We’ve been to two villages so far as a part of this trip. Both villages have surprised me in ways that I wasn’t expecting.
There’s this idea of India as a country in poverty. That is most definitely true – the street children are everywhere, I see so many people sleeping on the side of the road, and almost 28% of the Indian population is living under the global poverty line. What I see of India is also a huge conundrum. Cell phones are everywhere, technology is really cheap, but the drinking water is still not hygienic, the roads are very poorly kept up, and garbage is everywhere. Most of this I was expecting, but not all of my expectations have proven true. Not by a long shot.
The villages have been some of my favorite excursions. I went into them with, of course, a preconceived notion of the village as a very poor part of India that would be emotionally difficult. I expected to see poverty unlike I would see in Jaipur. The two villages that we visited, however, moreso than being poor were less developed than Jaipur. What I hadn’t expected was the beautiful painted homes in Laporiya, the intricate gates of Rajiana, and the hope I was able to find.
Laporiya was our first village, and our first major excursion. We were there all the way back during our first full week in Jaipur. The village has been working on ways to conserve water – it’s located in Rajasthan, where there has been a severe monsoon drought the past 15-20 years. The droughts were causing people to move out of the villages to attempt to escape poverty, but left behind them more destitution and less hope.
So one man and a team of villagers decided to imitate the way that natural lands capture and store water for the watershed. They did this by digging strategic ditches and pools, in such a way that the wells and ponds would move the water from one place to another. Even if the pools don’t have standing water, they help to capture water for the wells of the village people, and can be used to irrigate crops/restore the groundwater.
It’s an absolutely brilliant design for a natural space, and allowed the people of the village to restore some of their agricultural economy. Since then, the village people have developed other new, sustainable ways of doing things to aid in economic and holistic development. When we visited, the pools were full of water and the crops were in high season.
The villagers of Laporiya also noticed that when the natural diversity of animals is in the area, their crops do better. So the people set aside some land for a bird reserve, where over 300 species of bird migrate to/live in throughout the year. We saw parrots in the wild, and other birds. There were also a ton of dragonflies, snails, and moths.
We didn’t see the aspects of the village that weren’t really working – what little I was able to observe of village life, it was still a fairly patriarchal society (the girls that I talked to didn’t go to school). People didn’t have too much excess wealth, but they were beginning to do things like build more modern homes (though the traditional Rajasthani homes were better for the weather in the area.) Pretty much the only things that really stuck with me from that trip as far as learning goes were the things about water conservation and agriculture.
The second village we visited was in Himachal Pradesh, which is in the Eastern Indian Himalayas. The name of the village was Rajiana, and it was at a very different developmental stage than Laporiya. We weren’t there specifically to study agriculture, so I have less of an idea on how the villagers earn money. There was definitely some agriculture happening – huge rice patties, they also grew wheat and harvested some traditional medicinal plants (though whether they were at a commercial scale or for personal use was unclear to me). We were there mostly to study how the Chinmey Organization for Rural Development (CORD) was having an impact in Rajiana.
The way that CORD works is a pretty simple model. Organizers with CORD go into the villages, find people that are interested in social change, and help them to facilitate “self-help groups.” These can be focused on agriculture, personal finance/banking/saving, women’s issues, and youth programs. The CORD organizers, once they feel that the villagers have learned enough, allow them to run the show and check in to the village once a month.
While in Rajiana, we were able to sit in on a women’s self-help group. This was probably one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in India. We got the chance to ask them questions, but had to go through a very long process of translation. Taraji, our teacher, speaks Hindi, as did the CORD organizer who was taking us around, but the women don’t speak Hindi, they speak a regional dialect. So we would ask Taraji a question, she would translate to Hindi, and then the CORD guy would translate into the regional dialect. And even then, he would have to contextualize absolutely everything.
That was very difficult to watch – we would ask a seemingly simple question, and they just wouldn’t be able to understand what we meant. I asked “What would you like to learn how to do?” and it took literally 20 minutes of translation. It’s just not in their frame of mind to pick up a hobby just to do it. Everything is done for a purpose. The women were so welcoming too – they invited us all to come back the following day for a local festival, and asked us to take them back to the States with us. They asked us about marriage and farming in the US. They all had to get permission from their husbands to come to the meetings, and the bravery and strength was amazing to be a part of.
Finally, when the meeting was actually over, we just danced.