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Gandhism in practice

Print edition : Oct 21, 2011 T+T-

The Yusuf Meherally Centre, one of the country's premier rural development institutions, is a torch-bearer of Gandhian principles.

in Raigad

THREATENING dark colours, offset by vivid ones, give the countryside a Rembrandt-like quality. The gloom of the lowering monsoon skies is thrown off by the velvety green of the monsoon undergrowth. Red-tiled roofs, brick walls, old trees and the soft sounds of children's chant filtering out of the small school buildings around the compound. It is like Shantiniketan. That was where she had schooled, and she wanted to recreate it here, says Dr G.G. Parikh, recalling his late wife, Mangala Parikh, also a freedom fighter like him. As he speaks he takes in the grounds with quiet pleasure even though the sight is as familiar to him as his home in Mumbai.

This is the school at Tara in Raigad district of Maharashtra, which is run by the Yusuf Meherally Centre (YMC). It was started in 1990 at a time when girls were not easily sent to school in that area. This discrimination naturally became a focus for the YMC. Initially housed in a temple, the school proved to be so popular that villagers donated 3.5 acres (1.4 hectares) of land to establish a regular school so that Secondary School Certificate (SSC) registration could be obtained. And so it came about that in Tara, where SSC fail was [once] the highest qualification, every house now has a graduate and some even have engineers. Headmistress Arti Patil says she is teaching daughters of girls who used to be her students.

The school now has a hostel for girls and more applicants than it can handle. This year, 200 applicants had to be turned away because of lack of facilities. But despite constraints of funding and space, the 400-plus Tara school is in the happy position of achieving its goals and going on to make more plans.

The YMC also focusses on Adivasis, who form a large part of the population in Raigad district. Anju Pawar, 37, an Adivasi herself, works in the YMC's Adivasi Cell. Her primary work has been to help tribal people to procure the all-important caste certificate and to unionise Adivasi labourers so that they are not exploited and have a forum to seek redress of their grievances.

The success at Tara is just one example of the work of the 50-year-old YMC. The organisation has a presence in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Jammu and Kashmir and Tamil Nadu and hopes to start working in the north-eastern States and one more southern State. Whenever we start work in a place, it is in response to some need, said Parikh. When the organisation started work 50 years ago, it was in response to the need of the hour, which was national integration. In Gujarat, the YMC started work immediately after the earthquake of 2001. It stayed on after the relief work because it saw a vacuum in the education of children of migrant fish and salt pan workers. Non-formal classes were started in sagar shalas (literally, seaside schools) on the beaches. The programme is so successful that when the children return to their home villages, they seamlessly continue their education in mainstream schools. Earlier, the few children that were sent to school by their parents barely benefited because their education was interrupted.

The YMC started work in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, after the 2004 tsunami. After immediate relief work, it stayed on to do rehabilitation work in the form of imparting skills to women, introducing them to technology, helping them organise small rural-based industries and assisting them in marketing produce. In its golden jubilee year the YMC has asked the Maharashtra State government and the Central government to provide Rs.5 crore each to implement new ideas for rural development.

The YMC extends its purview to providing education (especially for girls) and medical facilities, promoting organic agriculture and rural industries, empowering Adivasis, and assisting in the marketing of rural produce. To that extent it is like any other non-governmental organisation (NGO). But what sets it apart is that it has gone from strength to strength. In its 50th year it has grown into an institution that has carried out critical rural development on Gandhian lines. Most interestingly, it has done so without ever feeling the need to compromise on or adapt these principles. When Parikh says Gandhi is still relevant. His ideals and teachings are for all time, it is with a conviction that leaves no scope for doubt about the practicality of Gandhian thought.

And yet, there is an acute awareness that these same principles and ideals struggle to find acceptance with the larger public. The general perception is that though the country is sensitised to Gandhian means, Gandhian ideals are at odds with the free market principles that have literally stormed their way into middle-class India. So how does the YMC reconcile its principles with that of its intended audience? Parikh explains the thinking in detail:

From our experience we can say confidently that without rural development the development of the country will be unsustainable. The current type of development and the rate of development are both unfortunate. When P. Chidambaram was the Finance Minister he said that ultimately 85 per cent of the Indian population should live in cities. This is not possible, nor is it desirable. We do not say that the urbanisation process should be halted. No, it should go on, but it should not be forced. At present it is forced. Rural development should be carried out so that people are not forced to go to cities. Rural employment should become a people's movement and the state should be committed to it. Right now . the only employment being generated is for the city educated.

This is a fact underscored by the Tara school's headmistress when she said that children from her school were resentful that they had studied only to find that they get no jobs. Parikh says the YMC's effort is to turn attention back to the rural areas so that there is equality of opportunity. Use handmade paper, gift Indian handicrafts, wear khadi, donate for rural development this is what we tell people.

Rural uplift is one part of YMC thinking. So far government policies have favoured the rich in the hope that a trickle-down effect will occur.

But it didn't, says Parikh. The policy only added to the existing inequalities. He says that the YMC is all for the model of development where the common person is the agent of change. This thinking has never been tried as policy. If we invest in the common person, change can come about. Look at what SEWA has done in Ahmedabad. They have turned around the lives of thousands of women, made them self-reliant. Even banks support this development because they say that recovery is 98 per cent when money is loaned to the poor. Or invest in people by turning wasteland into green cover. Wealth of individuals, wealth of the nation, will increase considerably. Skill, technology, wealth they are all available they just need to be applied.

Parikh explains that both Gandhi and socialism need to be reinterpreted to make them relevant. If the state owns the means of production, then exploitation will decrease this is what Marx taught. And he was right except that we need a new, modified vision for the future and we need to substitute ownership with technology. In our present growth model the rich are getting richer and the poor are remaining where they are. We have the advantage of numbers. So we should develop technology for these vast numbers of people. Watershed development, non-conventional energy forms, village industries, organic farming are all ways to achieve rural growth and take advantage of the traditions that people are familiar with. Instead, after the 1990 reform process we have forgotten this. Capital exploits labour and it exploits nature. Sooner or later both will take their revenge. Engels had said this way back and we are seeing it happening now. Concern for nature needs to be incorporated into socialism. As far as reinterpreting Gandhi is concerned, Parikh believes that Gandhi himself was very dynamic but Gandhians are not.

At another level one that many would find esoteric the YMC hopes to further Gandhian thinking by building a replica of Gandhi's Wardha kuti. Parikh says that despite the hard work of the YMC, man has not changed [his value systems]. The YMC believes that for the 50,000 people who visit its centre at Tara ever year the kuti will be a reminder that issues of inequality between man and nature, and man and man are the challenges for future generations. The kuti stands as an example of the perfect lifestyle. It is a pointer to people to voluntarily reduce their wants. This is our task, says Parikh.

In an age of cynicism, self-aggrandisement and baffling self-contradictory definitions of development, the YMC is a rock for those who believe in time-tested values and an anachronism for those who do not.