Beyond the margins

Hasmukh Patel is an old friend, a Gandhian and also an alumnus of Lisle International of which I have been a member since student days in the US. He has been an activist and a social worker in Gujarat for many years where he and his wife work in the tribal region in northern Gujarat on the border of Rajasthan. I have visited him in the past and the ERC trust has supported his work in education for tribal youth.
When Mark Kinney (Executive Director of Lisle) and his wife Nancy visited me I suggested we travel to Hasmukh Patel’s NGO, the Samvedana Trust located at Virampur near Palanpur.
Pleasant surprise ONE: The Rajdhani train to Palanpur was excellent; not only was the train on time, the train AND New Delhi Railway station were unbelievably clean! That night we were served a good meal from the train dining car, and an early morning cup of tea the next day.
We arrived in Palanpur at seven in the morning and were delighted to see Hasmukh at the station to receive us with two vehicles (as he surmised we had a lot of luggage). As a matter of fact we travelled with one backpack each, and the porters did not give us a second look!
Palanpur is a former “princely state” a tiny principality once ruled by a Nawab who is still remembered for his good governance of his state – with strict rules, concern for his subjects,- living in his “palace” in the middle of a small but flourishing town. It is now a bustling town like any other urban centre. The rose attar industry for which it was famous has wound down, with only one family now in the traditional business of making the fragrant perfume,attar. The palace is a now a shabby government office, and there appear to be no heir and descendants of the Nawab.
Pleasant surprise TWO ; The roads are excellent. We drove on a beautiful four lane highway towards Ahmedabad. A side road branched off on the pilgrim route to the temple town of Ambaji.
Virampur is a wannabe town (a large village actually) with busy roadside stalls selling cloth, grocery and household supplies and colourful baubles and trinkets popular with the adivasi (Bhil tribe) and Rabari population. Perhaps being on the road to Ambaji and a favoured stop for small vehicles and jeeps it puts on the airs of a prosperous market town. It obviously has not heard of Modi’s Swach Bharat campaign because there is trash everywhere, and the cattle obviously have not been warned of the dangers of eating plastic.
We continued on a single lane but good tarred road without potholes, a smooth ride that many of our cities could emulate. Hasmukh’s institution has an attractive campus, looking much more attractive than when I saw it ten years ago. The trees have grown and so has the garden. Immediately behind the main building a new hostel has come up – two floors with twenty attractive rooms for visitors and guests and a conference room.. This addition has been made possible by a generous donation from Hasmukh’s brother who is a doctor, and other friends of the Trust. The ground floor has classrooms and dormitories, kitchen and dining facilities for a hundred tribal and other rural groups of children grades 3 to 7. The boarding school is a new extension of Hasmukh’s work in this tribal district. There is a large playground, with toilet facilities. The sounds of chatter of the children as they go through the day’s schedule of activities makes for a cheerful atmosphere,
About thirty years ago Hasmukh came here and worked to assist the adivasi villagers in accessing all the government schemes available for their agriculture. After a serious drought, he helped build check dams and irrigation facilities, water conservation and social schemes in health and education. Now the villagers have drip irrigation in their small landholdings, small village schools, and a milk collection centre. Most of what they grow appear to be cash crops – fennel and cumin, mustard and castor for oil, and vegetables. The Bhil adivasis rear sheep. The Rabaris are more prosperous; they are cattle and buffalo herders, and sell the milk to the dairy. They also grow millet and wheat. They are vegetarians, and will not sell their aged non-productive animals. They also do not drink any alcohol.
This is in sharp contrast to the Bhils who rear sheep for sale, love their meat and drink, song and dance and while they live in poor housing in unsanitary surroundings, they are cheerful and friendly and live on amicable terms with the Rabari with whom they have a symbiotic connection of barter. The adivasi brings down fodder for the cattle from the forests on the hills, and exchanges it with the rabaris for milk and grain.
The three days we spent here were very busy. On the first day we went for several miles in the interior, and stopped at two schools. These are makeshift buildings, a short walk from the main road where we parked the car. In the first one there was a thatched hut, with forty children and two teachers. They were all wearing school uniforms of checked cotton, and were busy drawing pictures with crayons, colourful depictions of their ideas. Especially interesting was the elephant which none of them have seen but which fascinates them. They sang songs about numbers – to make math interesting! – and several poems imparting values of working together and caring for each other. While we were there we met a farmer on whose land the small classroom has been built. He offered the land and labour to build a brick school house and Hasmukh agreed to provide the building materials very soon.
The next school was smaller and accommodated under a plastic sheet over a bamboo frame. The thatched hut had been destroyed in a recent storm, so this was a temporary structure. The third school we could not possibly visit, as it is a three hour hike over the hills on a forest track. It has about seventy children we were told, all of whom walk several miles to school every day. Shilpa, Hasmukh’s colleague who is in charge of the education aspect of the trust comes here on foot once a week. She says the teachers come regularly as do the children, and attendance is never a problem.
In one school we met mothers of the school children, one with a healthy four month old baby, who had come to see the school, and talked to us and answered our questions. They speak their own language but most speak a modicum of Gujarati. Some of the teachers know their language but the instruction is in Gujarati both written and spoken.
In the evening we visited an adivasi village where we were entertained by the villagers. The women danced to the rhythms of drums in a swaying movement in a circle around the male drummers. Soon there was an audience of children from the area who came running when they heard the drums. Some of the older girls joined as they continued dancing seemingly tireless as they continued dancing and stopped only when food (snacks) which we brought with us, was served.
The next day we went to a Rabari village where we visited the home(s) of two Rabari brothers, both of whom appeared prosperous. We sat on cots in the courtyard and answered many questions, translated into Hindi by one of their clan who works for Hasmukh’s trust, in turn translated by me into English for the Kinneys. The American visitors were asked about their marriage customs, cost of living, the value of the dollar etc. The question directed at me, because I was introduced as a former Fulbright Director, was about visas to go to America!
In the evening we watched the milk collection at the dairy collection centre which is situated at the entrance to the village from the main road. A line of men and women stood patiently in a queue each carrying their can of milk. There were three men seated at tables next to a chilling tank where the milk is kept cold until the tanker comes at night to transport the milk to the dairy. Milk is collected twice a day but collected by the dairy tanker only at night.
At the table where the farmer empties his can of milk into a container is the man who measures on a meter the fat content of the milk and the quantity. Another man at a computer records the meter reading and enters into the computer the data. He prints out a receipt in which is recorded the data i.e. quantity and fat content – and the receipt is given to the person who has deposited the milk. Even if he (she) cannot read they are satisfied to have a printed record,. Every fifteen days they are paid in cash according to the computer record. We were told they received Rs. 27 for a litre of cow’s milk. (In Delhi we pay Rs. 40 for a litre of cow milk) I asked what would happen if the electricity failed or the computer did not work. They had back up, either a generator or a solar operated system. The third person at the centre is the computer technician who is delegated to check the equipment by the dairy. It was amazing to see how technology has touched the lives of these villages.
The next day was a Sunday, the last Sunday in the month when a medical camp is held in Virampur.The venue was a “resthouse” built by the government called the Shabari guest house, named after the tribal woman in the Ramayana. It is place where villagers who come to Virampur from distant villages can rest as they wait for their bus, or when they come for a day’s excursion to get supplies. It was a basic structure – a large room with verandah.
In the morning four doctors, two female nurses and two pharmacists arrived at Hasmukh’s hostel from Mehsana, the nearest large city, and they had breakfast with us. Then we all went to Virampur where the camp is held from 10 am to 1 pm. We were late in arriving and there was already a small line of people registering themselves with two receptionists seated at a desk. The pharmacists soon took up their position behind a long table with six trays of medicines, sorted perhaps according to category. The patients came with their prescriptions and received the medicines, while the pharmacist patiently explained in detail the dosage and instruction on when the medicines should be taken. There were a couple of old people due for cataract surgery and appointments were made for them to go by an ambulance to the nearest hospital. All expenses for medical care and treatment are taken care of by the Trust. It was moving to see how the old were brought with great care and assistance from their sons and daughters. Some had walked for three or four hours from their villages; others were fortunate to have male relatives with motor bikes or bullock carts to bring them to Virampur.
At 1 pm we all returned for a sumptuous lunch, with extra dishes and dessert in honour of the visiting medical team. The hostel children ate in rows seated on the floor, and sang a prayer before the meal. The food was cooked by the staff there and was excellent Gujarati vegetarian fare.
It was on the whole a remarkable experience for us, – meeting people living in the margins, understanding their culture, livelihood, their needs and their way of adapting to the environment, was a valuable learning experience and also a humbling one for those of us who take so much of our modern comforts and amenities for granted.

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