New Delhi: She has been lending her voice to the cause of the marginalised and underprivileged people in the society through many social initiatives. Team Banega Swasth India speaks with Miss India 1976, Actor, Social activist, a cancer survivor and warrior -Nafisa Ali Sodhi. Here is an excerpt of her interview on the occasion of Interntional Women’s Day, talking about how women need to believe in themselves and empower themselves to take charge of their lives.
NDTV: You are an inspiration for the underprivileged and marginalised and have been working on issues concerning them since 1990. What really inspires you to work for the masses?
Nafisa: The truth is I realised that the common man and the innocence of India is actually marginalised. They have no voice, they have no one to support them, raise issues, relevant to their welfare. It’s all about business and money, when they are struggling to even get a simple job and food on their plates. This troubled me a lot.
NDTV: How important is it for women to prioritise themselves, whether its self-care or doing anything for themselves, to enjoy without the feeling of guilt?
Nafisa: First and most important, women should realise that India is a democracy, where women are 50 percent of the powerhouse. It’s important that women realise that men don’t rule the roost. God has given women the power to be nurturers. That’s an admirable fact of being a woman. So, I think men should be servient to women. But we live in a macho society and just ignore them. Don’t allow violence because it’s children who watch, violence at home is a reality which not many people think about, and women are quiet about it because they don’t want their children to be exposed to it. I think it is important on Women’s day that women realise that now in India, we have so much help for issues related to their welfare, our welfare, and we must seek help because a man as a creature is really a bully, is also arrogant, is also somebody who will always attack the marginalised and try to manipulate. Do not allow it. Seek support, you are not alone.
NDTV: You started the home “Ashraya” for people affected and infected with HIV/AIDS and made documentary films also. How important is inclusion or work for the marginalised as they don’t have a voice and specially someone with HIV. How did you start this work?
Nafisa: My husband was very sick when he was in the army those days and he was hemorrhaging very badly. He had 14 blood transfusions to save his life. And those days there was no testing for HIV and Hepatitis B or C. The reality dawned on me after he became ok, I realised that God had been very kind to me. Therefore, HIV became a mission because I realised the stigma associated with those who are marginalised and segregated So, then I decided to make a documentary to make people realise what people face. Our memories are very short, you forget everything, when you see the documentary for example, the reality is there for everyone to see for themselved, I even made a documentary on Gujarat, after the riots, so I express myself through the visual medium. And that time I was making a documentary on a lady who was a sex worker and not keeping well, and her sister was looking after her. Then her sister went away, and the women was laying in her excreta with no one to look after her. Then she came to the shelter. So, I was making this documentary at a time when there was only one shelter in Delhi. When we were shooting with her, she was really skinny and was choking with tuberculosis and when they removed bandages from her body, there were gaping holes in her body, I could see her ribs on her back when she was lying. Then I thought to myself, I can’t turn my back and make a documentary and say it’s all fine. So, I went to the Chief Minister of Delhi Sheila Dixit and sought help. I told her I have seen inhuman conditions and I can’t just walk away and want to start a shelter. She said, ‘I trust you Nafisa, go and find a place’. I said no, you give me any place. So, there was a community center in Rajokari Village, near Delhi’s airport side. So, I went there. Everything was stolen from that center. The government supported me. I painted all the walls by myself. That is how I started my shelter. I never advertised; People came from all over India for care. I never turned anyone away even if they were dying; I allowed them to die with dignity. Some families even didn’t come for the bodies, we were doing the necessary and needful for their cremation and last rites. The beauty was that in Rajokari village, in the initial stage everyone was very upset that why were we coming here and what were we doing? They used a nick name for me ‘Major Sahab’ madam. I used to counsel them, started free clinics for everyone in the village. They used to come and see everything and slowly I told them about the facts related to HIV and how they can contract it. Then people used to come as a volunteer and donate rice, wheat and help to clean the place.
But the trouble was antiretroviral drug was not available. Jaswant Singh was the then Fimace Minister in the BJP government and he was a former army officer. Every time I met him, I said, ‘You are not doing enough. We don’t have antiretroviral drugs that we know can keep patients alive. We need to allocate budget for acquiring antiretroviral drugs.’ My message here, ‘the power of one combined with truth and honesty can bring about change.
NDTV: You worked in so many natural disasters, do you feel women and children are more vulnerable, did you see when you were working on ground?
Nafisa: Women and children are always vulnerable. Caste and class always play a big part. For example, I think the biggest and hardest thing I have done in my life is in the aftermath of the Gujarat earthquake. After the earthquake, I built these bamboo huts in my garden and told my friends to donate some money, one bed, one kerosene stove, lantern etc. I filled all these in a truck and went there. I am a photographer and I see things visually. In 360-degree view, nothing existed, everything was rubble. I landed with my volunteers by truck. I looked for which village has no help as I wanted to go there. In Bhuj, I found a tree in a house, sought permission to put my little tent under that tree. I lived there 24×7 for 3 months. I was the team leader, so I could not stop, I cooked the food for everyone. The bamboo huts were appreciated by the international agencies – and one of them sponsored many more huts. I used to get trucks from Assam with bamboo and we constructed the huts. When I went back years later, they still had those huts and I asked, ‘Why are you still building these huts?’ People said. “Humko yahin acha lagta hai” (We like these huts only).
NDTV: ‘Leaving no one behind’ is the core theme of our campaign, Banega Swasth India, How important is it for us to include the tribals? There is so much to learn from them, when we talk about inclusion.
Nafisa: Tribals are very grounded, their needs are very simple and easy, but they need that support and therefore the tribal community needs the education, healthcare and the opportunities to earn.
NDTV: Last question on building a resilient India. You fought over cancer, what would be your message to the women on how to take care of themselves?
Nafisa: I call myself strong, but I started developing all these pains and went naturally to the doctor, they missed diagnosing me for three months. When it caught it was stage 3. I say, go and test yourself, doesn’t matter if you have a false reading but you will get to know if something is happening. Mine was late treatment but early treatment is the best treatment. There are so many cancer tests, for the liver, for ovary, there are so many, do it, what’s the harm? Chemotherapy really hits you. I remember I was sitting on sofa, after my 12th day of chemo, chunks of my hair started coming out. That’s the day when I cried. It hit me that I have a cancer. I had a Peritoneal cancer, which is a very aggressive form of cancer. Doctors told me the life span is 8-12 month. I told the doctor, ‘You don’t have the right to tell me that. I am going to cure myself.’ And I did Uunchai (film) with Amitabh Bachchan.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.