Inviting volunteers for upcoming programs at Pravah…
Read some of the powerful stories of our Alumni and the remarkable change volunteering experiences made in their lives.
“I now have a life with fewer coins in my pocket but a bag full of rich experiences,” declares a defiant Abhijit Sarkar on being asked how Pravah’s Youth for Development (YfD) program has impacted him.
The experience of YFD for him meant that he learnt to be more disciplined and economical in his approach. He also realized that the process of development is a slow one but with many possibilities that he was not aware of before. His journey began as a process of self-exploration. He was quite content with his corporate job in Delhi when a phone call from the Youth Intervention team inspired him to rethink his career choices. Quitting his job in 2009, he went to work with the Manthan Yuva Sansthan in Jharkhand as part of his YfD internship and has switched loyalties to the development sector ever since.
He calls his journey “incredible” and “beyond words,” claiming that the YfD internship presented him with opportunities to engage with people and communities at a deep level, develop engaging relationships with a diverse set of people from all walks of life while enabling him to be more sensitive towards different perspectives. Having largely been confined to Delhi until the internship, this experience allowed him to work and travel through rural India, exposing him to a range of issues and experiences he was unaware of.
“I was often seen as someone who was scared of trying new things,” he recalls. “However, this perception changed during my journey. I made a conscious attempt to try out things that made me uncomfortable and discovered that each of these attempts enabled me to learn something new, which gave me a sense of accomplishment.”
For Abhijit, YfD’s “lead through example” policy and the approach of working on the self rather than just changing the society made all the difference. “I never thought of myself as a leader,” he says. “I earlier assumed that the definition of leadership is about telling people what to do and ensuring that the work is done within the timelines. However, during my journey with YfD, I realized that leadership is equally about inspiring people to take responsibility and ownership. I realized that the way to lead was to walk the talk.I was surprised to see that people looked up to me to inspire them on a continual basis,” he adds, beaming with pride.
Abhijit now works as a freelancer on various development related social projects across India. He worked with Pravah for a while, creating a cadre of 13 volunteers and supporting their journey through YfD. He was also involved in Reva Diaries project, an initiative by Ravisha Mall another YfDian by supporting the key processes such as mobilization and documentation. He went on to work with Gram Swaraaj Abhiyaan intensively working in three villages in the Bundelkhand region though participatory tools such as micro planning. One of the villages – Bhedkhedi took social actions such as organizing an ‘aam sabha’, forming a committee for managing their forest in a better way.
Speaking of Reva Diaries which documented the folklore associated with the Narmada river in Dharaji in Madhya Pradesh, he describes his feelings for the community in the following words (translated from Hindi):
Hear, oh hear the story of that village
where once the waters flowed free.
While drinking it even today,
they hail “Dharaji” (The Abode of the Flow).
Not just a river but a culture
in which mesmeric waters flowed free,
attracting many a devotee.
But numerous such stories were drowned into stillness
by the dam that killed the flow.
Oh haunted was that night of the eclipse
blackening countless lives in one go.
That bygone moment is now so far from our situation,
but all development’s brought in is a trail of destruction.
It devoured the river, it devoured the jungles, and we know not what else is in store.
Our fight against this injustice will have to continue more.
But why did they not pay heed to nature’s warning signs
and stop this injustice against mother Narmada in time?
This is the story of that village,
where once the waters flowed free.
While drinking it even today,
they hail “Dharaji”.
Manmeet works for Fair Food International, an international NGO that is facilitating change towards a sustainable food and beverage industry. She is setting up the office for South East Asia and will be working with F&B companies on issues such as green buildings, better labour practices, eliminating child labour in the supply chain and the use of organic seeds, to name just a few.
Manmeet was a student of journalism in Kamla Nehru college when she heard about Pravah. The first program she joined was SMILE. The film club that hosted film festivals and discussions helped her to build a perspective on social issues, see the big picture and join the dots between different seemingly discrete issues. She also discovered “Where I fit in the larger scheme of things and how I could contribute to change.” One of the things she did was to start a film club in Kamla Nehru College that continues to run today. It uses film as a medium to discuss social issues and an individual’s role. SMILE opened up windows to different work options and alternatives.
After SMILE, Manmeet was encouraged to explore GX in 2006 – 2007. GX sowed a traveling seed in her and gave her the opportunity to experience new places and people. In the UK she worked with a community arts project where she helped getting young people involved in theatre. She lived with an Italian family with whom she is still in touch. She enjoyed discovering the similarities between Italians and Indians, something she had not expected. In India, the GX participants designed their own project at Tilonia: she started a natak group, wrote and illustrated a storybook for children and renovated the balwadi to make it more child-friendly. Living in a small village in Rajasthan gave her an opportunity to engage with people she would never have met otherwise. Through her interactions she learnt to accept that people look at things differently and although she may not be able to change people’s views, she could still interact with them, work together and have fun.
She then decided to return to academics and did her Masters in Development Studies from Oxford Brookes University in UK. During her studies, she also volunteered with a homeless shelter for young people in difficult circumstances, such as teenage mothers, refugees, women forced into marriage and young people on substance abuse. Manmeet spent 20 hours a week with the shelter and supported young people towards becoming independent – helping them to fill up college forms, introducing them to support groups, mentoring them to pay their rent on time and developing a routine that would enable them to get back into the mainstream of life. The work was high risk with long hours and tough conditions but it pushed Manmeet out of her comfort zone.
Later she did research for a pesticide action network in UK and developed a toolkit on environmental regulations for grassroots organizations in the Asia Pacific region. Today she is happy to be back in India and looking forward to her new job with Fairfood International.
“I know one thing now for sure … I do not want to work just to earn money. I want to find something I am happy doing. I have to find meaning in my work.”
Monisha Vemavarapu is a 22-year old graphic designer from the National Institute of Design. In the normal course of events, she would probably have graduated, pursued a Masters and ended up working in a regular 9.00 to 5.00 job at a design studio helping to sell products like calorie free sweetners to consumers. But she opted for Global Xchange (GX) instead and that changed her perspective on life and her plans for herself.
According to her, GX is designed to trigger new perspectives by questioning existing notions. Travelling, meeting people from different backgrounds, living a very different life, coming back to reality and then trying to fit in again, pushes you to question everything you took for granted and to see things differently. “If earlier, I was intimidated by authority, then today I do not hesitate to question.” Monisha talks about how her notion of development changed and how she realized that her understanding of development could be a result of her conditioning. “Why is development synonymous with urbanization?”, she asks. “It is not just about buildings and clean roads. Cities also create a lot of garbage. And is selling coke in areas where there is no water ‘development’?”
The theme of the first phase of GX (UK) was the ‘World of Food’ focussing on the community and the need to raise awareness about unhealthy diets and importance of locally grown organic produce. As part of this theme, the volunteers led by the local community organised a ‘Global Winter Fayre’ – a local farmers market. To promote this event in the community, Monisha visualised and designed a series of posters and notices, as well as, promoted the various issues around Food Access, unhealthy diets and genetically modified food, as well as, organic produce.
Monisha also volunteered at Organiclea – a not for profit cooperative which works to promote permaculture through localising the food system and re-building community. Monisha helped prepare the land on the farm to grow organic crops, create manure using leaves and vegetable waste.
In the second phase, Monisha was based at URMUL MarusthaliBunkarVikasSamiti (UMBVS) – an organization in Rajasthan set up for the welfare of weavers in the villages of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer districts. Monisha undertook surveys, created and designed a website for UMBVS, created textile designs and re-arranged the layout of Kashida- the UMBVS cloth showroom. Valuable skills, hard to come by in rural areas.
Living in the village of Bhojasar for three months with a host family and residing with the Meghwals (listed as schedule castes), Monisha gained an understanding of discrimination and also of issues around livelihood, health, education and resource management. Along with other volunteers, Monisha organized a free medical health camp with a female doctor and distributed medicines to about 200 members in the community, especially the lower castes and Muslims in the village – traditionally the most disadvantaged in Bhojasar. Monisha was also part of the team that organized a health seminar targeting the women of the Bhil, Lohar and Sansi communities. The team also conducted a survey and visited about 80 homes to raise awareness about government maternal health and immunisation schemes and encouraged villagers to go to the Primary Health Centre.
The impact of this survey was evident. According to Ghera Ram Jaipal, a community member who was also Monisha’s host father, “All of you went to the lower caste section of the village. No one goes there, they don’t come here. But because of the surveys and the invitations (to the immunization meeting), it would have made them feel good [confident…]. Four Sansi (lower caste) women have already gone for immunization…. maybe more will follow. This is only because of you.”
Today Monisha is freelancing with NGOs helping them with their communication needs. She is also interested in teaching and exploring other avenues. Her experiences with GX have made her a more reflective person who is happy to spend time searching for what she really wants to do instead of succumbing to social pressures and take up a regular job.
“There are so many things I want to do and it would be a waste to be stuck in a job that pays me for something I do not enjoy.”
“When I was in college, 6 friends went to prison. I could have been one of them”.
Rameez Alam, a participant in the 2008-09 Wales – Tilonia Global Xchange, describes how GX offered him an alternative….
“When I heard about GX, I was a college student and belonged to a gang involved in campus politics and constant fights. In fact, six of my close friends landed up in prison. I could have been one of them. I did not like the life I was leading but did not see a way out. I was drifting, looking for a better alternative.”
The GX experience was that alternative. In Wales, Rameez worked for a community welfare organization that recycled used furniture and sold it at affordable prices. He also learned how senior citizens could play a vital role in identifying and finding solutions to community problems.
Back in India during the second phase of the program, Rameez went to a village called Thal in Rajasthan. For the first few days there was nothing to do and a bored and frustrated Rameez started wondering how he would survive! But then he took the initiative to start coaching classes for students after school hours. He also decided to revive the night school that had closed down 10 years ago. He set about mapping the households in the village, conducting a survey to learn about the education status of the children and identifing out of school children to check the feasibility of the night school. Then was the task of finding teachers from the community who would be willing to teach in the school. Although it was hard work, it paid off. Rameez has gone back to Thal 3 – 4 times and is happy to see that the school is still running today with about 30 children.
“More than the community work, GX gave me the exposure I needed to grow. My life in Jamia was like living in a bubble – confined to a limited number of people who all thought the same way. I did not know any better. When I went on GX, I realized that there is a huge world out there with as many different points of view as there are people. The experience opened my mind … everything was new! The conversations with other participants made me realize how my gang at home was only looking at ways they could remain in power whereas my friends at the GX were talking about how they could make the world a better place. I realized there was more to life than fights, politics and staying in power.”
“Today I am a firm believer in non-violence and the need for dialogue to solve a conflict. I no longer react to provocation. I remember once someone tried to provoke me by passing insulting remarks about my religious community. Instead of picking up a fight – as I would have done earlier – I ignored him and left. My friends were surprised at my response but I did not see any scope for a dialogue”.
“GX pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to grapple with issues that I had earlier rejected. For example, homosexuality is forbidden in Islam. But I sought out opportunities to meet members of the gay and transgender communities so I could get to know them better. When I heard their stories, I started understanding their point of view.”
“My understanding of my religion also changed after GX. I used to be quite religious. During GX, I was exposed to many different perspectives on issues that are controversial in my religion, such as equality, homosexuality and gender relations. These perspectives ignited my curiosity. In search of an answer, I found myself going back to the Koran and reading it for myself instead of blindly accepting others’ interpretation of it. I discovered that much of what is fed to us by religious bigots is not in fact what the Koran says.”
“I feel I have become more responsible today and am clearer about what is right and wrong. I try to inspire others by setting an example. When I went home and started washing my clothes and dishes, my family was so surprised! This was contrary to the socially prescribed gender roles. But they also appreciated it”.
“I have also kept in touch with my old college friends and tried to influence them to go for further studies or get a job, so that they would stop getting into fights. Today one of them is doing an MBA and two others are running a business.”
“What brought about this change? I think that apart from the exposure to different people, it was the mentoring that made all the difference. The mentors understood what we were trying to say and supported us at every step. They threw up different possibilities but never gave us answers. Instead, they constantly pushed us to challenge ourselves and find our own answers. This experience was new for me and I had a lot of problems coming to grips with myself.”
“One of the people who influenced me greatly was my friend Ethan who is wheel chair bound. His commitment to bring about change in spite of being differently- abled was an inspiration to me. We developed a strong bond with Ethan and would not go anywhere without him. In Wales, we went for a walk in the mountains and when we got to the top, we just carried him on our shoulders since we didn’t want him to miss out on the experience.”
“If I can change, then surely I can facilitate change in others. In the last year, I have been facilitating FUN camps and exposure visits for young people with Pravah. I believe that Pravah’s journey is very powerful and I would like to continue working with young people. I am happy that I am doing something meaningful today and can sleep in peace at night with the knowledge that I am making a difference.”
Ravisha Mall, currently pursuing her Masters in Mass Communication from Jamia Milia Islamia, applied for the Youth of Development with PRAVAH, right after she finished her Bachelors in Design from NIFT, Delhi. A practicing graphic designer, disillusioned by her environs, she was seeking an experience that would enable her to understand the developmental issues plaguing the country. Her objective was to use her capabilities, also the education she felt blessed to have received, to make a contribution towards addressing these issues.
The passion to work with marginalized communities motivated her to embark on a voyage with Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) and the people of Narmada valley. Ravisha attempted to share with them the pain they felt at losing their homes and livelihood due to submergence of their lands. The idea that people had lost not only their property, but, in some cases, their lives, just so that another set of people could have an endless supply of electricity to run their air conditioners and television sets, was unfathomable to her. She was unaware of this unfair face of development and the insurmountable price the farmers, fishermen, landless laborers and tribals paid for it. The ineffectiveness of the judiciary in helping these people, further alarmed her, as she became a regular at the High Courts of Madhya Pradesh, filing petitions and appeals on their behalf. The dead-end procedure and the constant resistance to confronting the issue by these institutions, established to uphold justice, reaffirmed her resolution to make a difference. Having absolutely no legal background, she received instructions from NBA workers on court procedures, collecting affidavits, putting together documents, filing them in the court, briefing lawyers and also filing RTIs.
In November 2010, she helped mobilize and photo-document a massive people’s rally in the town of Mandleshwar. Roughly 20,000 men, women and children took part in this event.
From December 2010 to April 2011, she travelled across Madhya Pradesh visiting remote villages to speak with people, obtaining information through RTI and appearing in court hearings to attain stay orders to stop further construction of Maheswar dam project. During this period, some of her photo-documentation was exhibited at Alliance Francaise as a part of the show’ New Documents’. Her interaction with the movement made her realize that the mass displacement over a period of 30 years had not only destroyed people’s livelihood and settlements but also their socio-cultural identity. She then put together a group of 18 art practitioners working across various media and organized a four day residential camp, Reva Diaries, at Dharaji, one of the remotest villages on the banks of the Narmada. Between the 1st and 5th of April, 2011, these artists engaged with people from four villages, slated to be submerged in the near future. The artisans attempted to understand the psychological impact of the threat of losing their homes and engaged the villagers in activities ranging from a children’s drawing workshop, to painting their walls, to a traditional dance performance. It became a great learning space where activists and villagers could connect and discuss the issues of cultural loss caused by development. Currently, the fate of these villages is still tethered on a tight rope. Ravisha, although busy with her college assignments, continues to lend a helping hand by organizing press conferences for NBA in Delhi and inviting journalists to write about the issue.
In her words, “The experience shook my set beliefs and made me more aware of the blessed life I lead. It made me realize how I owe it to those who are marginalized, so that they can have a better tomorrow.”