From a distance, the village looks quaint. Closer, its rustic ambience strikes you more acutely. You have just walked into a world that is far removed from 'modernity'. Actually, many of India's estimated 600,000 villages are caught in such a time warp - out of sync with developments in the country's urban areas.
It's not as though village India is not evolving. However, in the nascent stages of development, this is limited to the sale of consumer products. What corporate giants often fail to understand is that more than luring villagers to simply avail of their wide range of goodies, it is the outlook that needs attention.
For instance, making a product available, say toothbrushes and toothpaste, is relatively easy. Changing people's mindset to adopt contemporary dental hygiene habits is a different ball game altogether. So once the children return home, waving their free sample of toothpaste and toothbrush and eager to share their newly-acquired brushing skills and knowledge, their parents brainwash them back to their old ways, preferring the traditional 'datun' (the twig of the Neem tree chewed to keep the mouth clean). The toothbrush and toothpaste are then promptly relegated to being toys for the children.
Thus when the Global Hospital, (short for J. Watumull Global Hospital & Research Centre, Mount Abu, Rajasthan) and the People Bridge Foundation (a charitable foundation in Toronto, Canada) forged links to implement a holistic endeavour - an asset-based community development project in a few villages in the vicinity of Mount Abu and its foothills - they knew they were starting out on a Herculean venture.
The enormity of the task was revealed as soon as the project teams stepped into the villages selected for the pilot project (Achpura, Ker and Chandela). Each of the three villages is a community of 150 to 1,500 people - farmers, potters, weavers, herdsmen, tribesmen and dalits (India's most underprivileged community). What is more, as far as modern health practices and systems are concerned, these villages are economically and socially quite backward and illiterate.
For the project staff the mandate was to improve the lives of village women who bear the brunt of impoverished rural lifestyles. Yet, getting across to them was no mean feat. The veil system, usually associated with Muslim communities, is also prevalent in many other, non-Muslim parts of rural India. Thus, many of the women in the target villages were not supposed to talk to any male member outside their close social and familial circle.
As a consequence, the village menfolk were coaxed to bless the project and, after much persuasion, later warmed up to the idea of the project field staff interacting with their women. Soon, the response from both men and women was overwhelming, and led to free-flowing two-way exchanges. The project staff soon discovered that the women's veils had in no way clouded their minds.
The women were eager to contribute to society alongside their menfolk. For this, they were open to learning new skills, establishing self-help groups and co-operating with the traders, introduced by the project staff to establish staple markets for their produce.
On their part, the project staff also took up the more feasible of the village women's suggestions, one of which has sparked off a successful sewing and stitching training programme in village Achpura. When project manager Betty Steinhauer visited the village, she was delighted to be presented an outfit, similar to what the village women wore, stitched by them on sewing machines provided under the project.
Steinhauer was even more pleased to hear Keku Devi, a tribal woman, comment on the project: "The sewing training and sewing machine I received have helped me generate income and saved me from the daily chore of cutting wood from the forest. I can look after my children better and send them to school."
In Ker, where initially a dozen village women were trained to make incense sticks, the number is all set to double. The local trader, from whom the raw material was organized by the field staff, assured the women he would buy back their produce at a reasonable price. The women, anxious to make the most of this opportunity, are giving their best to such a venture.
Another endeavour has been the creation of a Village Resource Centre in partnership with the School of Desert Sciences, technically supported by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). To be established in Ker, this centre will enable the villagers to connect with a main server, supplying them vital weather, agricultural, educational and medical information, besides providing other services.
Anthony Phelips, honorary advisor to the People Bridge Foundation, believes such a concept can facilitate a transfer of knowledge and experience. Ultimately, this empowers the people to bring in positive change.
Consequently, when the project ends in 2007, many lives will have changed for the better.