SOPAR workers from India — Latha Dodda, Shobha Singareddy, Angel Gingras, Janice Aubrey and Jethrutha Reddy —visited the Sisters of St. Joseph in Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan

Sisters of St. Joseph supporting group working in rural India

  • June 21, 2019

After 42 years of digging wells, setting up water purification systems, organizing villagers to demand better education, health care, roads and infrastructure, a little Canadian-Indian development agency estimates it has helped four million people live a better life in rural India.

SOPAR-Bala Vikasa — the acronym stands for Social Partnership — has worked in 6,500 villages in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and is currently managing projects in about 1,000 rural villages ranging in size from about 100 families up to 8,000 families. 

The state and federal governments in India have designated 129 SOPAR-aided villages as “model villages” to be imitated by rural communities across the country.

For the last three years the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto have looked at SOPAR’s work and decided to support it financially. 

At a meeting between visiting SOPAR staff and the sisters at the main Sisters of St. Joseph residence in Toronto June 11, the development agency workers explained their programs and the sisters raised their hands in blessing over the SOPAR representatives.

“Our mission is to be with those who are vulnerable, those who are on the edges. Our mission automatically is aligned with their mission,” said Sr. Janet Speth. “We see in this organization a tremendous, effective organization for introducing or facilitating change in the lives of these people.”

Speth has been to south-central India to see SOPAR’s work on the ground. “As a community-driven model of organization, that means it’s empowering the people. That’s what we are valuing,” said Speth.

SOPAR was founded by Bala T. (Angel) Singareddy-Gingras and her husband André in Gatineau, Que., as a way of sparking development in the impoverished region where she was born. As a former sister herself, Singareddy-Gingras found it easy to speak with Canadian religious communities about the project.

About 85 per cent of SOPAR’s funding these days comes from non-religious sources. The organization takes no money from the Indian government.

“In India there’s a lot of bribery, corruption, that kind of thing,” said Singareddy-Gingras.

Like many development agencies, SOPAR sees its role in terms of empowering people to take charge of their own lives. It takes pride in having no western consultants or employees running programs for the villagers. 

Instead, villages are organized into committees which are then encouraged to work on local issues on behalf of the entire community. “Most of our development role is in changing attitudes,” said SOPAR director Shobha Singareddy.

Evidence that village attitudes are changing came this past spring during India’s April through May general elections. The SOPAR villages had 120 female candidates for local office and saw 20 of them elected, many of them as mayors. Women leading villages represents a huge shift in attitudes, said Singareddy.

That’s a shift that matters to the Sisters of St. Joseph, said Speth.

“It’s a country where women, for the most part, are very subjugated and not that free,” she said. “These are beacons of light.”

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