Reading Hour Jul-Aug 2011: The Spirit of the Invisible

kalyan & wiebke

Over 400 million people, amounting to about 42% of the world’s population below the poverty line live in India, about 200 million women here do not have enough clothing, 450 million people do not have access to electricity, 200 million people do not have access to clean drinking water and so on... blah blah blah! So read the statistics on the state of development in India.

We believe that while India faces a lot of ‘problems’, it’s also a country that has everything that’s needed – wisdom, conviction, ideas and resources – to solve every problem there is. We could either continue to feel saddened and shocked by the statistics on the state of our country, or we could get a measure of the existing wisdom that represents our collective strength as a nation, to solve its problems. We could either see India as the proverbial half empty glass, or as the glass half full. We called our mission ‘the glass half full’.

It started with a journey on bicycle across India in search of successful interventions in the social sphere, with the goal of documenting everything that inspires us along the way.

We wanted to get a perspective on rural India, what has worked where, how, what hasn’t and why. Given this, deadlines can be a serious limitation. One month into the trip, Wiebke and I made a conscious decision – to just go with the flow, no matter how long and how far it takes.

90 days on the road, we clocked 5000km on our bicycles. According to our plans, that should have been enough to do the entire central stretch from the far west of India in Kutch all the way to the Sunderbans in the East. It wasn’t. We did just two states.

We met people, we met their friends, we watched them celebrate, we saw them cry, we went to the markets and fairs with them, we listened to their stories, we heard them sing, we ate their food and shared their space. In a word, we ‘travelived’.

Traveliving for 90 days, we have at least as many stories… but I want to use this space to share the three that touched me the most.

Last of the Dangis
While in Dang, a remote tribal district in Gujarat, I went to have my elbow massaged by an 80 year old traditional healer. The old man sat down with a local drink (Mahua), mixed a few oils, heated them up, and started applying the mixture on my elbow. He was quiet. My host told me that he belonged to the fast depleting population of the Dangis who still adhere strictly to a traditional way of life. The reasons for that are perhaps as old as the nature around them, and they believe that wisdom is in keeping to the traditions, and not questioning them.

Later the old man showed me the business cards of people who had visited him (most, he said were from far off places… I saw a few had ‘Oxford University’ etched on them) “they come with computers and notebooks to learn everything in 6 months or a year, and go back to write about it and teach others. I understand there’s something important here. But I don’t believe it can be learned by observing and writing… you have to live our life our way to get the feel.”

He explained further, “Nature is unique in every region, and so are the ways to exist in it in a synergistic manner. Knowing these ways is ‘Knowledge’. It is omnipresent in the region, but it can’t be explicitly articulated. Traditions of a region preserve this knowledge in a codified way. Lifestyle in a given region evolves along these traditions.

The lifestyle interactions of the community weave its fabric of culture. Therefore, each region has a unique culture. Without this uniqueness, there’s no diversity. Mother Nature is a university, with branches in every region. In each region it presents an ocean of knowledge. How can anyone collect the ocean in his bare hands and take it else where?”

For a while I thought of the life we live in the cities, a mindless rat race towards standardization, how perhaps, that will destroy our chances of understanding and preserving our uniqueness. I wondered if by his definition we were knowledgeable at all. I asked him, what his worst fear was, given that the current generation in Dang is gradually distancing itself from the traditions.

He said, “When you break from native tradition, you lose the knowledge and distance yourself from the nature in the region. That will disrupt your lifestyle and tear the fabric of culture apart. Living a different lifestyle than ours here will put pressure on nature and that in turn will destroy us. I wonder why they are doing it. My worst fear is, that when (not if) they finally realize and look to return home, we may not be alive to show them the way.”

I sat there realising, the man wasn’t just a ganja smoking old freak addicted to Mahua. Was he the last of the Dangis?

Peaceful Chaos
Hajipeer, in the north west of Kutch in Gujarat, is home to a famous Dargaah, and on our second day in Bhuj, we decided to go there as it was an important festival for many. We tried taxis but no driver was interested. We tried buses, they were all overloaded. So we were waiting at the bus-stand wondering what to do, when a stranger who turned out to be the depot manager Sailesh Bhai, asked Wiebke if we needed help. By then, we had learnt that we can hide our greed by being shameless, so quickly she asked - can you help us with a motor bike? And he answered – yes, of course! So, off we went.
The last 30km to Hajipeer is a narrow road, and the rush was just too much. On either side of this road is the desert, and it throws sand in your face just when you think you’ve had enough of the exhaust fumes. So, by the time we reached Hajipeer, we had an inch thick dust coat all over, and this helped Wiebke blend in with the crowd.
After an early dinner (some unbelievable biryani) on the desert sands with a nomad community, we found our way to the people who were responsible for making the arrangements for the pilgrims. What they told us, blew our minds (well, at least the dust off our faces!) – 6 lakh people reached the dargaah by night.

All the people who were cheering the pilgrims all along the way, and throwing free water packets at them, were Hindus! And the Muslims returned the favour, during the Navrathras, elsewhere in Kutch. There were so many people, so much heat, so much dust, but not a single sign of an altercation anywhere! We visited the dargaah, walked through the fair and went on a giant wheel ride at 1am… constantly wondering how it all works!

The Salt farmers of Adesar
Ever wondered how the salt we eat is made, who are the people that make it, and how they live? I had a chance to spend a couple of days with one salt farmer family. Lal mamman Kaka and his two sons toil in the middle of the little Rann (salt desert) of Kutch, to extract salt.

They work for 9 hours each day in the extreme heat, deprived of clean drinking water and any sign of comfort, for 8 months in the year to produce 1800 tons of rock salt. Companies buy salt from them at Rs.110 per ton. After accounting for diesel and other running expenses, they get about Rs.10 per ton. The companies ‘process’ this salt and sell it to us at Rs.11 per kg or Rs.11,000 per ton. Rs. 110 vs Rs.11,000!

Thankfully, a few salt farmers got together, with help from Abhiyan, an NGO in Bhuj, and are in the process of setting up a producer company that will process the rock salt and sell the processed salt directly. They believe they can make a profit of Re1 per kg by selling it at Rs4. Where will you buy your salt from?

Most of the people mentioned here are not found on the Internet, are not invited to forums, nor are they written about. Just the way the amazing sapphire skies of the twilight continue to twinkle despite going unnoticed by most, these people continue to represent the beating heart of India and the truth in her legends, despite remaining invisible themselves. The true ‘shine’ of India is not that of the glittering rich, which is an ignorable minority. India shines through the spirit of its invisible!

Kalyan Akkipeddi, the founder of InteGreater, started his journey as a social entrepreneur after a 7 year stint in the corporate world. He has co-founded a for-profit social venture called CreatorClan that promotes sustainable consumption.

The recurrent theme in the career of Wiebke Koch is her work at the interface between societal needs and the corporate world. A social entrepreneur at heart, Wiebke founded and co-created hybrid organizations including One Umbrella Australia and the HUB Berlin.


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