This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact http://www.agimag.co.uk/ (Issue 05: Dec 2012/Jan 2013)
Building roads or feeding cattle? This post looks back on lessons I learnt while working with a rural management NGO in North India.
“In Kuwait?” I asked in disbelief.
“Yes, sir,” said Suresh, leaning on his bullock-plough and laughing. “Four village members are working in Kuwait.”
Coming minutes after the bombshell that Suresh, a tattily-dressed maize farmer, had a degree in History, Politics and Hindi Literature, this was getting too bizarre. While sweating up a mountain-track on foot to get here, I’d formed an image of what a remote tribal village might be like and, needless to say, Bachelors of Arts with friends in the Gulf had not been part of it. Rural India was clearly going to be full of surprises.
I was in Wanibore, a mountain-top hamlet in Rajasthan, North India, with a 600-strong community belonging entirely to the Meena tribe. Once branded by the British as criminals, the Meena are now formally located within the fabric of Indian society as a Scheduled Tribe at the bottom end of the traditional caste hierarchy. I had come as a volunteer with a locally-run NGO called Seva Mandir whose mission is based on rural and tribal development, rooted in the concept of empowerment. Communities, the argument runs, should be empowered to direct their own development from within, rather than relying solely on outside intervention. My role was to work with the community to assess its development needs and set out a plan to meet these needs in a report that Seva Mandir could use to approach state government for funding. Despite my near-total inexperience in this field, Dilip, my affable “in-charge”, seemed alarmingly confident in my abilities, and thus, armed with naïve enthusiasm and a smattering of Hindi, I got down to work.
In the weeks that followed, my eyes were opened to poverty, polygamy and even a poultry sacrifice. I slept on string beds and drank a fearsome local tipple brewed from the flowers of the mahua tree. I was also struck by the warmth and intelligence of Wanibore’s citizenry and developed some strong ideas on what the village needed to bring it to somewhere approaching the twenty-first century. Chief among these was a tarmac road with a regular jeep service, enabling faster delivery of supplies, a less time-consuming school run and vastly more efficient transport of the sick to medical help. What was more, the village was in broad agreement over this, ranking a road even above electricity as a priority.
Back at the headquarters, Dilip had other ideas. He felt I had concentrated too much on infrastructural problems that are outside Seva Mandir’s scope, and the focus should shift towards livelihoods and natural resources. Stall feeding for cattle, for example, or managing drainage. “Stall feeding for cattle?” I echoed derisively, making my disagreement clear. For me, development was about sweeping gestures – building roads, laying on electricity – and we should be focusing our efforts there, not fretting over dining facilities for local farm animals. Patiently, Dilip reminded me that Seva Mandir had its own areas of expertise and a remit based around these. Road-building was not one of them. I conceded that he had a point, dutifully amending my report while attempting to engage the movers and shakers of Wanibore in a petition to the local government for a road. Before long, my time with Seva Mandir was up, and I felt I had only just begun to understand what sustainable development was about.
Two and a half years later, I returned to Wanibore – on a jeep! I take no credit for the rough-surfaced road that now leads right up to the village school, but it was heartening to hear my old friends’ enthusiasm for the changes it had made to their lives: quicker trips to the nearest grain shop for the men and better access to the local secondary school for their children. For Suresh too, now studying for a BEd, it was a great improvement on the tiring climb of days past. He wasn’t entirely happy when I met him, however, as he was missing his brother who had left to work for a construction company in Kuwait…