Shantanu Kishwar

Shantanu Kishwar

Research Associate | VIF

The Change Agents Retreat took me to unfamiliar places, both literally and metaphorically. I left the familiar surroundings of tall buildings and traffic behind, venturing off the beaten path.

Wada, in my mind, was ideal for such a retreat to be held. Just a couple of hours from Bombay, it presented perhaps as stark a contrast to big city life as one could expect. The region was inhabited primarily by Adivasi communities, forgotten apparently by the forward march of development, to be remembered only when the resources of their lands could be of use to big cities. Take for example the project to connect the rivers in the region to better utilise rainwater. This was done not to solve the problems of the locals, who suffer from water shortages from March onwards, but to ensure that the water needs of Bombay were met, despite the fact that rainwater harvesting laws in the city itself were not enforced.

The experience for me began with the two-day fellows training, where I met the people I will be working alongside in the coming years. As often is the case with my experiences with VIF, what hit me first was the diversity of the crowd around me.  I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by people that come from a very small sliver of society, and here I had around me people from almost all regions of the country, from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, and with absolutely fascinating stories of how they got to where they are. What bound this diversity was the belief in devoting their energies to a cause larger than themselves, a belief that though I’ve heard often in my past, rarely seen in operation in the way I did here.

The field visits to the villages weren’t eye-opening per se, because over the last few years I’ve come to have enough experiences that have shown me what realities of rural India look like. One could apply the clichés of underdevelopment and generally have some sense of what life here was like. That being said, these visits were still extremely useful, for they served as a glaring reminder of the lived realities of people were that our work was attempting to change, making sure that as we do whatever we do in the next three years and beyond, we keep them in the back of our minds to motivate us. Additionally, one benefit of these visits was that I got to see the on ground impact of certain government schemes like the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan and the Ujjwala Yojana, which often ran counter to their portrayal in the media.

The parts of our field visits that did provide me with a great deal of new insight were the visits to various development projects in the district that took place on the last day in Wada. The creation and organisation of self help groups for women that provided them with a regular livelihood, a life beyond the household, and by extension a sense of dignity and self-confidence, was inspiring to see. The efforts of Pramilatai in the school for special needs students reminded me of my similar experiences at Tamanna, a school for special needs students in Delhi. The enormity of Pramilatai’s work was undeniable, for having created a safe environment for differently abled children in an area where one would presume mental illnesses are not afforded the same degree of importance as they are in urban areas (an assumption on my part, I admit. I could be wrong) is staggering.

The highlight of that day however was Milind Thatte’s presentation, which showcased the variety of work he and his organisation, Vayam, were doing. What struck me the most was not just the sort of work that he was doing, though that was quite impressive in itself, but more the attitude with which he worked. Having spent years working on the same issue, being hampered by the wilful and accidental inefficiencies of government bodies, he seemed far from dispirited. His emphasis on getting the locals involved in every step of the way and getting them to take ownership of the cause hinted at long term viability and self-sustainability of these projects, a model worthy of being emulated.

The in-house presentations made by current fellows of VIF were thought-provoking, to say the least. Raghava’s presentation took a number of very contemporary issues in domestic and international affairs, which hitherto I was used to looking at from narrow and non-indigenous frameworks. Simple questions such as ‘what is India?’ yielded a variety of responses that were grounded in ideas of tradition and civilisation, a far cry from the deconstructive ideas of nationhood and nationality I had been taught in my academics so far. Changing dynamics in the international arena were examined, with the constant emphasis being that were India to become a global thought leader in the years to come, the future could look very different (in a positive sense) than what most of us currently predict. Gajanan’s and Suryabhan’s presentation, like Milind Sathe’s before, showed the positive impact that community led development could have. The preperations for the ‘Paani Cup’ in Suryabhan’s village spoke of the possibility of rapid change through mass mobilisation; getting a previously drought afflicted village to tackle their water problems in the span of 45 days is no small matter.

For all this, I must also admit that there were periods during the retreat where I felt a great deal of discomfort. This discomfort stemmed from the fact that I’ve never really been exposed to environments before where people expressed their ideological beliefs very vociferously, something which I did indeed witness here. This is not to ascribe a negative value judgement to what I saw. I personally am not someone who puts forth my larger beliefs with great conviction, and to see that done here was overwhelming. The five days of the retreat and fellowship training have thus inspired a great deal of self-reflection, much needed I think given that I’m at the beginning of a three year journey with VIF.