In this exclusive interview with The Daily Brunch, Dr. Geetanjali Chopra, Founder & President of Wishes and Blessings NGO, talks about her personal journey, her illustrious professional career, and also about how COVID has impacted NGOs and welfare workers.
- From being an academician to a founder of an NGO, how do you define your journey? Please mention your eureka moment for this transition.
I have been involved in academics and research for more than a decade! Coming from an educational background of journalism and humanitarian law, I had the opportunity to have a career filled with plurality. However, on the side I always made sure to dedicate time and resources to give back to the community, something imbibed in me ever since I was a child.
While working at the Centre for Policy Research, I was caught in a dilemma – one half of me wanted to give everything up and re-imagine my life, working for underprivileged people, and the other half wanted to further explore the exciting world of academics and policy making and to continue on this growth trajectory. I strongly believe that in life, there is a pre-destined call. One might listen to it later, but it is bound to keep recurring in front of you until you realize and recognize it. I finally listened to mine in 2014, when I decided to establish my NGO – Wishes and Blessings. It wasn’t a very smooth process to transition into a whole new dimension for me. I had to face raised eyebrows from loved ones as they were worried that I was about to embark on a journey I had zero experience in. Facing all my fears and owning up to my decision, I went forward and never looked back. We started by working with visually impaired children in Delhi, and over time, Wishes and Blessings grew to include orphanages, old-age homes, and shelters for the homeless – operating across 8 states of India. My organization is 7 years strong now and its core holds the value of spreading happiness. My team and I constantly look forward to help people in need, across demographics, providing them with food, education, shelter, relief, etc.
- You had been working for the needy since last 7 years, which are the projects you undertook during the pandemic?
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected millions of lives, the worst hit being the underprivileged, destitute and homeless people. In order to provide aid to those who were suffering, we launched the Wishes and Blessings Covid Relief Project on Day 1 of the lockdown i.e. 25th March 2020. We executed this project in three phases, under which we covered three parameters- food, hygiene and shelter. In August 2020, we also launched WB Ambulances for Covid Relief to provide free of cost emergency transportation to the people in need. As the need on the ground reduced with time, we tapered our support to provide relief to only those beneficiaries who required immediate aid. The Second Wave of Covid-19 Pandemic hit the country in April 2021, leading to an increase in the number of Covid positive cases. Subsequently, the need on the ground also escalated rapidly. We launched more phases of our Covid Relief Project, which was executed from April to July, under which we focused on providing nutritional support and essential hygiene supplies to destitute families and vulnerable communities, across 7 states of India – Assam, Bihar, Delhi/NCR, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Additionally, we organized a virtual charity concert, Jashn-e-Qawwali for the Qawwali group, Niazi Brothers, who were suffering from the ill effects of the pandemic. Since March 2020, we have served over 20 lakh meals, distributed over 70,000 ration kits and provided over 30,000 hygiene kits to 50,000+ beneficiaries across 7 states.
While we did execute focused projects for Covid relief, our existing projects continued to be executed with as few interruptions as possible, including our old age home for the abandoned elderly, education programmes for street and needy children, and winter relief.
- Please mention your challenges in executing the projects during the COVID times.
When we initially started executing Covid relief, no one could envision that the virus would stay for so long; most of us thought that life would go back to normal within a short time period. In the weeks to come, it become clear to us that the virus would disrupt lives, for an extended period, sending lakhs of families into extreme poverty and situations of vulnerability across the country. Several challenges accompanied our efforts while we executed and expanded our Covid Relief Project. While under any other circumstance, the core team would visit the locations themselves, the same could not be done in the Covid crisis. Several of the rural areas identified with dire need did not have access to the internet, and thus there would occasionally be lags in communication. Further, geographical terrains and lack of transportation made it difficult for volunteers to access these locations, especially under bad weather. Apart from that, natural calamities such as Cyclone Yaas in West Bengal further disrupted the relief chain. Like all entities, Wishes and Blessings, too, was affected by the economic slowdown, and funding suffered. But as said, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’, and my team and I faced all the obstacles and continued our relief work. Our NGO believes that everybody deserves equal access to aid and therefore, we shall continue to provide relief to the needy, until they can support themselves.
- In general, how COVID has impacted NGOs and are wading through the uncertainties and, at the same time, managing to extend relief to vulnerable social groups.
Over the years, NGOs have made a significant contribution to humanity. NGOs bring financial and livelihood opportunities, and can adapt responses to the community context. The work of NGOs has never been trouble-free; however, public space has been dwindling for civil society organisations since the pandemic began. The Coronavirus crisis has worsened this state of affairs. The pandemic has led to diminished public support in form of volunteering as well as donations. Yet, it is indeed commendable that NGOs have put together their forces to support those in need in whatever way possible. I only hope that more and more people come forward and support their efforts so that they are not forced to stop operations.
- What is that one unfulfilled wish in your professional career and when do you foresee that to happen?
I established my NGO with a wish to make happiness accessible by all. I always worked to spread smiles and make resources available by the underprivileged. Although I have come across countless success stories, I feel that more work has to be put in. My only wish is to not see any child hungry. I will keep working towards this goal until I finally achieve it. Miles to go before I rest!
- What is your learning as a social entrepreneur?
I think you learn new thing every day! I believe that you learn throughout your life, for life is the greatest teacher after all.