to continue advocating for others while he provides for his family. It also gives him a chance to lecture anyone who comes to get their bicycle fixed.
Serajul says that poor villagers like him are too used to being taken advantage of. “One of the problems is when a poor person is supposed to be getting RS.2,000 but because someone is taking a cut, they only get RS.1,600. The poor person thinks, ‘Ok, I guess I can live on that’ but no – that’s not right.”
Serajul’s reputation for community service has grown so much, he was recently asked by the villagers to stand for election to a local committee overseeing governance issues in the area. He refused to campaign like others wanting the position did. “If my work has been good, people will vote for me. If it not – then I won’t win.”
Consider donating money you save through Lenten fasting to support the community-building work of Chetna. Learn how to donate here.