Redefining development

Print edition : December 17, 2004

The Yusuf Meherally Centre's commitment to rural development is evident from its work in the fields of agriculture, dairy farming, medical aid and education.

in Mumbai

The self-help scheme of the Yusuf Meherally Centre helps local women use profitably the crops they raise on their fields. Here, oil is extracted from gingelly seeds.-PICTURES: SHASHI ASHIWAL

A WALK around the 150 acres (60 hectares) of the Yusuf Meherally Centre at Tara in Maharashra's Raigad district, near Mumbai, reveals the extraordinary in the ordinary. In one corner of the complex stands an old fixed-wheel bicycle. Haresh Shah, one of the joint secretaries of the managing committee of the centre, explains that it is used as a charger for the batteries that power the centre's various activities. He remarks that he is considering one of Mumbai's commercial gymnasiums to install a few such cycles so that "socialites can work out and pedal for social change at the same time."

In another area of the centre, Deepak Suchdev from its agriculture unit enthusiastically propounds the daily use of `amrut paani', a concoction of fermented cow dung, cow urine and black jaggery, which promotes plant growth without the usual hazards that synthetic fertilizers entail. And later, G.G. Parikh, vice-chairman of the centre, speaks of the proposed construction of rainwater harvesting tanks large enough to store 2,000 litres of water - what is special about these tanks is that they are made of leaves using a binding compound that local Adivasis make.

Despite the folksy touches, it is not a back-to-the-past philosophy that the centre propounds. In fact, some of the work, especially in agriculture and dairy farming, challenges age-old methods. Water conservation methods such as dryland farming (for paddy) and mulch bed farming propagated here are completely against traditional farming practices. So is the no-tilling policy on the centre's fields in order to prevent the unnecessary loss of moisture and the needless release of gases into the atmosphere. Likewise, the on-going project to prove that cattle need not be milked in order to maintain them economically also goes against accepted wisdom and practice.

Mulch beds at the agricultural unit of the centre.-

The seemingly radical ideas of the centre are grounded in a set of assumptions that are intertwined with a progressive philosophy. They are set out by Parikh, who says: "India still lives in villages and despite all the earlier thinking will continue to live in villages for a long time. Without rural development, the country's development will not be sustainable. The present development is elitist, city-based and energy-guzzling and the current rate of urbanisation is not sustainable. It has to be reduced and this can only be done by raising the incomes of rural people." The centre's projects are tailored to suit these requirements.

THE Yusuf Meherally Centre was founded in 1961 in Mumbai in memory of Yusuf Meherally, who was a freedom fighter, the founder of the National Militia and the Bombay League, and a man who played a leading role in peasants' organisations and trade unions. The centre was formally inaugurated in 1966 by the then Vice-President, Dr. Zakir Hussain. The initial objective was to promote national integration and study the problems of urbanisation. Later, rural development, using urban resources and local people's participation, became its main thrust area.

In 1967, doctors of the centre went to Tara, a village on the Mumbai-Goa Highway, for a health camp. The local panchayat gave them a small house to hold the camp, from where they treated patients. With no other medical aid available in the area, the camp was eagerly awaited by the local people and widely attended. But it was not just the local people who benefited from the camp. A favourite story of the centre is about how it received its first large donation. The well-known scion of the Wadia family, A.C.P. Wadia, was travelling on the highway when he met with an accident. The doctor at the camp came to his aid and a grateful Wadia donated Rs.25,000 to the centre. Soon a full-fledged centre was established in Tara.

From an institution providing itinerant medical aid, the centre has grown into a full-fledged rural development agency that handles issues relating to women and Adivasis, health care, education, rural industries, watershed development and organic farming.

At the soap-making unit.-

Since the early 1990s, the centre has been engaged in presenting to the nation a replicable model of rural development. It is based on the Meherally Centre's definition of rural development as "micro-watershed development plus organic farming, including vermi-culture and vermi compost, plus non-conventional energy plus village industries and marketing their products in urban and semi-urban areas, in addition to the surrounding villages".

The work done by the centre over the years is impressive in its variety. From comprehensive medical aid to extensive research in vermiculture to ongoing research in dairy farming, the centre has an open-minded approach to anything that can contribute to rural development. Its work with local Adivasi people is particularly significant; the problems of poverty-related suicides, alcoholism, abandoning of women and bonded labour, which were common among the Adivasis here, have considerably diminished thanks to the centre.

Despite inadequate funds the centre surges ahead with its projects, holding firmly to the belief that good work will ultimately attract attention. The philosophy has been rewarded, particularly in the case of its efforts in education. The centre runs two high schools, one of which functioned on the local temple premises until it shifted recently to its own premises on three acres of land given by the panchayat. Its Marathi medium school, which was started in 1990, has 529 pupils, while the Urdu medium school, which was established in 1997, has 65 students. Despite the fact that they receive limited government grants, education is free in the schools. Though the schools have only day students, the centre insists on their becoming boarders in the last two months of the academic year. The headmistress, Arti Patil, explains: "The pre-exam time clashes with the harvest season and parents sometimes do not send their children to school for that entire period."

The centre's funding is via membership, donations and grants. A small amount is raised through the rental from its campsite and through the sale of products from the village industries that the centre runs, which include a bakery, a carpentry shop, a pottery unit, a soap factory and a ghani oil press. The centre's annual production is Rs.40 lakhs and it employs 35 local people who are below the poverty line (BPL). Parikh says: "We have submitted two projects to the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), namely, a Common Facility Centre for Self Help Groups with a total outlay of Rs.80 lakhs and a project under the Rural Employment Generation Programme (REGP) for Rs.6,00,000 for which approval is awaited from the KVIC. Besides, projects such as the production of masala, pickles and soaps and other food-processing activities, with a total outlay of Rs.60 lakhs under the REGP, are being prepared for submission to the KVIC. They are targeted to provide direct employment to about 100 BPL people."

The impressive skills, the innovative technologies and creative products unfortunately do not attract the public's attention because of the centre's inability to practise hard-nosed marketing strategies. Even the managing committee agrees that some change is required in its approach. Of one thing, however, there is no doubt, and that is the centre's commitment to rural development.

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