What happens when twenty American Jews work with fifty Hindu villagers in rural India?

by Jacob Kohn

If we were to go only by today’s breaking news headlines on rural India, we would find little cause to be optimistic: floods engulfing entire villages, poor sanitation practices spreading diseases, sexual harassment of women. Certainly these are very serious issues that must be dealt with on a local and societal level. But today I would like to share a positive story on the potential for empowerment and change in an area usually not well understood by the Western world.

Several years ago, I traveled to northern India to work on a social empowerment project in a partnership between an international nonprofit and local NGO. Our group, made up largely of relatively affluent American Jews, was tasked with working alongside dalit villagers on various construction projects such as drainage ditches and road repairs in order to help the villagers build a more sustainable community and strengthen the bonds between them.

In caste-bound rural northern India, dalits are the lowest class of society. While the Indian government allocates capital to building up rural communities, the village we worked in was one of the last to receive funds to build water pumps and maintain infrastructure. Such is the case in many rural areas in India, where money intended for development is siphoned off to line pockets or serve special interests along the way, leaving little for those without connections or status. As a result, these villagers lacked electricity, well-paved pathways, and adequate drainage–all things that their higher-caste neighbors enjoyed in the village just ten minutes’ drive down the road.

While generations-old caste differences were at play here, perhaps India’s beginnings as a sovereign state could help us understand such persistent economic disparity between India’s rich and poor. Indian author and political activist Arundhati Roy refers to the dichotomy between two approaches to development as a “Nehru vs. Gandhi” contest. In the midst of India’s quest for independence, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi had markedly differing viewpoints on how to best run the linguistically and culturally diverse group of peoples that would make up the modern Indian state. As India’s first Prime Minister, Nehru believed in a paternal, centralized state, while the grassroots-oriented Gandhi preferred a more maternal, delegated village-by-village governance system. While neither system is a panacea, the decentralized, bottom-up system appeared to be a good starting point for our village project. Without the benefit of government resources trickling down, the villagers would have to start at the local level. And here is where our group came in.

On our seven-week journey, we learned that recognizing the humanity in others is the first step to a working relationship. Once this relationship is established, any change resulting from the two groups coming into contact must be undertaken in a consultative format. Our work touched upon the International Labor Organization’s principle of consulta previa—“the right of indigenous and ethnic groups to be consulted on matters affecting their culture and heritage”. In South America, the principle has arisen as both governments and private firms come into contact with relatively isolated or less powerful indigenous groups. Our group of Americans partnered with a local NGO that had established a relationship with the group of villages in the area. Before our arrival, the NGO had entered into a conversation with village elders and reached an agreement on the specific project our group would be undertaking. This support was absolutely necessary to the success of our work with the villagers—it ensured community ownership rather than an imposition of an outside force with its own interests.  When we arrived, we learned that our specific project task had been changed by the village elders just the day before. While some may have been disappointed, I took this as evidence that our work would have all the support it needed.

On the first day of our project, we sat down and listened as the village pardhan, or elder, welcomed us. Both of us must have seemed intimidated by the other: the twenty American Jews surrounded by half a village of Indians. I was reminded of a biblical scene in which Israelite scouts compare themselves to the current indigenous inhabitants of the land they are about to enter: “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we must have looked the same to them” (Numbers 13:32-33). The villagers stared at our pale skin, which in India instantly conferred a special status that many in our group felt uncomfortable with or undeserving of. At the same time, I personally felt insignificant in such a group–perceiving that my group’s ivory-tower liberal arts degrees paled in comparison to the villagers’ firsthand knowledge of harvesting peppermint, mixing cement, or raising water buffalo.

We were both defined and labeled by what our respective dominant societies would call “untouchability”—the dalits as an entire class in a negative sense, the Americans as a high-status, rich, privileged positive one. The challenge before us would be to discard such labels in the interest of working together for a sustainable goal.

As we worked alongside each other over the next seven weeks, the intimidation factor lessened. Our cameras worked themselves out of our backpacks, and we allowed the village youth to snap photos during our work sessions. It quickly became clear that they, too, shared the cultural value of the selfie.

Secured with an increasing familiarity, we began to ask the more difficult questions about the value of our transient foreign presence in a rural village marked by stability and tradition. Our group’s strict no-gifts policy, especially towards technology, helped us navigate the knife’s edge between modernization and indigenous traditions. While the entire village now had cell phones, electricity and televisions were only available in the higher-caste village next door. Gifting our cameras outright to a few villagers could have disrupted relations both within the village and between it and its more powerful neighbor.

Many development stories end with a short-term service group leaving, its time up, with another service group ready at the sidelines for their turn to “make an impact.” But ours was different. It did not require a group visit every year. In fact, it was designed to make our very presence unnecessary by building a sense of community among the villagers as we worked alongside them that summer. Throughout our time there, the local NGO highlighted a positive change in the villagers’ demeanor towards one another. Women of the village who had previously stayed inside their houses had begun to step outside and add their own input to our construction work., entering into conversations with male villagers not related to them—a small change, but significant for such a community that had consciously or unconsciously resisted efforts to shake up the status quo.

The following year, another group returned to survey the work we had done. The drainage ditches and paths we had built were not only in fine condition—they were just the beginnings of what had become a greater effort to improve living conditions in the village. A path we had built in front of a schoolhouse was now a paved concrete assembly area. The local NGO has continued its work with the village, helping start skill-enhancing programs such as a women’s sewing training center. Some may call these efforts progress; others may see a disruption of centuries-old traditions. Either way, such changes are only possible and sustainable if those most directly affected claim ownership over these decisions.

A picture is worth a thousand words. The image of twenty American Jews toiling in the blistering summer sun alongside fifty Hindu Indian villagers highlights just how small our world is becoming, and our responsibility within it. In today’s globalized world where ideas propagate like viruses and viruses propagate like, well, viruses, it is becoming harder and harder for cultures to remain isolated from outside influences. Closed police-state societies are utilizing technology to see what others have and they do not, causing a disruptive call for change. Diseases that once were confined to small tropical regions now have the potential to spread as rapidly as people can move across the planet. As members of this new interconnected world, we have a responsibility to use this power wisely—to recognize that which we share, acknowledge our differences, and come to the table ready to engage in conversation and dialogue.