Over the next few months I will be undertaking a journey across rural India. The intention is to assess the impact of the RBS Foundation projects, through which we provide livelihood assistance to extremely poor rural and tribal women. I also hope to gain a better understanding of the drivers of Women’s Empowerment and Financial Inclusion in rural India. I have started this leg of my journey in Kutch, Gujarat.
Baroi village, was my first stop.
On the face of it, it seems like many other villages of Kutch. The road from Mundra leads onto a narrow dusty by-lane, and into the village through a cement arch which marks the entry into the village.
Though not a village where our Foundation has a project, I have been fortunate to have been invited to spend the day here by Dr Kenia, an excellent physician and friend, who has roots in this village. It turns out to be a fascinating day.
This village, like many others in Kutch has a mixed population of Jains, Hindus and Muslims. Many of the better educated and more affluent residents have migrated to cities in India and abroad, leaving behind some beautiful old houses, but return each year for festivals, religious reasons, or family ceremonies. The roads are good, and new construction is evidence of growing prosperity. People seem secure and the smiles of children are open and trusting.
This village is special for two reasons. First, there are two individuals, photographed above, who acting jointly, are powerful catalysts for change in Baroi. Second this is the closest village to the port of Mundra, built by the Adani group.
Dr Kenia, is the first individual. A successful Physician based in Mumbai, he is also the President of the KVO Mahajan Jain community. He makes the trip to Baroi every few weeks, at his own expense, and has during his three year term, undertaken to improve conditions in his village, not just for his own community, for whom he works selflessly, but for all the villagers.
The second individual is Hawa Bahen, a tough but disarmingly charming villager, who was the Sarpanch ten years ago, and hopes to stand again soon and win ! Coming from a conservative background, she never went to school, but has educated herself by the dint of hard work, and proudly introduced me to her son Ramzaan, who has studied in an English medium school.
What unites the two, is a fierce determination to make Baroi a great place to live in, for all it’s inhabitants, whether they walk on two legs or four !
As the port in Mundra has grown, Hawa Bahen has been at the forefront of negotiating with the Adanis to secure benefits for the village. Over a period of time they have grown to respect her, and she has in many ways become their SPOC ( single point of contact) for the village. She has negotiated for and won concessions for the Baroi village, leading to a position where the village sees the Adani’s as good corporate citizens. An interesting and useful model, in a country where conflicts over land acquisition and usage, between villagers and industry are rising.
Dr Kenia has provided her with much needed moral support, counsel and guidance, in addition to raising incremental funds from the more affluent Kutchhi residents and non residents of Baroi.
Jointly, in the past year, they have undertaken the following projects :
– Construction of a Gaushala (cow shed and feeding station) for the cattle of the village. As the population of the village has grown, facilities and pastures for the cattle have shrunk, and the cows have nowhere to graze or rest in the scorching summer heat.
– Acquisition of 20 acres for a Gauchara ( common village pasture land )
– Clearing the village cremation ground of squatters and building a boundry wall to prevent further encroachment
– Creation of a village park for children and senior citizens
In the pipeline are things they are both passionate about : a crack down on the illicit brewing and storing of liquor, which continues despite the official prohibition policy in the state of Gujarat and ensuring that every house in the village has toilet and sanitation facilities.
During the day we visited the sites of the above projects, several homes in the village, two temples and the Adani airport – that the villagers fondly call the Baroi airport ! It seemed clear that change was taking place very swiftly – aided no doubt by the proximity of the port. The question that came to mind was would this village be swallowed up by the town of Mundra, or would it succeed in retaining its unique character and close knit village ties.
The answer perhaps lies in the hands of people like Dr Kenia and Hawa Bahen.
Clearly these two individuals are recognised as powerful catalysts for change in Baroi. Jointly they are trying to make Baroi a village that is a pleasure to live in. Equally, each is concerned about the relentless pace of urbanisation, and the fear of what this will do to the social fabric of the village. At different points in the day each said to me : “We don’t want this to become Bombay” !
As I saw the carefree and confident smiles of the children of Baroi, I hope they are right and that they succeed.