By Arpit Goel:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
– Margaret Mead
It is said that the first war towards an action is won with a decision made inside a mind before getting down to finally performing it. I learnt its relevance in my life and importance only when one day, out of sheer curiosity to try something different, I opted to go and volunteer. I wanted to explore myself and get out of my comfort zone from a sheltered life in Delhi. Like all internet addicts, I googled, applied and got selected to represent the first cohort of volunteers with ‘Pravah’, an NGO based in New Delhi that had recently partnered with International Citizen Service (ICS) and a grassroots level sister organisation of Barefoot College, Manthan in Kotri village, that gives support and mentorship to their projects.
I kickstarted my journey in September 2015 with a group of 22 other volunteers and one Coordinator in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district. I worked with the local village community of Bhadoon to engage with and achieve youth empowerment and adolescent development. I had to manage my time and mainly focus on the project aimed towards securing social security pension schemes, liable to the widows, senior citizens and disabled men and women in the village.
Paired with two British counterparts, I lived for a complete tenure in a selected host’s home facing a few difficulties on the way. Understanding the British accent was tough initially. Sometimes, missing a complete sentence during conversations meant I had to request my counterparts to repeat again. British volunteers, too, faced similar concerns perhaps of a different kind. On my first day in the village, I was anxious because villagers spoke only Hindi, apart from local regional dialects which neither of us understood. They had to adapt to the difficulties they faced due to the spicy cuisine, Indian style latrines and the sultry weather of Rajasthan. Cool, starry nights were, however, a delightful solace we would share together after a hard day of work with the community.
It was a challenge for us as volunteers to plan and create development mechanisms to execute programmes within the community and to take people along at the same time. ‘Higher caste’ consciousness among many people and divisions within the village, high highschool dropout rates among the ‘lower caste’ students were notable hindrances. A ‘high caste’ Rajput would refuse to be present in the same room with a Dalit. It was disturbing for me personally to see social differences as I had never seen caste-based discrimination in my life.
Manthan, the NGO in Kotri, also works to solve grassroots problems with a decade of experience in tackling social issues. Its staff gave constant support on pertinent issues, with frequent technical help and vast knowledge about local geopolitical realities. They provided deep insights into the rural lifestyle which was pivotal in the execution of projects to plan programmes involving different communities. We searched for ways to begin a discourse with the marginalised people, village teenagers, especially girls, farmers, and aged and unmarried adult women. All information collected served to educate me further towards understanding the local culture, habits, cuisine and associated traditions.
I took part in local celebrations, learning their stories which the villagers generously shared. Some of my cherished moments were during encounters with the village sarpanch, gram sevaks, Anganwadi workers and village elders. It educated me about governance, local politics, development schemes and sometimes popular folk tales would unfold during our evening conversations.
Away from home and without an internet connection, I was able to dabble in painting using borrowed resources, teaching school kids and facilitating workshops with young boys and girls.
We were successful in creating surveys for pension schemes and performed door to door interactions with over 400 people within Bhadoon village. This gave us a good knowledge of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the problems faced by people. Working with a group meant taking initiatives, developing skills of listening and setting a daily agenda to work together, through to the end. It propelled my confidence and heightened my self-esteem. I also learnt tactical ways to resolve peer to peer conflicts while performing practical work on issues I cared for.
The opportunity needed me to dive in with an equal importance given to reflecting on my actions. I observed that it was essential to introspect, think and innovate to get a better outcome. I made mistakes but learnt to deal with them, learning to fight my fear of failure in the process. After a busy day, we managed to find enough time at hand and space to think, giving flight to our creativity.
After returning from the programme I try and find happiness in every success with humility and work harder to achieve my goals. Perhaps volunteering for Pravah ICS shaped my definition of change where I also transformed from an unsure and anxious person to a rather confident human being who is more aware of himself and his thoughts. I have come to love myself after this journey and treasure every relationship which I am blessed with.
My privileged and comfortable life in Delhi was a complete contrast to the poverty and apathy I encountered in the village. People were happy with limited resources and lived, for the most part, in harmony despite inequity and socioeconomic differences. It was an emotional journey that made me value life and gave me a humble definition for happiness.
The decision to volunteer meant persuading my parents and changing a lot of predecided plans. I did not know it would kickstart an amazing journey on a roller coaster ride where I would work, play, learn and make friends along the way making them the best days of my life.