Some 40 "Bahadur Nepalis" gathered in the library of the Paropakar orphanage in Bhimsensthan, Kathmandu, to pay their last respects to the man who had touched and altered their lives. The people, a mix of teachers, hydrological and agricultural engineers, and shopkeepers, were in a reflective frame of mind.
"Daya Bir Singh ba believed that all men were equal. He didn't believe in class and caste so everyone who came to the orphanage took the surname Bahadur Nepali, meaning 'brave Nepalis'," says 50-year-old Damber Bahadur Nepali. One of over 250 students to pass out from the Paropakar orphanage, Nepal's oldest charitable organisation founded in 1952, Damber Bahadur Nepali is today deputy director of the Nepal Electricity Authority and managing director of the Chilime Hydro Power Company. "The principles of selfless service to one's country and countrymen that Daya Bir Singh ba practised are reflected in the design of the company. It is run entirely on Nepali investment, and seeks to provide cheap electricity to the Nepali population," says Damber Bahadur, who is also president of the Paropakar Alumni Association. Founder of Paropakar and its driving force until he fell ill five years ago, Daya Bir Singh Kansakar's legacy is huge.
In 1947, moved by the plight of people affected by the cholera epidemic that hit the Valley, Kansakar, then in his thirties, started a dispensary-Paropakar Aushadhalaya-after getting a seal of approval from the Rana rulers at the time. The dispensary was initially run from his cloth shop where he kept a stock of medicines and distributed them to families affected by the epidemic. "People still remember the time he brought a cholera-stricken child into his home and nursed it back to health against the wishes of his family," says compounder Indra Prasad Nepali, one of Paropakar's earliest volunteers. Later, doctors and paramedics would come to help out at the dispensary.
An example in many ways, Kansakar became Nepal's first blood donor in 1950, when he donated blood at Bir Hospital. "People were afraid to give blood then. They thought donating blood weakened a person, sapped their energy. They'd rather donate a buffalo than give blood-as if a buffalo's blood could replace human blood," says 70-year-old Prayag Raj Suwal, another youth volunteer and currently chairman of Paropakar Organisation.
Following the democracy movement in 1950, the dispensary was transformed into the Paropakar Organisation-Nepal's first non-governmental organisation, under which the Paropakar Orphanage (1952), the Paropakar Ambulance Service (1953), the Paropakar Shri Panch Indra Rajya Laxmi Devi Prasuti Griha (1959), and the Paropakar Adarsha Secondary School (1962) were established. Today, the organisation has branches in 30 districts and runs primary health care centres in 175 villages around the country. The Paropakar Children's Village was set up in Duwakot, Bhaktapur this year.
Kansakar's last dreams, to set up a home for ageing people and to establish a medical college, remained unfulfilled when he passed away at the age of 90 on 5 February. "His death is an irreparable loss to Paropakar, one of few organisations that is run on the goodwill and charitable donations of the Nepali people," says Suwal. One of the youth volunteers Kansakar mobilised during the cholera epidemic, Suwal along with hundreds of Paropakar youth volunteers, was also active in the pro-democracy movement. "It wasn't possible for Bir Hospital, then the only hospital, to cope with the sick and the dying. Until the ambulance service was started, Paropakar volunteers would bring sick people on stretchers from places as far off as Sankhu and around the Valley rim to be treated at the dispensary. The feeling of selfless service was truly felt then," he recalls.
It was this feeling for Nepal's poor and underprivileged, that dissuaded Kansakar from accepting a Red Cross proposal to come under the international organisation's umbrella. "My father couldn't see the organisation without the name Paropakar-which means selfless service to others. It meant losing out on millions of dollars of regular aid but he decided that it was important to maintain the Nepaliness and uniqueness of Paropakar rather than toe the line of donor-driven projects," says Daya Bir's oldest son and general secretary of Paropakar, Hitkar Bir Singh Kansakar. "Later, he agreed to become a founder member of the Nepal Red Cross Society."
Towards the end of his life Kansakar was greatly disillusioned by the growing number of organisations that did little in the name of service. The government takeover of Prasuti Griha, the maternity hospital at Thapathali that Paropakar started with donations and help from local people was a great shock. He always hoped it would be returned to Paropakar some day. "We helped build the place, weeded the garden, helped carry stones," says Tara Devi Tuladhar. One of the first batch of Nepali nurses Kansakar sent to India to train in midwifery, Tuladhar considers herself fortunate to attend school in Kansakar's home even after the ruling Rana regime had ordered the closure of all educational institutions. "He treated men and women as equals and was constantly striving to educate and empower women," says Tuladhar. An executive board member of Paropakar Organisation, Tuladhar, along with other silver-haired members, is concerned about the 50 year-old organisation's future.
At the organisation's headquarters in Bhimsensthan, black-and-white pictures of the first batches of bedraggled and barefoot children occupy a pride of place alongside pictures of a smiling King Tribhuvan and numerous visiting dignitaries, including Nehru and Indira Gandhi, as memories of a glorious past. "There's a dire need to rejuvenate the organisation," says Damber Bahadur Nepali. "The various programmes Paropakar runs are supported by some government funds, charitable donations and income from a few shops that Paropakar has leased out. But it is not enough to fund any expansion of activities. Most of Paropakar's assets are in property."
As social service becomes more management- and donor-driven, organisations like Paropakar, guided for decades by Kansakar's principles of selfless service, must now engage in some serious soul-searching and introspection. "Of course in a philanthropic organisation like Paropakar there's always more expenditure than income. Our orphanage, dispensary, ambulance services are all free. We do keep a little donation box. Those who can afford it leave something, which is welcome," says Hitkar Bir Singh Kansakar." But we have to think of more income-generating measures."
The orphanage has changed with the times. The fifty-two "Bahadur Nepalis" at the orphanage now sleep on iron bunk beds rather than old wooden ones, dining chairs have replaced the old traditional pirkaas, an electric iron has replaced the coal iron and senior students have a separate study room. "They don't have to study under a single lamp like I did," smiles Damber Bahadur Nepali. He, like the others, is now thinking of ways to ensure that Paropakar can carry forward Daya Bir Singh Kansakar's work.