India’s global success in industry and technology may sometimes give the rest of the world the impression that it is no longer a land where people are hungry and in need. Sadly wealth has not trickled down, and inflation has meant life has become harder in recent years for India’s rural poor.
We try to ensure that the money our guests bring to the area reaches the people who live there, largely by employing only local people at BJR and by using guesthouses that do the same elsewhere. On treks and village visits we make small contributions of food and clothing. We also have a couple of social enterprise projects (completed and ongoing) and we encourage our guests to get involved if they choose.
The Clean Chaura Mission
As anyone who has ever visited India will know, litter is a sadly un-missable feature. Until a generation ago almost all of India’s domestic waste was biodegradable – disposable plates were made from leaves stitched together with tiny needles of soft bamboo, cups from unglazed clay, and food stuffs were weighed and packaged up in old newspaper or pages from children’s exercise books.
People were quite used to discarding their rubbish in the knowledge that it would be eaten by a cow or would crumble back into dust. Plastic is now ubiquitous, but unfortunately disposal habits have not changed, and it sometimes feels as if it won’t be long before the whole country becomes buried in plastic bags and discarded crisp packets. It is unsightly, unsanitary and dangerous for the wild and domestic animals that end up ingesting it.
Bhoramdeo (in village Chaura) is becoming an increasingly popular pilgrimage site and with people come stalls, selling packets of snacks and bottled drinks, and general picnic paraphernalia, all of which is simply dropped on the ground after use. With the help of our recent working holiday guests we have been visiting the local schools to educate young people on the issue of litter, and asking for their help in the clean up campaign. We have built and installed litter-bins near the temple and we have established regular clean up days where guests are invited to help our staff on a clean up morning. It is amazing how many domestic visitors want to join in when they see our motley crew collecting trash.
The next stage is to reintroduce the leaf plates that used to be the norm. Ironically the leaves that are used to make the plates grow in such abundance in Chhattisgarh that they are collected by Baiga and Gond villagers and exported to South India where eating from leaf plates is still quite common. We would like to reintroduce the practice, and are also going to teach a few of the women who sell fruit and vegetable near the temple to make bags from newspaper. Initially we will pay them to do so but we hope in time people will see the economic benefit of home made bags (practically free) over plastic ones (a small but significant sum for people earning under 200 rupees a day).
A Well for Village Pani
A couple of years ago Saurabh and I visited an NGO in Chilpi – a sprawling little village on the road to Kanha national park which has a large weekly market and is the main commercial centre for all the Baiga and Gond villages that are scattered in the hills around. The NGO, Shikhar Yuva Manch, helps the Gond and Baiga people access government support that is rightfully theirs – in the main making sure there are schools in the villages themselves (there is a high drop out rate if the children have to travel far) and helping make sure the education reflects their traditional way of life more than it often does in larger villages. We were hoping to involve some of our young working holiday guests with the NGO but language issues made it impossible.
However in the course of our meetings we heard of a village that has been badly affected by climate change. A large brook runs below the village, which, until a few years ago provided sufficient water for the village year round. Nowadays from the end of winter (late February) until the monsoon arrives (mid-June) the villagers have had to walk two kilometres up stream where they have to dig to reach water and which is often dirty.
Obviously this is time consuming and affects hygiene as well as hydration. The village is poor: there were two people who were extremely sick with malaria on our first visit; and many of the children appear to have kwashiorkor (the government gives quotas of white rice as welfare, rather than dal, and white rice clearly doesn’t supply enough protein for growing children). The very least we felt we might be able to help provide was clean water. We asked how much it would cost to have a bore-well with a hand pump installed and were told £1500 would cover it. So we embarked on a fund raising campaign (I ran a couple of trail marathons – though that, it transpired, was the easy part) and after a lot of hiccups a well was installed a year and a half after our initial meeting.