Research Associate | VIF

Change Agents Retreat

28th March-1st April, 2018

Change Agents Retreat camp is not just any ordinary orientation of new inductees into a fellowship program. It is a rite of passage for the young Indians aspiring to join the modern nation building movement started by Vision India Foundation. A group of motivated ‘fellows’ who had been selected for a three-year-long fellowship program arrived in Mumbai on 28th March, 2018 for Change Agents Retreat, 2018.

Thirteen fellows met the VIF team at a non-descript restaurant in Borivali, Mumbai. The city of Mumbai was abuzz on that Sunday morning. So were the would-be change agents. They alighted the bus with enthusiasm. It was a basic school bus – without an air-conditioner or any luxury. The message was clear – we had to live like millions of fellow-Indians. We drove into the dry and arid interiors of Maharashtra. We were headed 87 kms off Mumbai, to Eklavya Swalamban Trust in the Palghar district. The bus sped on the long winding road in the middle of parched, barren land. The heat became unbearable and dust filled our senses. The sight of the Eklavya building was a respite after a long drive. We were to discover that our rooms had no beds – mattresses on the floor. By then we had given up on the hope of an air-conditioner. As days passed we toughened up to the heat and the surroundings.

After a simple lunch and brief rest we met for our first session in the hall. The session began with a game. We had to draw our names on a paper and later decode/decipher the drawings made by others. Guessing people’s name was the fastest way to thaw the ice and become acquainted with each other.  After the name guessing game the VIF team introduced us to their goals and motto. The address stimulated the fellows to think beyond their personal goals. We were inspired to push the boundaries of our imagination and ambition. The crucial aspect of modelling new India on the civilizational background was emphasized. VIF team set out the plan for the next few days. Later in the evening we visited a ‘gaushala’ and a pond within the complex. It was our first introduction to the water conservation attempts in Maharashtra. The day ended with songs around the campfire.

We started the next day (29th) early with a walk to the village sarpanch’s home. Walking through the village, we realized how poor the inhabitants of that area were. The sarpanch was a young man, dedicated to his village’s welfare. He gave instances of how local problems had been solved at the level of gram panchayat. According to him there was no crime against women in the village. The panchayat had bought a van to ferry people to the hospital, because there was no ambulance at the hospital. Instead of chasing government officials for an ambulance they had resolved the problem themesleves. For immediate needs the villagers relied on the primary health center and traditional doctors. Some fellows asked high level questions about government schemes. At the end of the visit we realized the problems on the ground were best solved at the ground. High level policy talk in the air-conditioned offices of Delhi had little relevance to the villagers.  

We set out to tour nearby villages after breakfast. The group split into three. As soon as our group entered the village a slogan caught our attention – “Na lok sabha, na rajya sabha. Sabsey badi gram sabha.’ The slogan explained the prevailing sentiment even before we got started. Accompanied by the VIF team we entered the ‘Gramsabha office’. Soon we were joined by the sarpanch (later we discovered he was sarpanch’s husband), and other men of the village. We wondered if the ‘mahila sarpanch’ was only an idea. Was the panchayat being run by men? We were told the women of the village were away at a temple. The conversation picked up pace. To begin with, the sarpanch educated us about the structure of panchayat, group panchayat and gram panchayat. He explained how the village farmers were trying to eliminate the middle men to get a fair price for their agricultural produce. The primary challenge before the panchayat was to manage the problem of flooding during the monsoon. Every monsoon the village was marooned for a few days. That apart, most people had no means of earning after the farming season. This led to families migrating to nearby cities for work. Migration interfered with their children’s education. ‘Yuva parivartan sanstha’ a not-for-profit group in the village, was running schemes for microfinance, solar power generation, women support, training farmers and knowledge sharing about agriculture. Primary health center was 5 kms away. The panchayat had bought a van to transport people in the need of immediate medical help to the hospital. Mostly people needed immediate intervention for snake bites, accident and child birth. Local dais delivered most babies. According to the sarpanch most people sorted their differences outside the panchayat. Justice was immediate. People celebrated festivals together by contributing money – the modern model of community living was part of our culture. Most children went to the primary school. Secondary school was 16 kms away and the students had to live in the hostel. This led to children dropping out of school. We saw how the villagers were trying to get a grip on their problems. It was evident that the government schemes did not percolate to the remote areas. We spent some time at sarpanch’s brother’s house. It was moving to see their simple dwellings. We saw how little they had and how hard they worked to make the ends meet. We learned how cows were valued in their area. The villagers took only as much milk as they needed for their children, the rest was left for the calves. It was heartwarming to see villagers live in harmony with the nature.

After returning to our rooms we had some time to ourselves to internalize all our experiences. In the evening we discussed our thoughts and experiences. Later we spent one-on-one time with the VIF team members to chart out our plans/fellowship work for the next three years. We tried to reset our goals so that our work should make an impact on the vulnerable and the poor of the country.

The third day started with a walk to the riverside. The swimmers in the group splashed into the river, others stood in the water and a few sat on the banks of the river. In the afternoon VIF alumni and fellows joined us. We had another round of introductions. The atmosphere was charged. Here were people who were successfully making an impact on people’s lives. This was followed by a series of presentations and talks. The first talk was about the impact ‘Eklavya Swalamban Trust’ was making in the Palghar district. The trust had been working relentlessly in the areas of education, water conservation, reforestation, health and welfare.  Raghav presented a paper on the emergence of Bharata. He started with the frames to understand Bharata. How to see Bharata in the context of the world. The economics and the politics. Raghav’s presentation charged the atmosphere with optimism.

The talks were followed by games and finally dinner. The new fellows used the opportunity to learn about the ongoing work and form networks.

The fourth day (31st) turned out to be even more adventurous – we were going to meet the community leaders and change agents in the field, people who were changing the society for better. We drove into the most dry and arid parts of Maharashtra. Time in the bus was used to practice ‘VIF song’. We had been practicing the song since the day we arrived. The song was to be sung on the last day in Mumbai.

Our first halt was Lajpatrai Mehra Neurotherapy Training/Research and Wellness Centre, Suryamal. The center specializes in the treatment of pain and disease management. Sh Lajpatrai Mehra was the pioneer of this treatment. He blended the scripts of Indian philosophy with Western anatomy and physiology to derive this treatment. The therapy works by regulating the circulation of blood/lymph and nerve currents to stimulate the body to treat itself. The center treated patients and trained people from nearby tribal villages. The center had been endorsed by the likes of Mr. Gadkari. Not only was the center providing medical help, it is also training practitioners and generating employment in the tribal areas.

From the healing center we drove to Sahyadri Adivasi Bahuvidh Seva Sangh in Nashera. As we drove into the interiors the habitat became more hostile. Sahyadri Seva Sangh runs a center for women self-help. Here the Adivasi women were taught to make cloth bags which were sold in the cities or to the visitors to the center. Center had sent two tribal women to Delhi for training. These women had further trained other Adivasi women working at the center. The bigger aim of Sahyadri Seva Sangh is to create circumstances so that the people in that area didn’t need to migrate. Every year the tribal families were forced to migrate for a few months to the nearby cities for work. Farming was limited to a few months of the year because the area received rainfall only once a year. Rest of the year farmers had no work because of which they were forced to migrate. Sahyadri Seva Sangh center had been able to check the migration. Women were employed and the children were looked after in Baalwaadis while their mothers stitched bags.  

After a long drive we reached Shree Gurudev Bahudeshiya Samajik Sanstha in Jawahar. It was the final destination. The sanstha is running a residential school for the physically and the mentally challenged children. The principal gave a talk on how she set up the school. Apart from primary education the children were also being trained in craft work. Teachers were trained in educating children with special needs. The school was trying to provide a nurturing environment to the children who were the most marginalized in the society. Following this, Mr. Milind Thate, an activist-environmentalist, made a presentation on his organization – Vayam. Vayam was an initiative to empower and train the tribal communities to find solutions to their problems. Vayam engages the community in conservation and development. The organization is running multiple projects, impacting lives in tribal areas of Maharashtra. According to Dr Thate policy intervention worked best when the community was involved in solutions. From water conservation to reforestation, to women empowerment, training, and education – Vayam is doing it all. They have helped farmers fight for their land and rights.

After lunch we took a round of children’s hostel and bought the little artefacts made by the children. Finally, everyone danced with the children.

Back at the trust building, we reflected on the experiences of the day and discussed our impressions. Later in the evening, the change agents/ existing fellows of VIF made presentations about their work in their communities.

On 1st April we reached Mumbai. The auditorium was packed. There were rounds of talks and presentations by fellows and change agents about the work they were doing or planning. VIF team presented the good work they had been doing for the last four years. The ambitious plan of setting up ‘Rastram School of Public Leadership’ in 2020 was unveiled. The patrons reaffirmed their pledge to help the cause of nation building through supporting VIF and its fellowship programs.

After lunch we met briefly for a quick summing up. Everyone seemed to have found themselves in following the common dream of building a rejuvenated Bharata.