AIF’s Tribute to the Sahiyas of Jharkhand
By Lavina Melwani
Before attending the 2017 American India Foundation (AIF) New York Gala, I had never heard the word ‘Sahiya’ which means community health worker, nor met one in the flesh. Sahiya probably derives from the Hindi word ‘sahayata’ or help and in some villages these women are also known as ‘ashas’ – hopes. It is they who can often determine whether a village infant lives or dies.
It is estimated that India still has the highest number of newborn and child deaths in the world and that out of 2.8 million such deaths worldwide, 700,000 occur in India. In communities where there are scores of infant deaths every year and where every village does not yet have the luxury of a doctor, these sahiyas are a real life-saver providing monthly home visits and checkups to women and their children.
At the AIF Gala, it was the quiet unsung work of these sahiyas which was celebrated. AIF’s Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative (MANSI) has been created in collaboration with the Indian Government, the Tata Steel Foundation and the Indian non-governmental organization Society for Education, Action, and Research in Community Health (SEARCH). MANSI provides intensive training to one woman from each village in the state of Jharkhand, which has the second highest mortality rates for mothers and infants in India.
So there we all sat at an elegant black-tie dinner at Pier Sixty in Manhattan with the movers and shakers of the tri-state area, all listening in pin-drop silence to Mamta Mahato, a 28-year-old sahiya from the village of Dasiyadih in Jharakand. She totally believed in herself and her work and dressed in a simple white and green sari, she related how she, a 10th class pass wife and mother, got the courage to change the village for the better and actually save infants from ill-health and death.
“In my village, the nearest hospital, Sadar, is 20 km away. People walk 4 km to the bus stop and then take a bus from there – round trip it takes about 2 hours,” she said. “The hospital has only 3 doctors and three nurses. It is always very crowded and because it is such a long distance many villagers prefer not to go to the hospital.”
That honest, clear as a bell voice shared a simple life which was lived far-away but was critically linked with the dollars that were raised by AIF in New York. Without the know-how and training she received in the MANSI program, she would not have been able to impact lives and become a force in her village. Needless to say, she received a standing ovation, and the fund-raising which followed that evening raised $1.47 million for the many programs which AIF supports in India. The good news is that in villages covered by MANSI, there has been a 46% decrease in the neonatal mortality rate, a 39% decrease in the infant mortality rate, and a 44% decrease in the child mortality rate. In the village of Dasiyadih, where Mamta Mahato lives and works, there have been no maternal or infant deaths in the last three years.
The evening, which was emceed by MSNBC Anchor & NBC Business Correspondent Ali Velshi, was all about people coming together for a vital cause. AIF Co-Chair Ajay Banga, President & CEO of MasterCard and Alex Counts, President of AIF both spoke eloquently about AIF and the impact it has. The evening honored supporters who had made a difference. Rohit Kapoor, Vice Chairman and CEO of EXL Service Holdings, was honored with AIF’s Corporate Leadership Award, and Krishna Veeraraghavan, Partner at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP received AIF’s Emerging Leader Award.
It was also about the new generation which is engaging with the home country. Even at my table I met young professionals who were enthusiastic hosts for the evening and are actively involved with AIF, starting out on the road to giving back. Success does mean turning around and giving a hand to those still struggling.