Debunking Development in Rural India

This post originally appeared in Project Groundswell

When I arrived at my host family’s house in rural India, I immediately wondered how and why they had a TV and no toilet. I soon realized the intricacies of development and the priorities of families are much more complex than meets the outsiders eye.

“The concept that development is money continues to oppress and exploit those without it,” said Sonal Bhatt (“Sonalben”), one of the founders of Lok Mitra, a small NGO in Dhedhuki, a village in rural Gujarat, India. I had immediately judged a TV as a sign of development, but was it? “A lot of development now is running towards things and money, but this is running backwards, ” said Sonalben, using an example of buying Colgate toothpaste instead of using branches from the Neem tree, an Ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicine) solution that has been used for ages.

Chaitanyabhai speaking to Anjum Unwala, a year-long fellow from the US with Lok Mitra – Amit Patel

Lok Mitra has been in existence since 1989 and the kind of change or development the organization hopes to bring is not one based on power. “We don’t believe in change that is catalyzed by positions of power,” said Chaitanya Bhatt (“Chatanyabhai”), Sonalben’s husband and co-founder of Lok Mitra. Instead, they hope to create mutually beneficial relationships, “when you go into the village, you shouldn’t find everything that is wrong. There is a lot we can learn,” said Chaitanyabhai.

Staying with a family in the village of Madava, I became part of the household for a few days. While the initial adjustment to life without being able to fluently speak the language or have consistent electricity, running water, and a toilet proved to be difficult, by the time I had to leave, I couldn’t help but feel that there was much more to learn from my 30 person host family.

Each morning began with sweeping and cleaning the area around the cows and buffalo before the sunrise. When we went to the field, it was difficult work, and long hours, but working alongside the women, we chatted and sang and drank tea and water together. Did they enjoy it? Did they desire something else? From what I understood, it seemed as though many of the women in the family were satisfied, though the language barrier left room for many unanswered questions.

Two women in rural IndiaTwo women in rural India – Lakshmi Eassey

What can those of us in cities learn from villages, or those of us in so-called developed countries learn from the developing world? We can learn a bit more about being less wasteful, perhaps something about crops and crop patterns, when to harvest and what to do with the harvests. In addition, I know I can learn more about cooking and cows and how everything has a use and a role, even cow poop, which is used as fuel for cooking and to fertilize plants.

Since 1989, Chaitanyabhai and Sonalben’s NGO Lok Mitra has developed an informal school, a Bal Mandir(preschool), a place to receive Ayurvedic medicine, provide disaster relief, and other income-generating projects for those below the poverty line. Since its inception Chaitanyabhai and Sonalben have lived and worked among the people they are serving.

Fields near DehdukiFields near Dehduki, Gujarat, India – Amit Patel

When I asked them if it was difficult to move to the village, Chaitanyabhai replied, “What is your definition of difficulty?” He described how he does not feel like daily problems one would encounter in the developed world, such as missing a bus, is difficult. “We are learning from the villagers,” he said, describing a time of drought, he added, “we are learning how to enjoy such difficulties.”

Living in the village for so long, I asked Chaitanyabhai and Sonalben what they have learned from the villagers. They responded that they have learned to live simply. They have learned that “when you do a lot of work or put effort in, there is no need to show off.” They also see the connection between doing physical labor and being mentally fit.

I don’t pretend to understand why a toilet has not yet been deemed a priority in the family I stayed with, and I am still confused by what development should look like, but instead of focusing on what rural India should be learning and doing, perhaps we should focus instead on what it can teach us.

Dehduki, GujaratDehduki, Gujarat – Amit Patel

Doha, Qatar – The New Bicycle City?

I rode my bicycle to and from work on the streets of Ahmedabad, India. A city where out of 100 residents only 15 to 18 use the existing public transport system and the streets are notoriously clogged with traffic. Some thought me crazy, but I was able to incorporate exercise into my routine and interact with my surroundings. I didn’t have to pay a bus or rickshaw fair and it gave me the satisfaction of feeling as though I was contributing to making the world a better place, one bicycle at a time.

Photo by flickr user moonlight on celluloid

Naturally, as a fan of the bicycle I was elated to see a recent news articles regarding Doha’s plans to be the region’s first bicycle-friendly city. But what, if anything, does that mean?

According to Sa’ad Mohammad Khodr, senior transportation engineer at the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning, the Qatar National Bicycle Master Plan aims to make Qatar the focal point of bicycling in the Middle East.

In response to concerns about the hot weather, Sa’ad claims bicyclists would be able to ride at least six months of the year despite the range in Doha’s weather from 44-113 degrees Fahrenheit.

“People do not take to cycling, not because of the heat, but because it’s not safe. Now in all our new projects we have to draw up a plan so that the streets are adapted to bicycle traffic,” he said, in the Qatari daily The Peninsula.

The cycle routes are said to be planned for nearly the whole country. “It’s not just the bicycle as a means of transportation, but it’s about creating more chances for people to have leisure time,” he was quoted as saying.

A girl with her bike in Doha, Qatar. Photo by flickr user Patrick Gage

I am an advocate of leisure time, but I also wondered about additional motives behind the initiative – could a decreased environmental impact have been a factor?

According to gulfnews.com, bicycles are popular among young boys and Asian expatriates. (I would hope the concept will catch on with Qatar’s growing population and maybe even with women…?) According to the Qatar Society of Engineers, the population has been growing rapidly over the past 10 years reaching 907,229 inhabitants by 2007 compared to a population 70,000 in the 1960s.

Perhaps it was the never-ending Doha Development Round of trade agreements, or because I had to represent Qatar in a Model United Nations simulation, or maybe just my curiosity for the country which houses Al-Jazeera’s headquarters. Whatever it may be, Doha seems to be back on the radar as somewhere I would consider living. At the very least, I would have a bicycle path.