Harpreet Singh Kandra, truly a community volunteer

By Indira Laisram
Harpreet Singh Kandra // Pic supplied

Early in June, Harpreet Singh Kandra proudly took the podium at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. The occasion was the first Victorian Multicultural Honour Roll ceremony where Kandra along with 28 other trailblazers and passionate community members were felicitated for their work.

“The contributions of the 2022 inductees are especially significant, given the vital role they played in keeping our communities safe and connected throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the challenging times, inductees were able to support their communities, and represent a generosity of spirit of which Victoria can be proud,” says the Victorian Multicultural Commission.

Harpreet feels blessed and honoured. “It is the effort of the entire Sikh community in Pakenham and Officer,” he tells The Indian Sun, adding, “This recognition has helped me network with other people on the Honour Roll to work collaboratively with them and do more work for the common good.”

In the past, he has received other awards and nominations such as the Australian of the Year Award Cardinia Shire Council, Victoria, for his work with communities in the Shire and the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Contributions to Student Learning at Federation University Australia.

Pic supplied

Recently, Harpreet was selected for the first Community Voices Melbourne training program conducted by the prestigious Judith Neilson Institute and Media Diversity Australia. He was also one of the first batch of graduates of the Cardinia Shire Council Leadership Program.

Credited with being one of the founding members of the Gurdwara Siri Guru Nanak Darbar Officer, the youngest Gurudwara in Victoria, Harpreet has led several projects from infrastructure improvements to environmental conservation to social cohesion, and capacity building of members, particularly the youth.

The Gurudwara was founded three years ago. But it took about four years of trying to find an appropriate 20-acre property in Officer and some challenges including opposition from the local community.

That is because, Harpreet explains, setting up a place of worship-cum-community centre for any young new community is always a challenge given the limited funds, the mammoth task of understanding and meeting local planning regulations, and everyone is busy being a ‘first-generation’ immigrant.

Harpreet Singh Kandra with his family // Pic supplied

“The Sikh community in the Cardinia Shire Council had similar pressures on top of the fact that most people were ignorant about the Sikh faith. And unfortunately, practising religion is considered out of date in today’s world where it is believed that religions just divide people,” he says.

Initially, 24 local residents objected to a place of worship in their vicinity. They final took the matter to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) after a unanimous decision by the Shire to allow the Gurdwara to set up.

“So we decided to build awareness of our faith and principles and organised several open days to break myths and also understand local expectations. We connected with several community leaders to demonstrate our plans and spread the right word. And the objectors started withdrawing from the VCAT matter,” says Harpreet.

When the VCAT order of 13th April 2018 advised the community that all objectors had withdrawn, Kandra says it was ‘the day when Sikh faith was born’.

Victorian Multicultural Commision // Pic supplied

Harpreet has since taken on a mission to make the Gurudwara secular and grow with his team of selfless volunteers. “Now our image in the Shire has changed from problem makers to being problem solvers,” he says with a laugh. The Gurdwara now collaborates with over 20 local organisations.

This World Environmental Day (June 5), the Gurudwara planted 250 trees. During the pandemic, the work that Harpreet and his team did was unique in many ways. It engaged women and other members with creating recipe books to help defeat anxiety. “The idea was to create positivity with cooking and build awareness of foods from different cultures,” says Harpreet.

It also organised web conferences with a wider community such as international students, to understand their problems, help them get answers on visa matters and, network for food support. In addition, the community was involved with creating green spaces and organising worldwide prayers for everyone’s protection and good health.

Looking ahead, some interesting initiatives are in the pipeline including a workshop with Victoria Police in mid-July to build awareness of community rights on racism and how to report it, reveals Harpreet. “We are also looking for financial support to develop a blueprint of our growth while also aiming to understand our carbon footprint and devise strategies to try to become a carbon neutral Gurudwara.”

Pic supplied

Harpreet’s zeal is rooted in his Sikh sensibility. Looking back at his childhood in India, he believes the encouragement from his parents to engage in community work in the Gurudwara planted the seeds for volunteering and social work. It is also guided by the Sikh faith’s principles of ‘Dasvandh’ or sharing —one-tenth of one’s savings to be donated for charitable purposes. Harpreet feels that this principle not only applies to financial contributions but also time commitments.

Later his career choice also aligned with his personal goals. Harpreet completed his Master of Environmental Engineering, Panjab University, India, and after working for a few years at the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI), Delhi, he was awarded a scholarship in 2008 at Monash University to do his PhD on water resource management. “I think all environmentalists are always taught to have compassion for others, for biodiversity—so that is probably where I started thinking about community work and the future of communities,” he reflects.

Since having settled in Australia with his family “for a good quality of life”, Harpreet’s experience as an immigrant has made him aware of the fact that superiority and inferiority complexes resulting from ignorance of cultures can create issues everywhere. This gave him the added zeal to work for social cohesion.

And this pursuit for social cohesion is not an abstract idea for Harpreet.  “The current skills shortage in Australia clearly demonstrates the contributions of immigration and immigrants to Australian economy. And for us to grow in a globalised world, we need to look for better practices in each culture rather than hating someone because of ignorance of their culture (and background). The pandemic has clearly taught us several lessons. Was the virus attacking a particular race or sparing a particular culture? This world is no more about competition but about collaboration,” says Harpreet, who is also an academic at Federation University Australia.

ANZAC Day 2019 // Pic supplied

Being an immigrant, says Harpreet, gives one an opportunity to pick up the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, he rues that people want to enjoy the lifestyle of Australia while clinging to the outdated practices followed back home such as lack of appreciation of environment, competing with others, and so on. “We must find time to introspect on these differences.”

Interestingly and shockingly, he points out to the spirit of volunteering waning. “Ask the community groups that are always struggling to find volunteers. The habit of staying in lockdowns is affecting the spirit of social connections and spirit of sharing and caring. Anxiety and mental health are becoming big challenges.”

Harpreet believes he has a higher calling to follow. “I am a keen learner and a firm believer that my path is already decided by my Guru. So, my role in the community evolves regularly but the key focus always has been and will be on social cohesion based on principles of humanism.”

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