Community Development

In India's Dang District, new ideas bring an efflorescence of small-scale community development projects

In Brief: 

In recent years, local Bahá'í communities in India's remote Dang District have undertaken a wide range of small-scale development projects almost entirely by themselves. These efforts include a three-month carpentry training workshop, a village grain bank scheme, and a hostel for young school children.

BHISYA, Gujarat, India - Even though he regularly visits this small village in Gujarat State's Dang District several times a year in an effort to promote small-scale, grassroots development, Manohar Patil was nevertheless caught by surprise when he learned that the local Bahá'í community here had, entirely on its own, launched an English class for children and youth.

Mr. Patil is the extension coordinator for the New Era Development Institute (NEDI), a Bahá'í-run development and training center based some 300 kilometers away in Panchgani, Maharashtra State. NEDI has established a collaborative relationship with the Dang Training Institute, a regional agency established by the state Bahá'í community.

The collaboration is designed to strengthen the capacity of local communities in the District, which is among the poorest in Gujarat State. This is accomplished through various training programs, through the co-sponsorship of selected projects, and the general process of development outreach. So it was pleasant news for Mr. Patil to learn about such a spontaneous undertaking.

"I was not even aware of the English classes until we visited," said Mr. Patil. "But this is definitely the type of community development service we are looking for, are hoping for."

Indeed, throughout the Dang District, which is populated largely by the Dangi people, an indigenous grouping that is classified as a "tribe" by the government, there has been an efflorescence of just this type of locally initiated and locally operated social and economic development project.

Over the last year, for example, local Bahá'í communities in the District - which are composed almost wholly of Dangi Bahá'ís - have undertaken or sponsored the following efforts with little outside help: a three-month carpentry training workshop; a village grain bank scheme; a hostel for young school children; and the English classes in Bhisya. There are also regular and ongoing morals classes for children, women's group meetings and numerous individual income-generating enterprises in many of the communities in the District.

The flowering of such activities can be traced in part to the recent collaboration with NEDI, which since 1990 has been a gradually increasing presence in the District. Credit must also be given to some 30 years of Bahá'í-sponsored humanitarian activities among the Dangi people, a process that has led to the widespread acceptance of the Bahá'í Faith. Of the population of some 144,000 in the District, of which 95 percent are Dang, there are about 20,000 Bahá'ís.

Taken all together, it is a story of how the arrival of a new religious movement, especially one that promotes a new vision of individual capacity and empowerment, a strong sense of community responsibility, and spiritually grounded progressive social principles, can aid in the general process of social and economic advancement.

An Isolated Enclave

Even though it lies about 200 kilometers north of metropolitan Mumbai (Bombay), the Dang District remains quite isolated and materially underdeveloped. Encompassing 1,764 square kilometers in a rugged valley noted for its still largely pristine teak forests, the District has an overall literacy rate of 38 percent, the second lowest among 19 districts in Gujarat.

Approximately 90 percent of the population reside in the countryside, sustaining themselves at or just above the subsistence level by growing local varieties of millet and other seed crops and, in the off season, by working outside the District as migrant laborers. According to the District Health Office, some 70 percent of the population are considered to suffer from malnutrition.

Other health problems include extensive skin diseases such as scabies and water ringworm. "The level of hygiene is very poor," said Mahendra Chavan of the Health Office. There is only one hospital and some 57 health centers to serve the District's 311 villages.

Most of the population are nominally Hindu, although District officials say that the prevailing religion is really animist. "Basically, the people worship tigers and the forest and snakes and the sun and the moon," said M.N. Patel, the District Development Officer.

Yet the District is far from a disaster area. The houses are quite sturdy and clean, made from bamboo matting plastered over with a mixture of mud and cow dung that dries to a concrete-like hardness. And residents have access to acres of valuable teak wood (its export, though, is carefully regulated by the Government). As well, village life remains relatively untouched by urban problems - although abuse of a native alcoholic drink made from wild jungle fruits is fairly common.

The Bahá'í community of India began its humanitarian efforts in Dang about 30 years ago when Bahá'í doctors from Bombay began coming up once or twice a month to hold weekend medical camps. "The doctors worked for free, bringing free medicine obtained from pharmaceutical companies," said Motilal Sevaram Sarolia, a Bahá'í from Indore who came to the District at that time, married a Dangi woman and stayed on.

The establishment of the Faith brought with it a regularized process of community building. In any village or town where nine or more adult Bahá'ís reside, the group forms a local Spiritual Assembly, a freely elected decision-making council that forms the administrative center of Bahá'í community life. There are currently some 70 such local Spiritual Assemblies in the District.

Gradually, the Spiritual Assemblies in the District established morals classes for children, meeting groups for women and other community activities, in addition to regular worship meetings.

The New Era Development Institute began its outreach work here in the 1990s. The initial work was largely a follow-up service for its vocational training graduates. A number of young Bahá'ís from Dang had come to NEDI for vocational training and had returned to set up businesses. "We started coming to help our students set up service centers, and also to recruit new students," said Manohar Patil.

Currently, there are more than 50 NEDI graduates in Dang, and, in accordance with the general philosophy of providing both vocational training and an education in community development, many of them have indeed proved to be the key motivators in creating local projects.

The English classes in Bhisya, for example, are conducted on a volunteer basis by several NEDI graduates who returned to the village after a year or two of study in Panchgani. The classes were initiated at the request of the Bhisya local Spiritual Assembly, which, in turn, had received requests from the community at large for such courses. The ability to speak English is seen here as a mark of education and a prerequisite for advancement.

"People in the village approached us and said, 'You send your children to Panchgani to learn English, so why don't you teach our children English?'," explained Dilip Gaikwad, 23, who is chairman of the Bhisya Spiritual Assembly. He said in November 1997 that the classes were held from 5 to 6:30 p.m. each day in the Bhisya Bahá'í Center, were offered free to anyone in the village, and that the enrollment totaled some 84 students.

Bhisya is also the location of the Bahá'í hostel, which is operated by the Dang Regional Bahá'í Committee, which represents the entire Bahá'í population of the District. The hostel provides free room and board - as well as daily moral education classes - to some 28 students, who range in ages from 10 to 15. It fills a critical function in that it allows the students to stay in the region for their schooling while their parents work outside the District.

"The biggest problem in education is the high rate of seasonal migration," said Balubhai Patel, the District primary education officer. "Because there is not enough food and not enough jobs, many families have to go to factories or farms in neighboring states each year and the children have to leave school."

The Government runs some 14 hostels for school children, said Mr. Patel. But they are not enough to house the estimated 3,500 school-age children that miss school because of seasonal migration.

The Bahá'í hostel was established in June 1996 with the help of an initial grant of some 20,000 Rupees (about US$600) from a Bahá'í in Bombay. That money bought beds, cooking utensils and other equipment. Located in a rented house in Bhisya, its monthly operating costs come to about 7000 Rupees (about US$200) and the majority of that money comes from Dangi Bahá'ís in the District, said Manahar Birari, 25, the director of the hostel.

"Some people give rice or another grain to support the hostel," said Mr. Sarolia. "The fact that it receives so much local support like this is remarkable."

Mr. Birari, who is a NEDI graduate, contributes his time, as well. He and his wife, Shusila, are essentially full-time volunteers at the hostel, getting only room and board and a small stipend. In this regard, Mr. Birari represents the new breed of young Dangi Bahá'ís. Born into a Bahá'í family in Nanapada, he graduated from NEDI with a pre-primary teaching certificate in 1995. His goal since then has been to assist in the community development work.

Indeed, very few outside funds are used for any of the locally run Bahá'í projects in the District. The carpentry workshop, for example, was taught by experienced Bahá'í carpenters in the village, who volunteered their time. Sponsored by the local Spiritual Assembly of Nanapada, the workshop ran for three and a half months during February, March and April 1997. In addition to basic training in carpentry, the workshop covered topics in moral education, community development, and small business development skills. Thirteen young men completed the course and most have since found jobs.

The Nanapada Spiritual Assembly has also started up a local grain bank project, which is notable for its non-profit approach. The project aims to tide over poor families during the crucial planting season. Too often, said Mohan Birari, who is chairman of the Nanapada Assembly, poor families are forced to eat their seed grain during the winter season. Then, come planting time, they must leave the District to earn the hard cash they need to buy seed.

"There is no money involved in this," said Mohan Birari, who is the uncle of Manahar Birari. "This is not a money-making scheme. The Bahá'ís contribute grain, but it is open to all. The amount of grain loaned out depends on the size of family."

Nanapada has a population of about 500 people, of which nearly half are Bahá'ís. And acceptance of the Faith by so many in the village has had an undeniable impact on the community, say residents. In addition to such projects as the carpentry workshop and grain bank, they say, small social changes - for the good - have gradually been accepted by everyone.

The women of the village, for example, have learned to be more assertive and active. The Bahá'í women hold a weekly meeting to which all village women are invited. They sing together, say prayers and discuss their concerns.

"I'm hotheaded and my husband is hotheaded. And then we read in the Bahá'í writings about the equality of men and women and we decided that we would discuss things more often together. And he changes his mind now more often."

- Kamala Gain

At a recent meeting, about a dozen women of Nanapada talked about the changes they see in their lives. Kamala Gain, 25, whose story was typical, said that she and her husband became a Bahá'ís in 1993, about two years into their marriage. Before, she said, there was much quarreling in their relationship. "I'm hotheaded and my husband is hotheaded," she said. "And then we read in the Bahá'í writings about the equality of men and women and we decided that we would discuss things more often together. And he changes his mind now more often."

Ms. Gain then gave another example of how things had changed, describing how she had recently traveled to a District-wide women's conference in Ahwa, the District center. Her husband agreed to let her travel without him while he stayed home and looked after their son - something that most men would traditionally not agree to do.

"It is because of our Faith that my husband says he has enough trust in me, to let me stay out in another village on my own," said Ms. Gain. "I cannot imagine this would happen in the old days, that my father would let my mother do such a thing."

The New Era Development Institute--Founded in 1987 and sponsored by the Bahá'í

Community of India, the New Era Development Institute (NEDI) seeks to provide students with both the skills to earn a living and the ability to comprehend and, in turn, impart a new vision of community service.

Located in Panchgani, Maharashtra State, the Institute functions primarily as a vocational training center, offering one- and two-year courses in nine areas, ranging from diesel mechanics to agriculture to pre-primary teacher training.

All courses include an innovative curriculum in community development designed to produce capable and energized individuals who can return to their villages and, while supporting themselves, undertake and encourage local and sustainable development efforts.

Results from this new approach are just now emerging in places like the Dang District. Drawing on and working closely with the grassroots network provided by the two-million-member Bahá'í community of India, NEDI has established outreach projects not only in Dang in the state of Gujarat, but also in the states of Manipur, Sikkim and Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra.