A social revolution has started in a group of villages in the Indian state of Maharashtra, and it is spreading. It is empowering women, increasing village prosperity and transforming the way the villagers make decisions.
The source of this revolution is Grampari, the rural development programme of Initiatives of Change India. Situated at the Asia Plateau conference centre at Panchgani in Western India, this programme puts human and spiritual development at its heart. It has introduced villagers to the practice of taking time in quiet reflection to seek answers to their personal problems and those of their villages. The outcome has been astounding.
I saw this first hand while participating in an international conference at Asia Plateau last month. Villagers from five villages invited conference participants to visit. We divided into five groups and climbed into buses. My group of 15 arrived in Jarewadi, a village of 500 people. We were led to a large banyan tree, under which large coverings had been spread. There we were joined by about 80 villagers, old and young, male and female.
That was the beginning of a memorable afternoon, as villagers told how the idea of taking time in quiet had taken hold first with a few individuals and then spread until the village decided to start every council meeting with a half-hour discussion of the issue the council was considering, followed by a time of reflection, after which all were welcome to share their ideas.
The effect has been dramatic. ‘In my family we regarded women as having no value other than to do what we told them, rudely,’ said one man. ‘In a quiet time I felt that I should ask my wife’s forgiveness. I apologized in front of the whole village.’ Another said that after he and a friend had quarreled, they had not spoken for 10 years. An apology had restored the friendship.
The village council had been the preserve of the senior men, but they decided that this had to change. Now anyone can come to the council meetings. And the council decided to hand responsibility for the village finances to the women.
Previously some village festivals had been for men only, but now they opened them to everyone. They also decided on a date each year when the village would celebrate the birthdays of all those who did not know on which day they had been born.
Previously, we were told, the village was strewn with waste paper, plastic and other rubbish. The tree under which we met had been a dump. Now it was pristine. We encountered clean streets, tidy piles of firewood, well-kept cattle enclosures.
The villagers decided to stop using plastic, and had bought 100 metal cups in place of disposable mugs. They stopped using chemicals on their crops and vegetables, and had started using organic techniques instead.
So enthusiastic were they that one day about 30 of them went to a nearby village and offered to clean up there. They were met with suspicion; were they being paid to do this? When they told of their new approach, 20 of the villagers joined them, and in three hours the 50 people had transformed the village.
As we listened to these stories, our group had many questions, and a lively back-and-forth took place, in which we learnt much about village life. Few of the young people can find employment near the village, and most have to go to the cities to find work. But those who could earn locally remained in the village, since they much preferred that to the cities.
When we got back to Asia Plateau, we heard from those who had visited the other four villages. They told equally impressive stories of personal decisions which had healed conflicts, overcome addiction and transformed the village life. They had heard women tell of taking leadership where previously they had been excluded. They had seen projects piping water into villages from nearby springs – schemes carried out by the villagers with the help of hydraulic engineers who gave their services. And they had seen innovative approaches to agriculture and animal husbandry.
At the heart of all these stories was the radical transformation, individual and communal, which emerged as people implemented the ideas that came to them during the times of quiet reflection.
John Bond (first top left) is Secretary to the IofC International Council. The work of Grampari, an IofC programme under the focus of Sustainable Living, sustains livelihoods and strengthens the communities surrounding Asia Plateau.