Reflections from an Explorative Journey in India: Nalika’s Story on Rethinking Community Development


They say “be careful for what you wish for”.  Last year I decided I needed to do something that would shake me up, make me uncomfortable and rejuvenate me.

I wasn’t sure what that was, but I knew when I came across it I would know.

A couple of months later I received an email about the CERES Global Trip  – Rethinking approaches to Community Development in India. I read the description and everything about it appealed to me and I knew that some how; it would meet to varying extents, what I was looking for.

The itinerary of the trip excited me – ABCD conference in Goa, half day tour of Dharavi (one of Asia’s largest slums or colonies which is a hub of small scale industry with a annual turnover of approximately US$ 665 million) followed by a visit to Swaraj University (Swaraj University was created in 2010 that offers a two year learning programme for youth and Shikshantar – The People’s Institute for rethinking education and development) in Udaipur.

This was all going to be done as a group – a group of up to 20 total strangers! That in itself was going to be a challenge as I had not travelled in this way for a very long time – shared rooms, shared bathrooms, overnight bus and train rides, possible travel and stomach sickness – oh dear.

I pushed all my fears and concerns to the back and decided to focus on all that this trip was going to bring – I had no expectations other than one of learning and I went with an open heart and an open mind.

And this is what happened…..

The ABCD Conference was no ordinary conference  – it demonstrated the principles of Asset Based Community Development with different participants contributing to the 5 days, be it by presenting, documenting the sessions, running ice breakers or early morning yoga sessions.

This was a community of not necessarily practitioners, but people who were all bound by their commitment to community and the environment. Everyone there was there to learn and share and these were some of the things that stood out for me.

ABCD is about our local assets being the building blocks of sustainable development. This work is built on the work initiated in the 1980’s by John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann.

The foundation being:

  1. Focusing on the strengths of the community and place rather than the problems and needs.
  2. Identifying and mobilising individual and community assets
  3. Ensure it is community driven – building communities from the inside out and
  4. It’s based on relationships

The assets we refer can be categorised in to six areas:

  • Our skills and abilities
  • Networks of communities and organisations
  • Institutions such as businesses, local government and not for profit organisations
  • The natural and built environment
  • Our local economy eg. volunteer work; swapping services and goods and traditional business
  • Stories that capture the culture and heritage

What this taught me was the importance of stepping back, letting go, listening and working alongside community and the importance of trust and respect.

The conference came to end after 5 days and we regrouped and set off to Mumbai on the overnight train.

From the calm and idyllic setting of Goa and the Goan people, we entered the large and dense metropolis of Mumbai. Here we visited Dharavi, a place like I have never experienced before. Every square inch was used and here lived an industrious and connected community.

As we made our way through a maze of potters, poppadom makers, the making of clothes, soap, metal and plastic recycling and people’s homes it was important to notice the connection about working and living in the same place.

The housing that the government was building did not have the capacity for some of these industries to survive. Although there are challenges these communities, they live a very dignified life with a sense of purpose. This was a place where community and business thrived.

Later that afternoon we stood in the afternoon sun along a dusty road, waiting for the sleeper bus that never seemed to turn up, but finally it did arrived closer to 6pm.

We all piled in dusty, tired and hot but this was the beginning of another amazing part of our journey… little did we know, we were about to have an experience that would make quite an impact. It certainly did for me.

So following a near 18 hour bus trip in our sleeper bus, where our beds resembled cold storage display units at a deli, we arrived in Udaipur.

The next 4 days were spent in Udaipur with our first night spent at the Tapovan Ashram. The Ashram is set in 15 acres of green and tranquil surroundings. This was the perfect place for us to recharge and reconnect.

In addition to briefly experiencing the beautiful surrounds we received an introduction to Swaraj University.

Swaraj University highlights the importance of self directed learning where learners identify their passions and engage in developing the skills, relationships and practices that they need to bring it to fruition. It is about discovering and designing a unique learning path for oneself. This is a 2 year program taken up by young people (known as Khojis) that go on to often set up their own enterprises.

I also saw this program as something that prepares you for life, building resilience and connection.

Swaraj University is a result of the Shikshantar Institute, our next place to explore.

Now this wasn’t just a place it was an experience in itself, being an organisation that encourages a way of being and an approach.  Manish Jain one of the Co-Founders and other young people who had made this their place greeted us all with hugs.

The days in Udaipur were filled with learning about gift culture, visiting people who followed their passion and made things happen, people who recognized their skills and their life’s purpose and initiated services, programs or businesses, all tangible examples of the philosophy of Shikshantar which is to:

Create spaces and processes where individual and communities can together engage in dialogue to:

  1. Generate meaningful critiques to expose and dismantle/transform existing models of Education, Development and Progress;
  2. reclaim control over their own learning processes and learning ecologies;
  3. imagine (and continually re-imagine) their own complex shared visions and practices of Swaraj  – swaraj means “independence” or “self-rule.”

We witnessed a range of experiences that challenged and inspired us – bird rescue coupled with a social enterprise of creating bird houses; the establishment of a school for children with disabilities by two Occupational Therapists; and the challenging experience of standing in a rubbish tip and seeing the communities of families who live there and sort the rubbish.

So what does this all mean …

The 10 days moved me, I had to sit in spaces that felt uncomfortable, I realised that my frame of reference was very Western and the power imbalance in the way I work with community was apparent. I experienced the joy of being vulnerable, the importance of sharing and starting with the strengths in any situation, how essential it is to change my language and question my motivation and intentions and most of all it confirmed that I will always be inspired by community and it is a place that I want to be.

I am thankful for the experience of learning alongside:

16 others who were also inspired by and committed to community and the environment, this was a group of people who did not define themselves by their job but by their passions.

And to people like –

Roland Martin the key driver of GoaCan a voluntary consumer rights and education group

Luis Dias who left his medical practice to set up Child’s Play. India Foundation established to instill positive values and provide social empowerment to India’s disadvantaged children through the teaching of classical music to the highest possible standard.

Manisfgh Jain, Reva Dandage from Swaraj University and Shikshantar  and Sayani a former Khoji who individually and collectively have made me question my thinking and practice.

I did say at the beginning “be careful about what you wish for”

But after this trip to India, I would say  it is not about what you wish for, but what you do with it when it presents itself.

I consider this as a gift given to me and I will share it in many different ways to be able to keep the spirit of what was given to me alive.

Thank you.

This post was written by Nalika Peiris, Unit Manager Community Development and Social Policy at Moreland City Council and fellow CERES Global Traveller.

Our next trip to India will be in December 2017. Details can be found here. 

By | 2017-03-27T09:58:31+00:00 March 23rd, 2017|India|0 Comments

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