Chetanalaya is the social action wing of Archdiocese of Delhi which is the concrete expression of the social concerns of the Catholic Church in the given geo-political and socio-economic background. With the erection of Delhi Archdiocese in 1959 Church started reaching out to the poor in and around Delhi. It was at that time rightly called Catholic Charities.
For the first time an organizational approach to social action was begun in the year 1970 with the forming of “Catholic Social Action” with Fr. Vincent M. Concessao as its first director. He had returned to India that year after he had taken a Masters degree in Sociology in USA and underwent a year-long social action training in the Coady International Institute, Canada.
The Diocesan Social Action was mandated to coordinate rehabilitation works. After independence and partition of India, various types of migrations began to take place. In 1970 there was an exodus of migrants from East Pakistan to the Metropolises of India. The migrants from the east and west Pakistans apart, the poor illiterate under employed and unemployed villagers were flocking to Delhi for a better life. Illiterate, uneducated and untrained, they were unable to find worthwhile employment opportunities. They were used to farm related activities and seldom could they find any such opening in Delhi. As a result a number slums and unauthorized colonies began to mushroom. The Union Territory of Delhi did in fact embraced migrants, but did pretty little to alleviate their problems. NGOs of various types began to be formed for social work. All these developments were challenging Social Action to respond.
DDA had built 42 Resettlement Colonies around Delhi in order to resettle the former inner-city slum dwellers. Displacement of people from city slum to resettlement colonies in massive numbers had to be in itself a massive operation. There was a sense of urgency on the part of the politicians. The Government Agencies on the other hand were ill trained and ill equipped to undertake such a gigantic operation involving 42 colonies spread around Delhi, each housing over 1.5 hundred thousand poor people. On the other hand, the Resettlement Colonies themselves were not completed with basic amenities like water, sewerage and electricity. Added to the agony was the apathy of the officers.
The land sharks hovered over these resettlement Colonies like vultures over carcasses. They bought the poor man’s plots for as cheap as Rs. 2000.00 apiece. The poor people were thus once again thrown back to the city to look for a place to build a home.
Diocesan Social Action took the message of education of children, vocational and skill development training of the youth and women of the immigrant communities. A resourceful mind and trained specially to deal with situations such as those of 1970s Delhi, the new Director began organizing his work.
In 1975, the Diocesan Social Action was renamed as Commission for Justice and Development and Peace. Fr. Vincent M. Concessao was appointed Director of Development and Justice and Peace. Some of the early works concentrated on education especially non-formal education, self employment schemes, and health-care and extension programs aimed at reaching the urban poor.
In 1978 an unprecedented flood in the Yamuna exposed the fragility and vulnerability of the slum settlements in Delhi, most of which were on the flood path of the Yamuna with little embankment protection. Jahangirpuri resettlement colony in the North Delhi witnessed the worst of the flood. Social Action responded with planned, systematic rehabilitation interventions.
As far back as 1985, Fr. Vincent M. Concessao had envisaged help for the poor farmers in Haryana. He began a project of digging bore wells. The project was first introduced in Narnaul. The farmers are villagers. They used to land up even at night and early mornings to visit Fr. Vincent who would patiently listen to them.
In 1984 the great Genocide of the Sikhs took place consequent to the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi the Prime Minister. The problem was especially severe in Trilokpuri and the response to the massive man-made humanitarian problem called for unparalleled response. Chetanalaya required a coordinating office. November 4, 1984 a meeting of concerned Christian institutions and funding agencies took place. Mother Teresa attended the meeting. On the next day accompanied by Fr. Vincent Concessao the Director and Fr. Augustine Kuriapilly the priest in Charge at Trilokpuri Mother Teresa took a trip around the worst affected areas of Trilokpuri, Kalyanpuri, Kichdipur and Kalyanvas and Faras Khana in Shahdara where the widows of massacred Sikh men were sheltered. In response to the unspeakable atrocities committed against Sikhs, the Scholastics of Vidyajyoti, diocesan Seminarians of Delhi at Pratiksha, the Missionaries of Charity and many volunteers cutting across religious divides joined hands with Social Action. The Scholastics and Seminarians took pride in wearing T Shirts with name and legend of Mother Teresa and took to rehabilitation works.
In 1989, consequent to paradigm shift and rethinking on strategy, the name Chetanalaya was adopted. The name Chetanalaya was made up of two Sanskrit words. They are “Chetana” meaning awareness and “Alaya” meaning abode. Chetanalaya means “Abode of Awareness”.
These times also marked the gradual progress of Chetanalaya into a community based organization. Chetanalaya started helping women to organize themselves into Chetna-Sanghs and Mahila Mandals within the target communities. Nand Nagari, Dr. Ambedkar Nagar and Jehangirpuri were the first Target Groups. One of the achievements of Chetanalaya and Fr. Vincent M. Concessao, its Director, during this stage was creating a Community Health Programme. He created a volunteer group of 300 to 400 women in uniform saris (white with blue borders) to go into colonies and teach the community how to take care of their own health.
The Government Agencies were surprisingly quick to note the good work done by Chetanalaya in the field of non-formal education, semi-urban health care and extension work that it allotted plots for the Chetanalaya to build balwadis and tailoring classes and dispensaries. In Trilokpuri where the priest-in-charge and his team of St. Ann’s Sisters worked close collaboration with Chetanalaya built a Mother and Child Care Centre, a Dispensary, and four balwadis and tailoring centres. The Slum Department of the City Government gave the use of a Government Dispensary to Chetanalaya. Fr. Vincent Concessao handed its administration over to Sisters of the Destitute on behalf of Chetanalaya.
Chetanalaya in 1994 was registered as a social service society. It was registered under Societies’ Registration Act of 1860.
Chetanalaya’s Journey is a long one, but taken in quick and uninterrupted steps. It began humbly with Catholic Charities with its Poverty Alleviating programme. Catholic Charities gave way to Social Action and Social Action transfigured itself to Chetanalaya. With the four decades of existence, Chetanalaya has grown into one of the largest grass root level organization in India. It has reached out to more than a million people directly. Under the banner of Chetanalaya some 250 development personnel are at work in Delhi and Haryana working on about a dozen of issues that are of high relevance to our time. On many of the issues that the organization has taken up, it has become a leader and has won several awards of repute. Chetanalaya has also become a trusted partner of state and union governments and several national and international agencies.