In the twenty years that I have been working in international development, I have seen many projects around the world. Last month I saw one that struck me as particularly impressive. It was a project run by a small local organisation in Dehra Dun, North India, called Friends of the Doon Society (FODS). Its work is in a cluster of villages on the edge of the Rajaji National Park, famous for its elephants, tigers and other wild animals and birds as well its forests.
I was accompanied by FODS President Arijit Banerji and Project Manager Bharat Sharma who explained that the initial aim of the work with these villagers had been to save the forest by providing them with alternative livelihoods. The forest resources had become severely depleted due to overgrazing and gathering firewood etc and the Government had thus made it a protected national park.
When FODS first entered the village they found a community that had lost hope. Alcoholism was rife and people were lying drunk on the streets. The removal of their traditional means of livelihood, combined with illiteracy and an innate sense of inferiority due to caste beliefs meant that they were barely able to do more than subsist.
It is hard to imagine that the scenes of energetic and inquiring industry I saw yesterday were at the same village. We entered the village through neat rows of cucumber seedlings recently transplanted from a poly-tunnel provided by FODS, UNDP and other donors.
The compost project was the result of a course at the local agricultural college that FODS had recently organised for 19 local farmers. Bharat, along with the other farmers and community members rolled up his sleeves and helped fetch the cow-dung and earth and chop down the greenery, whilst explaining the scientific process of heat generation and nitrogen conversion that would transform these materials into high quality compost that would increase their crop yields. This time it was RAJ (name changed) who was benefiting from the compost pit on his land. Next time he would help one of the farmers helping him today to build and fill his pit.
While work on the compost was continuing we went further into the village and met Priya (name changed) who, with a friend, demonstrated the use of a loom that had been provided by FODS. The simple, wood-framed loom enabled her to make durrie rugs out of rags that FODS supplied from Dehra Dun. Priya is already receiving orders from local people for these rugs and is trying to work out how much to charge for them. We advised her to calculate how many hours it takes to make them, include the cost of materials and work out an hourly rate using the national minimum wage of about Rs 200 a day as a guide. The income Priya gains from the loom will help her support her baby son and young daughter, who is now studying at the village school which was set up with funding from Dehra Dun’s prestigious public school, Doon School. This was clearly a family that now had hope for the future through a means of supplementing its income and through the education of its children.
Housing and education
Next we met 16 year old Sunita (name changed). FODS had helped her when as a 13 year old she was caring for her widowed, mentally ill father from a tumble-down shack. They built a small brick house with a latrine for her and her father (as they did not meet the stringent criteria for the Government housing scheme). Where once the thatch lean-to sheltered her and her father, her room, like any normal adolescent’s bedroom, is now festooned with Bollywood film posters and tinsel decorations. Against one wall is her prized possession, a bicycle provided by FODS to help her get to and from school 5 kms away. But Sunita was very distressed because her family were putting her under pressure to get married. Bharat made it very clear that this was completely unacceptable and told her that any such attempt to marry off an underage girl would be a matter for the police. He made sure that Sunita had his phone number so that she could report to him if she was being forced into marriage before completing her schooling.
Finally we visited the government junior school. Here FODS had funded the establishment of a school kitchen garden where the children grew additional nutrition for their midday meal and learned about vegetable cultivation.
One man in particular embodies the change that Rasulpur has undergone since FODS began working there. Kuldip Singh (name changed) was an alcoholic when they first arrived. Ragged and unkempt, he would barge into FODS meetings with the other villagers shouting drunkenly and incoherently. But as the months went past he started to see the changes that were taking place in his neighbours’ lives. They had low tech bio-gas plants (pits filled with cow-dung, fitted with a pipe to siphon the emerging gas to the kitchen) which meant they no longer had to spend hours gathering firewood in the jungle (which, in any case, was now illegal). They had healthy cattle being cared for by local para-vets trained by FODS. They had brick houses and crops. Their children were going to school. Suddenly one day, two years after FODS first arrived, he came to a meeting neatly dressed, shaved and sober.
He invited us to see his house. His bio-gas plant was well established in the neatly swept compound. Two outhouses were being prepared for a new batch of poultry to arrive as he has sold his previous batch. He introduced us to his wife and children who chatted confidently with us and proudly showed us around. He had even recently stood for election to the village Panchayat. Although he did not win this time, it is a testament to the remarkable extent of his rehabilitation that he had the confidence to stand for election. That he was confident that his fellow villagers rather than laughing at him as they used to may now vote for him as a potential leader.
Kuldip Singh sat with us under a tree while work on the compost pit was going on. I asked him what changes he had seen since FODS had started working in the village. He listed many of those described above, and said that above all what FODS had brought the village was hope.
But this was not mere sycophantic praise to his benefactors. He was also thinking about the future, and about sustainable change in the village. He thanked FODS for all that it had done but said that what they needed now was a means of earning an income every day. I asked him if he had any suggestions of how this could be achieved. He was full of ideas and suggestions. Traders came from far away to sell clothing in the village, he said. Why couldn’t they make clothes themselves to sell? And if they could test the soil they could identify which crops would grow best on which plots. With good quality seeds he calculated that with a Rs 500 investment he could earn Rs5-6,000. Any concerns I may have had about dependency on FODS disappeared. It was clear that along with practical solutions to real, day to day problems, that along with hope for the future, FODS had given this community confidence to look after their own futures. It had given them back their self-esteem.
I saw the same self-confidence and hope for the future in the women – young and old – learning to read and write on the veranda of the Gurudwara, and in the young people learning computer skills on solar powered computers in Daluwala Majbata.
FODS and the future
A child’s jersey hanging on a pillar of the Rasuplur loom bears the legend “Magic show.” There are now about 200 young people from the village working in a nearby industrial area. Mud and thatch houses are being rapidly replaced by brick and tile ones. It is easy to imagine a time in the not too distant future when FODS may be able to leave Rasulpur to its own devices and move to another village where hope and self-esteem have been lost, to repeat its practical, participatory and highly productive magic show there.
Dehra Dun, 26 February 2014
 FODS work is funded mainly by UNDP Small Grants Programme, Sir Ratan Tata Trust, Pammi Nanda Foundation, Doon School, WWF India