How one person can transform an entire community
While preparing for the transition away from mandatory COVID-19 lockdowns and travel bans, Lilapur (Ahmedabad district, Gujarat) resident Bhupat began to worry about the livelihoods of hundreds of his fellow villagers.
With more than 1,660 COVID-19 deaths reported so far in Gujarat (third highest behind Maharashtra and Delhi), and cases on the rise in nearby Ahmedabad, Bhupat sensed the growing anxiety among the villagers. Especially the roughly 400 workers who would need to return to work at 80 local-area factories — if they wanted to keep their jobs.
The workers needed their factory jobs to support themselves and their families, but were naturally concerned. Were the factories doing what was needed to protect the health of their workers? Would returning to work mean bringing illness home to their families and ultimately, the entire village?
So one day, Bhupat visited the village chief to discuss his concerns and propose a plan to help ease the fears of the workers, and the village.
The village chief agreed to his plan, and they set up visits to 45 of the neighboring factories. The plan was to meet with factory heads and to physically assess each factory’s work environment and COVID-19 procedures to ensure it was safe for the returning workers.
Following the visits, they were able to report to the village workers that the factories were indeed prepared for their return, and were adhering to the guidelines necessary for their ongoing safety.
The visits also established positive relationships with the factories, which would surely benefit all villagers and their futures.
Bhupat was rightfully pleased with the results of his efforts for the sake of the village. But, you may be wondering why Bhupat took it upon himself to not only take charge of the issue — which was sure to lead to more problems down the road as livelihoods were threatened — but to also take charge of the solution.
Meanwhile, the lockdown had made it impossible for Punadara villagers in the Kheda district to replace cooking gas cylinders. Multiple households had run out and were cooking meals with chulhas, traditional cookstoves that villages had worked long and hard to move away from because of the health dangers, including asthma, pneumonia, and other respiratory and eye infections.
The nearest place to get cooking gas cylinders was more than 12 miles (20 km) from the village. A few villagers had made the long walk only to return empty-handed as the gas company struggled with supply and demand amid the chaos of the pandemic.
Punadara resident Pankaj kept a careful eye on the situation and when it was clear it was only going to get worse, he worked with local and state government authorities hoping to work out a way to deliver gas cylinders to the village. The gas company agreed — but only if they could guarantee the purchase of at least 25 cylinders.
Pankaj next set up a registration station where villagers could request gas cylinders. As it turned out, 130 households had run out of gas. With the promise of 130 cylinders, the gas company made the deliveries, while Pankaj continued registering additional households in the delivery program, which soon grew to more than 300.
By reaching out to authorities and suppliers, Pankaj had successfully ensured that villagers had access to the cleaner, healthier cooking methods, and the gas company had new customers and the revenue that came with it. Pankaj’s creative, grassroots solution improved village life from that day forward.
Again, you may be asking yourself why and how Pankaj was able to spend so much time and effort to solve the problem. Doesn’t he have work and families too?
Bhupat and Pakaj are two of 12 Share & Care Lok Mitras currently living in 12 villages in the Kheda, Mehsana, and Ahmedabad districts of Gujarat.
This is where Lok Mitras — translated as “friends of the people” — come in. Our Village Upliftment program has partnered with ESI (Environmental Sanitation Institute), an NGO we’ve worked with in the past on sanitation and hygiene projects, to place ESI-trained Lok Mitras in villages. After conducting a thorough pilot program, including training and placing three Lok Mitras in three villages, we have established 12 Lok Mitras in 12 villages, which have a combined population of 50,000.
With Share & Care’s support, and the transformation-driven training and continuous guidance from ESI mentors, Lok Mitras have established themselves in their assigned villages and are already deeply impacting their communities.
These 12 good men and women provide moral support and care for families in their assigned villages. Living alongside the people they serve, they’re able to see through the fog of widespread apathy when it comes to existing issues, as well as identify emerging issues before they become catastrophes, and apply their training and passion to create sustainable change.
In between solving village-wide situations, they’re visiting the sick, disabled, and elderly in their homes, counseling young students struggling to stay in school, teaching children about the importance of good hygiene (and how to attain it), organizing health camps, discussing taboos (and the real science) related to menstruation with women and young girls, and addressing child abuse and familial violence in general, to name just a fraction of the positive impact they bring to their villages.
Mostly, they’re consistent, and it’s their continuous presence that makes change not only possible, but also sustainable.
Rural India and the Village Upliftment Signature Program
How widespread is the need for village upliftment? Seventy percent of India’s population live in the country’s 650,000 villages. That equates to more than 966 million people for an average village population of 1,486.
This is rural India, including all the issues that come with huge numbers of people living remotely in small clusters. The desire to maintain traditions (a.k.a. resisting change) is a common theme in rural populations, and can often conflict with the need to:
- Preserve natural resources amid the demand for improved infrastructure.
- Establish and maintain healthy sanitation and hygiene practices.
- Protect water sources from sewage and farm chemical (pesticides) runoff.
- Safeguard land threatened by overgrazing, erosion, and deforestation.
- Provide education to all, regardless of income or social status.
- Promote gender equality, including providing livelihood opportunities and putting an end to violence against women.
- Educate and train for sustainable farming and animal husbandry practices, including business and business ownership skills.
- Develop effective alcohol and substance abuse programs.
In the video below, brothers Anil and Vishnu, 10 and 12 years old, are talking to a Lok Mitra (all speaking in Gujarati). The boys’ family is among the poorest of the poor in their village. Their mother died when they were younger, and they say their alcoholic father won’t give them even one rupee, so they collect trash and separate out cardboard cartons and plastic and sell them at Rs 20/kg and Rs 10/kg, respectively. They get food from street vendors, and their meager earnings go to their father who uses it to support his addiction.
These issues are at the core of Share & Care’s new Village Upliftment Signature Program, an important addition to our core belief that the path to sustainable change is through education, health care, and equity.
Becoming a Lok Mitra
So who are these dedicated individuals?
Lok Mitras are college-educated women and men with a deep-rooted passion for community service. They are carefully chosen, then trained and supervised by seasoned ESI mentors with decades of experience in social work.
STEP ONE: 3-Day Orientation & Training
Location: Environmental Sanitation Institute, Sughad
Over three days, Lok Mitras first receive orientation and training in a serene, peaceful atmosphere. Here, the idea of village transformation merges with personal, inner transformation as they are carefully guided toward discovering their true intentions as Lok Mitras, and to bring that authenticity to the work ahead of them.
The importance of embracing zeal, punctuality, clarity of thought, and cultivation of acceptance and tolerance are lovingly demonstrated by senior ESI members, who also share their experiences and introduce them to methods and ideas for village upliftment, while inspiring them to be creative in finding new solutions.
Up and coming Lok Mitras and senior ESI leaders during orientation.
STEP TWO: Matching Lok Mitras to Villages
Location: 12 Villages in Kheda, Mehsana, and Ahmedabad districts, Gujarat
Senior ESI team members arrange meetings between themselves, the new Lok Mitra, villagers, and village officials, including the elected village sarpanch (decision-maker) who they meet with separately to share their intentions for their work in the village, and to reinforce the importance of their mutual support.
This initial introduction also helps demonstrate to the village that the Lok Mitra love and are devoted to their work and to the villagers. (So far, the villages have responded with love and acceptance.)
STEP THREE: National Service Scheme 7-Day Camp
Location: Fulji Na Muwada village, Kheda district, Gujarat
Here, the Lok Mitras learn how to live in village communities by practicing small acts of love and kindness: cleaning toilets, clearing trash, visiting neighbors, caring for animals, organizing cultural events, discussing personal hygiene, and even performing in stage productions.
Local and district government officials, a few film celebrities, and 350 students from 40 colleges (including our Lok Mitras), also participated in discussions about education for girls, child marriage, organic farming, and the dangers of addiction.
Lok Mitra introduction meeting in Juna Vasiya ni Muvadi, Punadara.
Being a Lok Mitra
We are midway through our first year, and because of the hard work that went into ESI’s initial pilot program (training and placement of three Lok Mitras in three villages), and the incredible passion for community service, we are truly optimistic about the value the Lok Mitras are bringing to the 12 villages so far in 2020.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
The pandemic has played a part in everything we’ve accomplished so far in 2020. In each village, Lok Mitras continually educate the villagers as the virus situation changes. They keep them up to date on the latest findings from world authorities, and reinforce the importance of following all guidelines, including adhering to curfews.
Lok Mitras also organized groups to mark circles at grocery stores to demonstrate social distancing, set up stations and assisted in sanitizing shopper’s hands, and handed out ayurvedic drinks to help with general health and boost immunity.
Using tires as templates, volunteers mark circles 6 feet apart to help customers practice social distancing.
Customers following social distancing guidelines, made easier thanks to volunteers.
When food became scarce, with the additional help of Share & Care’s COVID-19 response, they handed out “Grocery Kits of Gratitude” to more than 1,000 families and when supplies again ran low, they asked local merchants to donate grain to create additional kits for even more beneficiaries. Watch this very special video to learn more about this life-saving grocery kit program:
Volunteers work tirelessly to put the grocery kits together to get them to families in need.
A “Grocery Kits of Gratitude” recipient blesses the Lok Mitra who brought her food.
Two young volunteers delivering groceries to one of hundreds of recipients.
To help with womens’ livelihoods early in the pandemic, they provided women with the materials and instructions for making masks, and helped sell them to villagers (at very little cost).
A young woman stitching masks.
Masks, ready to sell to villagers (at very little cost).
And for the children, who were struggling with the stay-at-home orders, Lok Mitras gathered the supplies to create 50 art kits. Along with pads of paper, pens and pencils, and educational books, the art kits were a hit, and the project helped reinforce the value of creativity in life.
Young children with art kits supplied by village Lok Mitras.
Even More Examples of Lok Mitras Impact For Villages
Lok Mitras created dustbins using trashed plastic containers to use for village cleanup, and organized and inspired ongoing cleanliness and maintenance practices.
The plastic trash was also a great supply for creating water bowls. Lok Mitras are highly attuned to the importance of caring for all creatures, and serve as role models for others by providing food, water, and shelter as needed for animals and all creatures living in the village, especially during the hottest seasons.
A young man feeds hungry, thirsty dogs.
Feeders are built and placed throughout the village to help feed birds and small animals.
As a resource for parents to help with their children’s education, they help locate resources, fill out forms, and advocate for ongoing education.
In addition to discussing female menstrual health and hygiene, they educate and encourage good nutrition, regular doctor visits, and self-care during pregnancy.
Guddi returns Rs 20 to her teacher (and Lok Mitra), creating a learning opportunity about character building.
Lok Mitra Vinay was helping to teach a 3rd grade class in the village one day. While preparing for the class, he had placed Rs 20 in a book to mark a page he wanted to return to later.
Later that same day, Guddi, 8 years old, ran up to him and said, “Motabhai [big brother], I found this money in the book!”
Though Rs 20 meant so little to him that he readily misplaced it without a second thought, to Guddi, Rs 20 was a treasure.
Realizing this, Vinay quickly praised her before the entire class, and used the opportunity to reinforce to them the values of honesty and integrity over selfishness and desire.
You’re an inspiration, Guddi.
Many villagers rely on cattle and other farm animals for their livelihood, Lok Mitras assist with their care and support through education, working with local veterinarians, and arranging for ongoing learning opportunities.
Even more villagers rely on crops, and Lok Mitras support them through education on organic farming methods, including field trips and on-site education.
How You Can Help
Share and Care’s Village Upliftment Signature Program cultivates grassroots change within village societies. Lok Mitras, college-educated women and men with deep-rooted passions for community service, are trained and supervised by seasoned NGO mentors with decades of experience in social work.
Our Village Upliftment program is currently empowering about 50,000 people:
- $100 empowers one hundred villagers ($1/villager)
- $250 empowers one woman to stitch face masks and sell them at Rs 1 per mask.
- $500 supports one Lok Mitra to continue working on COVID-19-related activities in one village.
- $2,500 funds the placement of one Lok Mitra per village for one year.
- $5,000 uplifts one village, empowering up to 5,000 villagers.
Your donation helps bring this program — and everlasting generational change — to more villages and individuals throughout rural India.