Looking outside the glass window, sitting on my desk serving just another day in office, an Instagram notification on my phone caught my attention. It was from Samanta Foundation about the steps being taken by them to uplift and empower Van-Gujjars - a nomadic community of forest dwellers and Taungyas - the victims of perennial caste system - living along the peripheries of Shivalik mountain ranges of Himalayas. The thought of such people in a part of India of whom we hardly know and care off in big cities, hit me hard! The deprivation of basic needs and livelihood to these people was disturbing as I tried to get back to my work. These emotions triggered a sense of reflection and deep diving in self thinking - If I will leave any impact on the society after I am gone! I dialled Prashant, my dear friend and co-founder of Samanta and told that I will be visiting him soon. I reached him early morning over the weekend and set the agenda for next few days.
We were driving along the pristine new highway passing through the forest outside the city limits of Dehradun when Prashant slowed down and took a right turn straight in to a narrow muddy trail penetrating into the greens. No one could have imagined that there lived a community across the dense forest; untouched and unnoticed by myriad welfare schemes rolled out by our governments. The stark contrast between the two worlds separated only be a few meters was appalling.
The track led us straight to a dilapidated structure called 'The Forest School' with broken windows, doors and two rooms. Further deep into the forest, there were settlements of Taungya and Van-Gujjars.
Only a few children managed to come to school due to incessant rains that flooded their path to the school. Some children even had to cross a river to make it to the school. They told me about how much they were threatened by the elephant herds that occasionally cross their paths. Prashant introduced me to the school master Karan Dayal (name changed) who was in charge of the daily routines. He was vocal about the difficulties faced by the children, lack of infrastructure and books needed by children. We played some games with the children and then left to visit a Van-Gujjar family living close by.
Mr. Mahmood (name changed) welcomed us to his abode that he built himself with help of his sons. It was heartening to see such a beautiful structure made entirely of mud and natural materials. Van-Gujjars, like Mr. Mahmood are cattle herding communities and selling milk is their main source of income. To keep the cattle well fed and healthy, they have to migrate to higher lands in Summers and lower areas of Shivalik mountains in winters. To fetch a good price, they even have to travel far distances to sell the milk on a daily basis.
Mr. Mahmood's wife was down with fever and body pains, but still made a cup of tea for us. They spoke about how they were not able to identify the reasons for the lady's fever and pains. Any genuine/government "health care center" was far away and out of reach for them. A nearby quack was their only source of immediate help so she was taking medicines based on his wisdom. We payed our warm regards and left for the day.
Prashant told me about how his organization Samanta is working for people like Mr. Mahmood and focusing on two key initiatives - Education and Women & Youth empowerment. It is a bottom up approach targeted towards making these communities self sustainable and healthy. Many a times the innocent youths were exploited because of their lack of understanding in money matters and their ability to read properly.
He made a point that for effective participation of youth and children in educational initiatives, it is important that the language and habits of these people must not be disturbed. To enable this, they are working with young people to develop educational literature (pictionary) using the terminology of their spoken language.
I believe this is an excellent step by Samanta to make these communities feel empowered and understand complexities around the ecosystem they are living in without "reinventing the wheel" for them. Zahir, one of Mr. Mahmood's sons was already writing a local dictionary about the words used by them daily, mapping them to the Hindi words. This will serve as a reference to other people in the community. It is important that teachers be made out of the community itself so that everyone can relate to and face the challenges collectively and support the livelihood of the people at the same time.
Next day, we witnessed the full strength of children in the school. It was overwhelming to see the sheer energy, enthusiasm and broad smiles on the faces of children. Seeing an outsider, they were very keen to leave an impression about the things they have learnt so far in school. Some of the children proudly showed me the words they wrote and the drawings they made on their partially torn notebooks. All of them metaphorically resembled the clay that can very well be molded into a precious pot - only the right set of tools and able hands were required. Little girls proudly read their favorite stories from their books and some were content to show me how to draw a cat out of number 8!
We discussed about Mahatma Gandhi whose birthday was on the next day. A small ceremony was also planned by forest officials in the school to commemorate the occasion. I felt that more than the symbolism we need to follow his ideals in spirit. His quote on education -
"Basic education links the children, whether of the cities or the villages, to all that is best and lasting in India"
fits well here and Samanta is surely working hard to be true to its meaning. Prashant had also bought a football along so we played with the children for a while. I was again astonished to see the children - boys and girls - bustling with energy to see the shiny new ball.
We visited Mr. Mahmood again and this time, his wife's condition further deteriorated. She had visited a nearby doctor (or quack) and got an injection administered. We were shocked to see that it was a steroid injection administered without any credible blood test. I felt sad and anguished to see how the lack of resources and apathy of state authorities is making these people play with their lives. We advised them to get their dengue and chikungunya tests done from the nearest lab, considering the widespread virus of these diseases in the area. Mr. Mahmood interacted with us and gave us examples of how they had to suffer because of lack of education and that he doesn't want his children to have the similar experiences. He proudly mentioned that his daughter was the only educated girl in the community and that she has set an example for others to follow.
I clearly noticed how well Prashant and his co-founder of Samanta Foundation - Tanya are connected to men, women and children of these communities. Children wait eagerly for "Sir" and "Madam" to reach school every day so they could learn new things from them. Tanya does very well to foster creativity that further makes learning fun for the children. She connects with women of community well to understand their issues related to menstrual hygiene and also devised innovative self made products (sanitary napkins) for them.
We finally celebrated Gandhi Jayanti with children in the school. I could already feel the immense affection of these children towards me after spending a few days with them and I am sure this is just the beginning of my relationship with these people.
I observed following points during my stay:
Samanta has been making great efforts to make people in these communities believe in themselves and they can now sense the direction that will lead them to the path of self-sustainability.
These are hard working, proud people who want to live a life of dignity just like every human being and need the tools of education and knowledge to guide them and fulfill their dreams.
The pedagogy design involving local terminology that Samanta is currently focused on is very much needed to make the children understand and meet the challenges awaiting them in future.
Women health and hygiene awareness which was ignored by the people is now being stressed upon and women in the community are willing to discuss and spread awareness about it.
Funds are needed as per Samanta's plans to develop critical infrastructure like school library, educational materials, salaries of locally groomed teachers within community etc.
I am glad that I got a chance to meet with these hard working people who take pride in their grit and resilience. I learnt a great deal about life in general and the lessons out of it when seen from a different perspective - the perspective of an untiring Van-Gujjar.
Sandeep is an Information Technology industry professional with around 14 years of experience working with Multi National Corporations across North America and Europe. He has been helping Samanta Foundation develop its digital footprint and also run a crowd sourcing campaign in October 2019.