Aapno Melo: Seva Mandir celebrates its Golden Jubilee with a huge community fair

In one of the highlights of its 50th anniversary celebrations, Seva Mandir held Aapno Melo, a large-scale community fair in Udaipur in November 2017. 1,500 villagers from the rural communities, staff from Seva Mandir and other NGOs from around India, as well as representatives of government, donor and corporate organizations came together to celebrate 50 years of collaboration and, just as importantly, to discuss how the villagers and Seva Mandir should continue to work towards their shared goal of a more humane, just and sustainable society and face the challenges of the next half-century.

The whole Melo was a time of energy, joy and commitment, but also an opportunity for serious contemplation of the past, present and future of the rural communities and the nature of their collaboration with Seva Mandir.

The fair was held in the spacious grounds of the NGO’s sister organization, Vidya Bhawan, and Seva Mandir staff from head office and the villages started setting up their stands all around the melo ground on the Friday afternoon and were there early on the Saturday morning to complete preparations. The welcome teams were in place and the cooks were getting ready to feed the masses throughout the weekend.

 

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The first hint of the atmosphere that was to become the signature of Aapno Melo was when groups of villagers started arriving early on the Saturday afternoon.  First was a Gavri group from Jhadol. Gavri is a tribal phenomenon: a bit like a flash mob, it involves men dancing to rhythmic music as they process. The energy as they propelled themselves towards the entrance, dancing and singing and wearing masks, was palpable and irresistible. As other buses arrived from the villages, the ground began to fill with joyous people, all colourfully dressed and determined to play an active part in the celebrations.

 

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As people began to throng the ground, there were games for the younger (and not so young!) participants, including a keenly fought tug of war.

 

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Everyone who came took the time to walk around and inspect the variety of stalls showcasing the work of Seva Mandir, other invited NGOs and donors. The various blocks in which Seva Mandir works were represented. Jhadol displayed a number of grains no longer available in the markets as they are regarded as uncommercial, with the result that they are in danger of disappearing. Kumbhalgarh showed off a variety of vegetables grown with the help of science. Kotra displayed local artifacts made by artisans, fresh produce (such as custard apples) and also focused on the impact of education in this, the most disadvantaged of Seva Mandir’s work areas.

 

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Several of the stalls were run by non-Seva Mandir organizations. The Forest Department showcased the many wildlife reserves around Rajasthan. The Manjari Foundation is a registered non-profit organization helping women from marginalized communities overcome social injustice and poverty, and it enables disadvantaged women, often victims of domestic violence, to achieve sustainable and independent livelihoods.  Their stall displayed the products made by the women they work with.

Some of Seva Mandir’s donors were also represented. Alakh Nayan Mandir and Colgate provided free check-ups – of the eyes and teeth respectively – and spread awareness of the importance of regular health checks. Hindustan Zinc featured a safety awareness programme. Others provided advice on issues such as road safety.

 

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Some stalls offered tempting food and drink!

 

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There were also shows to entertain – some traditional and several involving schoolchildren.

 

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As official proceedings began on the main stage, a film showing the NGO’s first 50 years was screened. Seva Mandir President Ajay Mehta and Chief Executive Priyanka Singh reflected on the NGO’s founding values and its work today in partnership with the villagers of southern Rajasthan. The President recalled the three fundamental principles of the NGO: Seva, Sadhna, Kranti (service, dedication, change) and talked about the four pillars of Seva Mandir: education, common resources, democratic rights and values, and the eradication of poverty. He reflected on the motivation that drove the NGO’s founder, Mohan Singh Mehta, to set up the organization. (See also the separate article on Bhai Sahib in this e-newsletter.)

A villager from Kotra, Champa Baiji, then spoke about her first-hand experience of the difference Seva Mandir had made to the area in which she lives and works. She was part of the panchayat (village-level elected government body), having been its leader for a while, and had been a member of Seva Mandir’s local team for twenty years. She could testify to the influence the NGO had on education, women’s empowerment, livelihoods and the observance of ethical ways of conducting business.

Priyanka Singh, Chief Executive, thanked all those present. She said: ‘Seva Mandir has been able to make changes in the communities because the citizens let us in and led things their own way. So far the initiative for development work in the villages has mostly come from Seva Mandir, but there have been several successful people’s initiatives such as Balwadis (preschool day-care centres) and pastureland renewal. Now it’s time for the initiative to move to the villagers.’

 

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The Melo was officially opened by Mr Arjun Lal Meena, MP, who stressed the importance of education, solidarity, Seva Mandir’s dedication to the development sector, and the role of politics in development. Being a native of Rajasthan who had worked in the state for many years, he had himself witnessed the impact of the NGO. ‘The seed of education that Seva Mandir sowed so many years ago has become a very strong tree today.’

During the proceedings, a display of signatures was unveiled. This was the result of a campaign to ask people to indicate their commitment to continuous progress towards Seva Mandir’s goals. Signatures were collected from villagers, volunteers, library readers, staff and those engaged to work with the NGO in the rural areas.

 

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In the afternoon, groups of enthusiastic and engaged villagers and Seva Mandir staff discussed the aspirations of young people, peri-urban governance, environmental protection, the relevance of rural life, the importance of collectivism, and self-governance. (See the article on these group discussions elsewhere in this e-newsletter.)

It was clear for all to see how much all those present – young and old, rural and urban – enjoyed taking part in all aspects of the Melo, whether serious discussions or entertainments.

 

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The day ended with a traditional Mewari cultural programme, greatly enjoyed by all present.

 

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Sunday day began with a Prabhat pheri (morning rally), involving hundreds of villagers marching through the town alongside Seva Mandir staff to raise awareness of the NGO’s work. Once again, the energy and enthusiasm were palpable and must surely have left a mark on the city.

 

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Once everyone was back at the fair ground and breakfast served,

 

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serious proceedings resumed. The points raised at the previous day’s group discussions were summarized, and then the formal closing ceremony began.

Former employees, people from the rural communities and some of those currently associated with the NGO reflected on Seva Mandir and its work over the last 50 years.

A recap of the weekend’s activities in photographs [available here] preceded a speech by Mr Gulab Chand Kataria, Home Minister of Rajasthan. He said that Seva Mandir had sought out and helped improve the status of the most underprivileged in society. A fundamental belief of Seva Mandir, and proof of its effectiveness, is that everyone sits on the same jajum (carpet), irrespective of caste, creed or sex.

Mayor Mr Chandra Singh Kothari addressed the gathering, and then eminent trustee Mohan Singh Kothari spoke and referred to the five Gandhian principles on which Seva Mandir was founded: non-violence, truthfulness, no stealing, lack of prejudice and hatred, and lack of greed – ‘there is enough in the world for everyone’s needs but not enough for anyone’s greed’. Kothari Sb said that these principles provide a good guide for Seva Mandir’s future.

Finally, CE Priyanka Singh thanked all involved and the Melo came to a formal close.

Reflecting on the Melo, Seva Mandir President Ajay Mehta, said: ‘This Aapno Melo marks Seva Mandir’s 50th anniversary, but the organization was conceived 100 years ago. The foundation is laid and now we must look to the future. If Seva Mandir’s 50 years have taught us anything, it is that to deepen democracy we must give the villagers the opportunity to participate in the development process.’