The soul of an Indian is incomplete without a journey into the heart of rural India. The 2 weeks I spent in the slum region of Hegdenagar / Kamanahalli (to which I partly owe my long absence from the blogosphere) has transformed my perspective on India’s development, and my own ambitions and issues.
Hegdenagar is an ignored little village, about an hour’s distance from Bangalore city, and a few decades’ development. Honestly though, I had imagined a replica of the Dharavi slums, and Hegnenagar’s cemented, albiet small and dilapidated houses, alleviated, if only for the shortest time, my anticipation of the living standards of our rural countrymen. I learnt later that most Dharavi-styled slums stand on illegal land, and Habitat India has fought its fair battle to abide by the law and take Hegdenagar through its first stage of development. The same houses which teased us with a heartening peek into rural life, home 8-10 families in their 300-350 sq-ft boundaries, math that left me bewildered. Constructing new homes for such families that could afford to move out formed the bulk of the physical aspect of our project. Unfortunately, sanitation, largely government terrain, is still ignored and untouched, and the stench of uncovered drains and waste threatens to curb any real progress.
We got our hands dirty and covered in cement and sand, shovelled and sifted sand and stones, lifted and transported stone bricks weighing 22 kgs, tore down and built and plastered walls, and experienced the hardships of construction workers while toiling under the scorching summer sun. But construction, even though a 9 to 4 task, was only a filler in our interaction with the residents of Hegdenagar, whose swarms of children breathed life into each sweaty afternoon, and whose women defined new levels of endurance in their heart-wrenching stories. However, what began as a construction project became, in no time, an immersion into what Aravind Adiga describes as the darkness in The White Tiger.
Hegdenagar proved, among other things, that all children, irrespective of religion, upbringing and family income, dream the same dreams. Everyone wants to fly on a plane, devour chocolates and become a doctor. And everyone is united in spirit by cricket, which never failed to transform the narrow lanes of the village into a festival of cheering, hooting and fighting. The kids, with their innocent smiles and sparkling eyes, and their excitement and curiosity in befriending new people, evoked in us something more than sympathy in their vulnerable living conditions; a desire to inspire them so that someday, they too could see the world that lies beyond the borders of Hegdenagar, a sense of gratitude because unfair as it may be, the odds at birth were only slightly tilted in our favor, and a conviction that by virtue of those odds, we have the chance to impact the future of our country.
While The Aasha Build has altered my impression of rural India, Habitat India has strengthened my faith in the non-profit sector. Although Habitat For Humanity’s cause is projected purely as housing, Habitat India is involved in the lives of its beneficiaries to a commendable extent. In Hegdenagar, for instance, Habitat works with a smaller NGO called Birds, which directly oversees self-help groups in the region (a concept which demands a dedicated blog post). Birds runs a joint bank account for these women-only groups, supports microentrepreneurs, encourages savings, and ensures timely repayments of home loans for homes approved and built by Habitat; in short, Habitat and Birds together try to create some semblance of fair opportunity for all. Over the course of 14 days, I met some really inspiring, incredible people, who have dedicated their entire lives to causes they believe in. I hope to document their stories on The Aasha Build blog.
Tangibly, our team completed 2.5 houses, and contributed the cost price of 5 houses, which have been added to Habitat’s revolving housing fund. Intangibly though, the people of Hegdenagar showed me a face of India that I have sparingly dared to imagine. The hospitality and warmth demonstrated by the residents despite their modest living conditions was both suprising and touching. The hope that glows in the faces of its children tugged at our hearts, the innocence of their youth stirred an affection that I know will draw us back to the world that is rural India.
*Photos courtesy Deep & Aditya, The Aasha Build’s official photographers.