MAHAD, 7th September 2006: The Indian village of Kondivite in Maharashtra state is used to the sight of Habitat volunteers but well-known TV personality Pooja Bedi lifted such events out of the ordinary.
The host of "Just Pooja", a talk show on India's Zoom TV, led a few builds to Kondivite village in the town of Mahad, about 190 km. from Mumbai. Pooja, who is also a columnist and author, lent her name to "Build with Pooja Bedi". Earlier in March 2006, she had launched the Kondivite build site on which 80 new houses will be constructed.
The new homes are for those who were left homeless by July 2005 floods that deluged Maharashtra. Numerous landslides following the floods caused damage in several villages, including Kondivite in Mahad. "Build with Pooja Bedi" is a special program under Habitat's Maharashtra Flood Response Initiative that aims to build 1,000 houses for flood victims.
The Mahad project is collaboration between Habitat and Jankalyan Trust. The trust is a grassroots agency working in the Raigad district of Maharashtra, providing basic community services to over 100 villages in the vicinity.
Pooja's assistance is not in name only - a fact that a group of young volunteers can testify to. The youth group is from St Joseph's High School in Juhu, a suburb in the state capital Mumbai. During the build in late May, they were working alongside Pooja, laying bricks and mixing cement at the Mahad site. Camaraderie was evident as they worked with homepartner families on three houses.
Pooja said in an email interview: "I'm not the kind of person that only lends my name to a project. I take my time to choose what I like to do, but once committed, I actively involve myself in virtually every aspect. Which is why you will see me participating in every area from building walls and roofs, fund raising to getting volunteers."
More than a month later, in early July, Kondivite was again abuzz when Pooja visited. This time, she was accompanied by a film crew who arrived to produce a public service announcement on Pooja and her work with Habitat at Kondivite.
In the three days that Pooja was in Kondivite, her presence motivated the volunteers to persevere with construction despite the heavy monsoon rains. By putting up a temporary tent over one of the houses, the masons, homepartner family and community volunteers continued laying bricks till the work was done.
On her third visit to Kondivite in mid July, Pooja's two children, Aaleya, 8, and Omar, 6, came along. They checked on the project's progress and got down to work. "I believe that all children should be taught to share and care from a very young age and the only way to teach is by example. I wanted them to see what their mom does because I want very much for my children to realize and appreciate the privileges they enjoy, and that they should care for and help those that have virtually nothing."
Her interest extends beyond the Mahad project. Pooja has approached various sponsors for the 2006 Jimmy Carter Work Project (JCWP) that will be held in Lonavala, about 125 km. east of Mumbai, from 30th October to 3rd November. Pooja, who planned to be present for JCWP, has requested for donations of construction materials like platinum and cement. In addition, she spoke to heads of various companies about sponsoring hundreds of volunteers. She is also keen to adopt another community after the Mahad project is completed.
How does Pooja juggle the demands of family, work and volunteerism? "What can I say, except for 'where there's a will, there's a way!'. I truly believe it's about WANTING to. We can choose to find a hundred excuses why we can't do something, and a hundred ways of getting it done. The choice lies with us," Pooja said.
The Mahad project is due to be completed in mid September after which a dedication ceremony will be held.