Shining a light: The Dalit children of India

Ten years ago volunteers from an Edinburgh church went to India to help build a home for Dalit children. John Knox talks to two of them about how the project has flourished

• Gillie Davidson and some of the children at the Light of Love home.

'THEY have nothing and yet they are so full of life." Gillie Davidson speaks with a white-hot passion about the Dalit children of India. "They are ignored or exploited by the rest of Indian society. They are the untouchables, excluded from schools, hospitals, shops, well-paid jobs, even the government's official statistics. Yet the Dalits, and other low caste people, are a quarter of the population."

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Ten years ago Gillie Davidson and a colleague, Brian Baron, led a group of young people from Greenbank Church in Edinburgh on an expedition to Tuni on the south-east coast of India. She'd been told by a friend working in Christian Aid of a children's home, just starting out, which badly needed outside help. The group of 23 young people raised 28,000 and went out to India to help build the "Light of Love" children's home. There were 120 children in the home at the time. There are now more than 500. The home has become a boarding school. The one-off expedition has become a permanent charity, Scottish Love in Action (SLA), which raises 300,000 every year to help the poorest children in India. And since that first group, about 80 volunteers have worked on the project, with a new volunteer programme currently being arranged.

"These children come from the most awful backgrounds," says Gillie. "Most of them are orphans and they are handed in to the home in desperation by relatives or neighbours because they can no longer feed them or look after them."

Among the first children to be handed into the home were Sukanya, Sony and Swetha , three sisters. Their father died, leaving their mother to bring them up alone. One day the gas cylinder she was using to cook their food exploded – a common accident in India – and the girls watched in horror as their mother burned to death. They did little but cry for their first few days in the home but gradually they began to attend school and smile again. Now, the oldest, Sukanya, has passed her final school exam and is attending an intermediate college.

Another family of three orphans arrived at the home when their grandmother's house burnt down. A third group came when their mother, abandoned by her husband, could no longer cope with a disabled child.

"Dalit children are shunned by the new, prosperous middle classes in India," says Gillie. "They don't want to be contaminated by the untouchables. They don't want them in their shops or offices, they even refuse to treat them in hospital."

The Light of Love home and school is run by an Indian charity, the Nazareth Association for Social Awareness (Nasa), led by Dr Christopher Premdas and his wife Jyothi, who are Dalits themselves. The school now has 20 teachers and 450 pupils. More than 30 children have gone on to intermediate college and 15 are at university.

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"This is phenomenal success when you consider the backgrounds from which these children have come," says Gillie. "Less than a fifth of Dalits are literate."

Among the original 23 young people from Greenbank who went out to India was Colin McRae. "We got such a fantastic welcome when we arrived," he remembers. "We were called the White Chickens and we worked as labourers for the bricklayers. Over the years, I've watched the school and the children grow and it's been amazing to see the transformation in them. We've really made a difference to their lives."

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Colin left his job as an engineer with a telecoms company to become the full-time development manager of SLA. There is just one other employee, the part-time information officer Vicki Watson. For the first seven years, Gillie Davidson ran the charity, entirely voluntarily, from her own home. She's been made an MBE for her work. And it's not hard to see why, because, apart from drawing the plight of India's Dalit children to the attention of a new generation of young people in Scotland, she has raised huge sums from individual donors and a string of charity events – Mamma Mia-themed ladies' nights, baking competitions for men, plastic duck races for children, marathon teams, a book of poems, a business networking night.

Members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have tuned in with a fundraising concert in Greyfriars Church. It follows a concert the orchestra gave for SLA while on its recent tour of India.

"We're very excited right now because we're just launching a new funding raising scheme, called Classmates," says Colin. "We're asking people to sponsor a whole class of children. They will be given a photograph of the class and an annual report of how they are getting on, plus every year they will be given the life story of one of the children. It's a way of building up links with the children, without singling out any of them for special treatment. Dalit children have been discriminated against enough already."

The charity is also bringing out a film based on a play written by a group of artists and musicians, Transgressive North, who went out to Tuni to make the film on location. It may not have as big a budget as Slumdog Millionaire, but it is narrated by Irvine Welsh and has been entered for consideration to have its premiere at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival.

"Slumdog Millionaire did at least highlight the plight of the poor in India," says Colin. "It's been ignored for too long; 250 million people are just being left behind."

On some of her trips to India, Gillie has been taken to the Dalit villages Dr Premdas's charity Nasa is helping with food, water supplies and micro-finance to start small businesses.

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"They have nothing," she says. "As a nurse, I was horrified to see the umbilical cords of newborn babies being cut with a rusty old knife because they could not afford a new razor blade.

"Aids, TB, polio and leprosy are all common diseases. Children are left scavenging or begging for food. They are often exploited as child labourers. They are given no education. So the children come into our home from the worst possible backgrounds and yet they respond so well to a little love and attention."

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Over the past ten years, SLA has added new buildings to the original home and school in Tuni and has become involved in a second home/school for Dalit children in Hyderabad. Its 57 children were in danger of being sent back into the streets when its Indian sponsor was killed in a car crash. Again Dr Premdas's appeal for help was answered in Scotland.

"The fate of the Dalits is a highly political issue in India," says Colin. "Dr Premdas has fought a number of cases through the courts to establish the rights of untouchables. But it's a hard struggle. The long-term solution is education and that's why our schools are so important."

The children were originally taught in the local language, Telegu, but the schools are switching over to English to give the children a better chance of getting into college and university and finding a job. SLA pays the fees of those going on to college. The children still have language classes in Telegu and Hindi so they don't abandon their culture, and the less academic children are taught practical skills, such as sewing, to be able to start their own businesses.

"It all costs money, of course," says Colin. "The Church of Scotland's Guild have been helping us in recent years but we desperately need new supporters if our work is to continue."

And Gillie chimes in: "We just cannot let our children down. If you could see their faces, so happy and so grateful for everything we give them, you would just know we have to continue working for them."

• For more information visit the Scottish Love in Action website: or write to: Box 123, 44-46 Morningside Road, Edinburgh EH10 4BF.