When an open-air Mahindra jeep pulled up to pick me up for my visit to Gram Chetna Kendra (GCK), I was instantly excited. From colleagues who had visited before me, I knew that the GCK office was located an hour’s drive away from Jaipur. So an hour in this jeep meant enough time to take in life along the highway as well as some interesting pictures.
Closer to an hour and a half later, I got off the jeep outside the organisation’s quiet building – my hair an absolute mess but all worth the drive in an open jeep. And I made my way to meet their CEO Om Prakash Sharma, who was attending to a call on the landline, as his mobile beeped away. As I waited for him to free up, I walked around their quiet premises – confining myself to only the shaded areas as the sun was starting to get pretty strong, though it was just about 10am on an early-October morning.
Through painted boards and posters in the corridors, I learnt that Khedi Milak, where the organisation’s work is based, comprises of close to 20,000 people and is spread across 17 villages. I learnt later, it was in one of these villages that Om Prakash Sharma was born and grew up. Further, that these 20,000 people later came together and unanimously selected him to lead developmental activities in the area through Gram Chetna Kendra.
Set up in 1986, the organisation’s mission is to act as a catalyst whilst bringing about development; moreover, to ensure that development is driven by the people themselves and its benefits reach people equally. After a quick chat with Om Prakash Sharma ( over a surprisingly good cup of coffee for Rajasthan), I drove down with his team to see first-hand some of their projects.
First stop was to the Surgyan Devi or Mundoti Dhar ki Dhani village, which comprises of 25-30 families. Both unusual names, which I’m sure are a result of an interesting piece of history – but that alas is something the Gram Chetna Kendra team wasn’t aware of (nor Google, which I of course searched on later that night). Having been to a number of villages across Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh as part of my role at GiveIndia, I must say I wasn’t expecting anything novel from the visit today. But as we drove up to Surgyan Devi (aka Mundoti Dhar ki Dhani), I recall thinking about how different India is – even its villages! Sand, a different style of pitching tents, the women’s jewellery and another trademark of the state – a camel – instantly stood out. I guess I was mistaken about nothing being different!
I learnt from their team that this was a village of migrants. Constantly on the move in search of work, they made their way back to the village during lull times. With no land of their own, the men were daily labourers who earned Rs. 300 a day (for at best 15 days of work a month); the occasional work available for women gave them Rs. 200 a day. The land they were spread out on covers 2-3 bhigas (local measurement, which is equivalent to an acre) and is owned by the panchayat. It has, over the years, become a more-or-less permanent spot for the people. They may go wherever work takes them but eventually return here. Their mobile nature coupled with low wages ( due to irregular work) is why all families own a tent, a basic, thin mattress and just one chest of belongings (and of course, a camel each).
Families here have formed blocks around the rainwater harvesting tanks that GCK has provided. Each tank has a 5,000 litre capacity, which lasts 2-3 months. While it gets replenished with rainwater, the mere rains in the area mean that tankers need to be called in after 2-3 months. A tanker costs Rs. 300 for the entire 5,000 litres and comes from 4km away. So clearly these tanks haven’t wiped out their water woes; but they’ve made life so much better! For one, women do not have to walk 1.5 hrs to collect a few pots of water. With an average of family of 4-6 members requiring 15 pots of water a day, that’s a lot of time and effort saved (in case you’re wondering, as I was, it’s not only the women, but a couple of family members who used to trek down to collect the water every day).
So, water shortage was one of the issues that got highlighted as a result of a survey they conducted in the area. The other was education, especially of the younger children (there’s a primary school 5 kms away). With the men away half the month, and the women busy with household chores, kids below 5 weren’t getting much attention during the day. A Balwadi was thus set up. Up and running for the past 15 years now, it’s a small one room, basic setup. Thanks to the scorching sun, the windows and door are left ajar just slit-wide. But children’s artwork on the walls combined with the children’s laughter (and crying when folks like me visit) does make it quite a bubbly place. I was even pleasantly surprised to have a full-fledged conversation with the teacher – she knew Hindi (as well as the local Rajasthani dialect) as she isn’t originally from here (this is her sasural).
We then drove down to the neighbouring village, to better understand how toilets yes, you read it right) were changing lives here. But I soon realized that toilets weren’t changing lives, but were in fact proof that lives had been changed. With a considerable number of families wanting toilets (and limited funds available for the same), GCK had decided to give the donation to only those families willing to put in the labour/effort in constructing the same; not to forget, willing to contribute Rs. 4,000 of the total Rs. 14,000 ( intentionally done by GCK so that the toilet is actually used and well maintained).
We first stopped by at the toilet (and I intentionally say it this way as toilets are built as separate structures, a little away from the main house, in rural India) of a joint family, of 4 brothers, all farmers, who collectively owned 100 bhigas of land. I was quite surprised to learn that all of them had gone to (the local) school (which would have taught them in the Rajasthani dialect) before following their father’s (and grandfather’s footsteps) and become farmers. Their children went to the same school, as do their grandkids today.
Over a glass of chaas, we discussed the pros and cons of city and village life for folks like them. Even though one of their sons had joined the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and they were open to the idea of their other children moving to the city later on, this family was pretty clear on preserving their home and land in the village. Having learnt from neighbours’ who’d made the wrong decision, they’d realized that selling land does not give you enough to last a lifetime. They attributed this to inflation coupled with their lack of investment-knowledge and inability to plan/save for the future. I was really happy to meet a family who had realized this from themselves!
At our second toilet stop, the family told me how they were more than relieved (pun intended) to finally get one. They’d been saving up for 2-3 years to be able to make the partial contribution for the same. With the children growing up, they were keen to get a toilet, sooner rather than later, as good habits are inculcated at an early age. This is what I meant when I said that “toilets weren’t changing lives, but were in fact proof that lives had been changed.”
We then proceeded to meet a bunch of children, for whom GCK sponsors basic school supplies and toiletries. These are children from families whose collective monthly income is ~Rs. 4,500, which prevents them from making any kind of educational expense a priority. The simple sponsorship of educational material and toiletries is done so that these parents are not forced to pull their children out of school.
Rainwater harvesting tanks, toilets and sponsorship of school supplies – these are small steps that GCK, which translates into Village Awareness Centre, is taking to give this barren part of the country some life!