Aapno Melo: What the villagers had to say
As well as a celebration of Seva Mandir’s 50th anniversary, Aapno Melo provided an opportunity for hundreds of villagers to sit together to discuss issues of concern to them all. Village meetings are, of course, part of the stock in trade of Seva Mandir, but villagers do not have such frequent opportunities to debate with people from villages far distant from their own. Aapno Melo provided just such an opportunity, including a chance to talk with representatives from NGOs other than Seva Mandir.
There were six group discussions, all entered into with great enthusiasm by women and men, young and old – that in itself being a tribute to the work Seva Mandir has done in the villages to promote inclusivity.
Readers may find a summary of the discussions, and a few individual interviews, shed light on the thinking of many rural and peri-urban villagers.
The future of rural life
The first group discussed the future of rural life and the present and future challenges faced by those living in the countryside. Improvements were noted: in healthcare (facilities, the increased rate of institutional births, the decrease in infant and maternal mortality and morbidity), education (notably the fact that both boys and girls are now granted an education) and infrastructural development. Where earlier women were not allowed out of their homes, now they share social and political platforms. But the lack of employment opportunities in the countryside results in ever greater numbers of young people migrating to the cities for work, which in turn has led to competition and lower wages. Young people are showing little inclination to take part in agricultural work and allied activities (high input, low returns) and this is one reason for the selling of agricultural land for commercial use.
The conclusion of the villagers was that, while cities are important, there is a place for villages. Solutions suggested for the challenges raised included generating employment to keep young people in rural areas, the introduction of new technology to encourage them to work in agriculture, and increased efforts towards sustainable development and the preservation of common resources.
Conservation of the environment
The second group gathered to discuss conservation of the environment. One issue raised was market-led agriculture: while farmers understand the problems linked to growing, for example, BT cotton, and know that other crops, such as safed musli, are more beneficial to them and the land, the huge market for the former, compared with the lack of commercial outlets for crops that Seva Mandir promotes, make it very difficult for them to make the choices they would like to make.
Another challenge, in the context of Seva Mandir’s work on Joint Forest Management, is the tendency for individual interests to supersede community interests.
Villagers mentioned problems such as mining companies dumping mineral waste on village pastureland, and wealthier landowners dispossessing poorer villagers and taking over community land (encouraged by politicians looking out for prospective voters).
Other challenges include invasive species and harmful agricultural practices such as excessive use of chemical fertilizers in an attempt to increase yield. There is a vicious cycle: limited water -> less livestock -> less organic manure -> less pastureland.
This group too regretted the migration of discontented youth towards the cities, leaving women, children and the elderly to run the farms and try to protect the environment.
The solutions suggested included starting with manageable small-scale conservation; involving young people and ensuring that the wisdom of earlier generations is passed down to them. Environmental conservation was seen as the joint responsibility of the people, the government and the organization, with the rural people taking the lead. As one speaker put it: we can choose to follow the lead of Delhi and the Punjab (where people have enough money but no fresh air to breathe) or the village (where people don’t have money but do have a healthy environment to live in).
Collectives and democracy
The third group discussed the role of collectives and democracy. There was almost unanimous agreement that ‘individuals from all segments of the community, irrespective of their gender, age, caste, religion, political alignment or financial status, must come together on a common platform to discuss issues of mutual significance… A beautiful parallel was drawn with how individual bricks come together to build a house that stands the test of time.’ Villagers agreed that ‘the needs of the village supersede the needs of any particular individual. But all members need to agree upon a solution for it to be of any effectiveness and the only way to achieve this is through continuous communication and negotiations.’ GVCs (village development committees) and Self-Help Groups, both institutions that Seva Mandir helps its partner villagers to set up and run, were mentioned as prime examples of such inclusive groups. Those taking part in the discussion were well aware of the pressures caused by divergent priorities amongst different groups within a collective, and suggested that collectives should maximize the number of the most needy segment of the community within each group. In order to deal with the problem of mistrust and dissent within a collective, the solution offered was to give the dissenting segment a greater role in the proceedings of the collective to strengthen their sense of ownership.
This thoughtful group discussed the danger that a collective could easily dissolve once it had fulfilled the task it was set up to accomplish. The four golden rules were: all members must make time to attend the activities initiated by the collective; members must realize the need to sacrifice small personal gains in order to further collective goals; a collective must define its own set of rules and all members must abide by them, irrespective of their position in or outside of the collective; and, most importantly, a collective must transcend the work it does.
The villagers asked Seva Mandir to continue its efforts to integrate the village community and bring everyone together on the same platform, and paid tribute to the improvements brought about by the NGO. Participants expressed pleasure at the way the Melo was being run and delight at the opportunity afforded to meet and interact with those from different areas and backgrounds.
Swaraj and development
Swaraj means self-governance or self-rule. The discussion focused on how to ensure that all inhabitants of a village have a fair and equal chance to participate in the development of their village – a requirement for sustainable development – and the role of the individual in the community.
One speaker gave an example of the challenges of balancing the needs of the individual and those of the community. ‘When we were provided with our first Joint Forest Management site to work, it was illegally occupied by eighteen families, which made it almost impossible to proceed. After a few rounds of dialogue the families agreed to move but the problem was that the new location proposed had no water and they were too poor to pay for a tube well or handpump. We took a unanimous decision that those families would only be relocated when we could ensure a proper water supply at the new place. We raised the issue with the panchayat (village-level elected government body), and with Seva Mandir’s help we succeeded in arranging water for these families.’
The group discussed the place of dissent in society, and agreed that in a democracy people had the right to disagree with the majority. ‘If we want to fulfil the dream of real Swaraj then we need to stand up for what we believe is right and have the guts to protest or discard what is wrong.’
The final point of discussion was the need to admit when one was wrong. ‘We shouldn’t shy away from recognizing our mistakes.’
This group consisted of young people aged between 15 and 25 and a decision was taken to separate young men and young women to ensure that no one felt nervous of expressing his or her views.
Points raised included:
- The increasing rate of unemployment among village youth
- The burden, particularly on the eldest child, of earning for the family
- The need for more vocational training
- Migration and associated issues such as health, poor working conditions, poor pay, child labour, exploitation
- Child marriage and issues related to early pregnancy
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Female infanticide
- Child trafficking
- Lack of knowledge of government schemes, policies and laws
- Lack of life opportunities compared with city youth because of financial, social and societal constraints
The young men raised the following points:
- Family pressure to start earning, leading to school/college dropouts
- Pressure to get married early
- Lack of career counselling and guidance for life
The young women highlighted the following:
- Lack of support from home to pursue studies after 12th grade and get a decent job
- Family discrimination between male and female children
- Poor access to healthcare
- The fact that financial problems at home affect girls’ opportunities more than boys’
- Being treated as an untouchable and an outcaste during menstrual periods
- Domestic violence against women
The young people came up with the following solutions:
- Career counselling programmes
- Vocational training and skill development through (Seva Mandir-run) Youth Resource Centres
- The need to work on the issues of caste, class and gender inherent in society
- The need to raise awareness about all the recent government policies and schemes
- The need to ensure that the panchayati system in the villages works efficiently for its people
- ‘Education is the only tool that can end all of society’s prejudices against men as well as women’
- The increasing disparity between rich and the poor needs to be addressed and there should be equity and equality between both
- Young people need to come together, form a group, build a feeling of solidarity in society and work towards tackling the issues that trouble them
The young people agreed that ‘the cycle of oppression, poverty, prejudices and discrimination has become never-ending: one aspect feeds on the other. To really end all of it, one needs to work on the holistic development of a village/block in terms of education, healthcare, employment opportunities, self-sufficiency of the people, and reduce their dependency on external agencies. This will also help in piercing the veil of ignorance and people’s superstitious beliefs.’
Challenges of peri-urban development
The final group consisted of residents from the two peri-urban areas with which Seva Mandir works: Delwara and Kankroli.
The group began by defining the difference between the urban and peri-urban. The Seva Mandir moderator described the peri-urban as ‘the landscape interface between town and village, or the transition zone where urban and rural uses mix and often clash. Peri-urban areas encompass characteristics of both the urban and rural world.’
Seva Mandir has been working in Delwara for many years but has only recently become involved with Kankroli. Interestingly, residents from these two areas were joined by people from Bikaner, a distant area of Rajasthan, well beyond Seva Mandir’s remit.
One speaker said that ‘youth in these peri-urban areas face the biggest challenge, as they live in a traditional environment but their dreams are the same as those of the urban youth. They too want to have smartphones, the latest bikes etc., but their financial condition and environment restrict them. Because of this they sometimes feel depressed and follow the wrong path.’ This speaker also explained that, after school, ‘there are no further study options available to youth in these peri-urban areas so they have to migrate towards urban areas if they want to continue their studies and then work. Youth will live in these peri-urban areas if sufficient livelihood options are available to them.’
One speaker said that, in terms of budget, the government doesn’t differentiate between rural and peri-urban areas. But peri-urban needs are different from and greater than those of villages, and such areas’ development needs will not be fulfilled unless the budget is increased.
A Delwara resident pointed out that there is also a gap between peri-urban desires to live like those in urban areas and residents’ willingness to change and modernize. Their thinking is still very traditional. For example, she said, people still don’t want to construct toilets in their home and still follow the old system of going out into the fields. She gave another example: when some women go out to work wearing non-traditional clothes they find that others criticize them and question their character. She thought that changing mindsets of people in these peri-urban areas was the biggest challenge in development.
Other speakers mentioned the importance of ensuring water supplies and paid tribute to Seva Mandir’s efforts to build water tanks in Kankroli. Cleanliness was another challenge which government budgets did not allow for. In Delwara, Seva Mandir and the Citizens Development Forum had appointed Aarogya Mitras who regularly go door to door to collect garbage and also clean the area daily. This initiative was praised as encouraging people to participate and take responsibility for their own development.
One woman paid tribute to Seva Mandir’s offshoot, Sadhna (which enables women to earn a living sewing clothes and other items), whose headquarters is in Delwara. She said that thanks to Sadhna women are now earning good amounts of money, and some had travelled for exposure visits. These activities help in empowering women and also in the development of these areas.
The discussion also touched on the gap between sections of society in these peri-urban areas, and differential treatment of them.
In conclusion, it was agreed that development in these peri-urban areas is only possible when people change their mindsets and develop the sense of belonging. Dependence on government will slow down the speed and process of development. ‘It’s time to change the strategies. Communities should make themselves stronger. For the last fifty years Seva Mandir has been helping people to take decisions, but now it’s time for communities to take their own decisions without any outside help.’
The e-newsletter team took the opportunity to canvas the views of several of those attending Aapno Melo and a few of these are highlighted below.
Megha ji (70) from Girwa paid tribute to Seva Mandir’s work in helping farmers with agriculture and in providing easier access to clean water, meaning that women no longer had to walk so far to collect it. He was delighted to be part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations and was enjoying the music and dancing – and the delicious food.
Narayani Bai (25), from the same block, also mentioned the NGO’s work in agriculture and water provision and was grateful that she no longer had to walk miles for water. She too was glad to be part of the Melo.
Nauji Bai (60) said that status of women in her village had improved thanks to initiatives taken by women, who could now go out to work and be independent. She commented on how well the Melo was organized and particularly enjoyed the dances.
Kishan lal Wadhera (58) from Jhadol has been associated with Seva Mandir since 1968 and is currently secretary of his village’s development committee and treasurer of the Jhadol block federation. He has been very active in a number of areas of the NGO’s work and mentioned the improvements in education, natural resource development and livelihoods. He said that the most important change brought about by Seva Mandir was a change in thinking processes – villagers’ thinking had grown and widened with their awareness. ‘The people have started demanding from government better policies and facilities and accordingly government has also started to listen to their demands and things are changing faster then ever.’
He really liked the concept of Aapno Melo and said that these sorts of events acted as a bridge between the NGO and the village communities.
Shankar ji is another farmer who has seen changes since Seva Mandir came to his village. He spoke about the spread of education, with better infrastructure, good teachers and new monitoring methods. He is very grateful that discrimination in the schools has ended. He is happy with the type of education his children are getting. He also talked about Seva Mandir helping farmers improve their crops with hybrid seeds which improve the fertility of the soil. Overall, he thinks Seva Mandir has helped make his a progressive village. People’s thinking has changed over time, and they are more adaptable than before.
Ganesh Lal ji is a member of Caste group which helps solve disputes between people of the village. He said the women faced a lot of domestic abuse but, in earlier days, there had been no resistance from them. When Seva Mandir came to the village they started spreading awareness of social justice and women’s empowerment.
He also talked about the NGO’s help with forest protection, afforestation, natural resource development and agricultural practices, which had helped the village flourish. When asked about education in the village, he spoke about the rate of illiteracy in the villages, and prejudices against educating girls. Seva Mandir’s introduction of Balwadis (day-care centres for children 1-5) in the village had begun to close the gap between rates of male and female education. The teachers did not now discriminate between their students.
He also described how Seva Mandir had played an important role in stopping rich landlords exploiting poor farmers by charging them exorbitant rates of interest on loans. Seva Mandir’s Self-Help Groups helped provide farmers with financial stability.
Solidarity was an issue in the village. People did not cooperate with each other, which then resulted in numerous quarrels. Seva Mandir intervened and started making people aware of the importance of solidarity in the smooth functioning of a village. It took some time, but people started acting on the incentives to cooperate with others. People were elected to reach a common ground in disputes. Mutual understanding was taught and learnt successfully and disputes have occurred less often. ‘My village has changed a great deal in many social and developmental areas. It has a lot to do with Seva Mandir’s interventions and cooperation from the village, and their flexibility to adapt to change.’
Food for thought
Priyanka Singh, Seva Mandir’s Chief Executive, listened to several of the discussion groups during the afternoon and was particularly struck by a couple of comments. One man said, ‘I strayed. I wasn’t honest with Seva Mandir. I still regret it. Seva Mandir took me back and forgave me. That made me think about what I had done and I changed my ways. I have two sons. I tell them, “Do whatever you need to do. But don’t get into corruption.” My experience and Seva Mandir’s treatment of my dishonesty has changed my life.’
A woman in another group talked about how life had changed for women in Kherwara. Before, women did not sit on the mat with men at meetings. No one asked what the women felt about any issue. Men’s and children’s lives have also changed because of ‘meetings’.
The woman said: ‘If you want understand how things have changed, come to our village and see the work that has been done. None of it would have been possible without ‘meetings’.
As Priyanka reflected, we often think meetings sound boring, off-putting. For these people who never had a say before Seva Mandir’s involvement, ‘meetings’ are the catalyst for change.
Contributors: Anshul Bhatt, Mansi Karia, Nilesh Mishra, Saurabh Karodi, Alisha Ali, Anubhav Joshi, Vibhav Joshi, Heera lal Patel, Sanchali Kanjilal, Gayatri Chauhan, Atul Lekhra, Akshatha Nayak, Avani Jain, Shaurya Gupta, Aditya Kumar, Varsha Rathore, Sandie Williams, Priyanka Singh, Felicia Pheasant