For many tribes living in remote corners of India, often in inhospitable terrain, hope arrives with every fresh year. Suddenly the grumps of the day are swept aside and thoughts turn towards a better future, however distant that mark may be. They see a
promise of a better tomorrow. These simpletons don’t mind that experience warns against optimism; never mind that cynicism defies idealism. They feel it is possible to rise. This happens every day hidden amidst the mountains of cosy despair. Government after government has promised a better deal for the tribal people wherever they lived. Sometimes it is uplifted by them; many times it is dragged down. But such unfulfilled promises have endured because of the innocence, laughter and dry tears of the tribal community.
When India won its independence, it was termed as a magnificent tryst with destiny for the sake of equality amongst all the people. The founding fathers of our democracy proclaimed that in an independent India, the government will wipe every tear from every eye of its citizens. The socialist, secular and democratic status of the country aimed to bring peace and security to the people.
But what the past few decades saw was that the rich became richer and the poor got poorer. The tribal community living in the hilly tracts was completely forgotten. The story of the tribal people in the Dang district in Gujarat was no different. But miracles do happen when everything seems to be lost. When fate closes one door, Rotary opens another. And Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee walked in.
Anyone who has moved with Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee will understand that he was inspired by the greatest human being of the 1900’s, a man who shook India out of its slumber, a revolutionary who showed the world that Indians are not mendicants for military gains or other weapons for victory, but want peace and security — Mahatma Gandhi. Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee is a person who took to the path of service in a world of ubiquitous economic and power hungry people. He visited the villages in the Dang district with his team of Rotarians including Rtn. Ramesh Desai who later coordinated the developmental programmes. This visit proved to be an inspiration for the tribal people and they could see a better life in the immediate future and a world where justice, social, economic and cultural opportunities will be available to them. Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee’s mission encompassed spiritual values that go beyond crass materialism and is instilled with compassion for all people in the spirit of what Gandhi had taught. He wanted the people from other regions to maintain just and honourable relations with the tribal community in Dang, foster respect for their culture, heritage and encourage trade between them and lift the tribes out of poverty. The levels of poverty in Dang district exerted a significant influence over the trends in Gujarat’s poverty scales itself.
Dang is a district in the State of Gujarat. The administrative headquarters is in Ahwa. Ancient literatures refer to Dang as Dand Aranyaka, meaning bamboo forest. The Kotvariya tribal community were the predominant dwellers in this region and the other tribal communities are Varli, Nayaka, Kukna and Bhil. Even though it lies about 110 kilometres from Vapi, the Dang district remains quite isolated and materially under developed. Encompassing 1,788 sq. km. in a rugged terrain noted for its still largely pristine teak forests, the district has an overall literacy rate of 38 percent, the second lowest among the 24 districts in Gujarat. Almost 100 percent of the population resides in the countryside, sustaining themselves, just above the subsistence level by growing local varieties of millet and other seed crops. As per the 1991 census, the population of the district is 1.50 lakhs. Dang is a 100 percent tribal district declared by the government and also it was one of the most backward districts among top 20 in India mentioned in the bulletin of the Planning Commission.
Dang district’s strength lies in its rich forests and its weakness is its remoteness and backwardness. This remoteness and backwardness has been the target of the district administration supported by State authorities and consistently in the last 3–4 years, the district has come up in all manner at all levels and in all fields. Most people believe that Gujarat is a dry, arid State and there are hardly any forests. But, this view is changed in a jiffy, once they visit Dang. This southern district has the highest forest cover among all the districts of Gujarat. Its high precipitation, fast flowing rivers such as Purva and Ambika, lofty moist forests, lush bamboo brakes and hilly terrain make it a paradise for nature lovers. Being located in the Western Ghats or Sahyadri mountain range, it possesses an exceptionally rich flora and fauna. Undoubtedly, this is one of the richest districts in terms of biodiversity. Several species of birds and plants, orchids unique to the Western Ghats are seen in Dang. All the 311 villages of the district are fully covered by dense forests notable among them being Mahal, Kalibal, Galkund, Don, Waghai and Pipaldahad. The land of the district is fertile and rocky. The colour of the soil is either red or black. Maize, rice, groundnuts and nagli (raggi) are the major cultivation of this land. Wheat, black gram and udad are also now grown in this soil.
It is believed that, during the time of the Ramayana, this region was known as ‘Shabari-van’ and that ‘Shabari mata’ lived in this place. The people of this place call themselves to be descendants of Shabari who gave the berries after tasting them as offering to Lord Rama. Keeping this unbreakable faith of the tribals into consideration,
Shri Shabari mata Sewa Committee has established a grand temple and a Shabaridham at Subir.
The survey undertaken by the Government to identify the population below poverty line had several indicators including size of land holding, education, food security, sanitation, means of livelihood, migration for work and many more. The survey done in the recent years have shown a remarkable improvement in the living conditions of the tribals and surely one of the reasons can be attributed to the intervention of Rotary Club of Vapi through its ROVADAN Trust. This ROVADAN Trust (Rotary Vapi Dang Development Trust) was established by Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee and works with the local government at the district. Rtn. Ramesh Desai, who is the Chairman of the Trust now, recollects fondly his innumerable trips with Rtn. K B (as Kalyan Banerjee is affectionately called there) into the dense forests of Dang trying to find out how the lives of the tribals can be improved. He said, “K B will land in Mumbai in the early hours of the morning after his hectic schedule in USA, drive straight into Vapi which is nearly 160 kms away, take us immediately to Dang which is another 110 kms not bothering to rest. He was determined to resettle the villagers by giving them better education, vocational training, micro credit, manufacturing and marketing expertise for their products, sanitation and other infrastructure in the shortest possible time. To K B, the welfare of this most backward tribal community was top most in his agenda and he did not want to waste time. I am amazed how he can be a reservoir of unending energy.” Penury was just one of the problems faced by the tribals in Dang. The people lived in squalid huts and basic facilities like clean water, food and hygiene were beyond their means. Healthcare was non-existent. As in many tribal belts, these people were familiar with false assurances of rehabilitation and uplift from politicians. Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee attempted a social revolution on a mass scale that would normally be the work of a local government. He knew it would be difficult. But Gandhians don’t give up, obstacles only spur them on.
At Waghai it was a night out under the stars. These were not city slickers, but a group of tribals who were huddling around the flickering flames of the small fire they had lit on that cold night. Children were lying with thin sheets of cloth over them but that cannot keep the chill away. Some people were just finishing a frugal meal of raggi. Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee found out that they were migrating since there was no work in that area. Their children had to go wherever they went. Work was not available and
exodus from the village was a routine exercise. The first task was to instill a sense of pride amongst the tribals in undertaking a vocation they knew. His journey in the Dang District can be termed as a padyatra and everywhere the Rotarians would tell the tribals that they weren’t alone and encourage them to venture into any vocational
activity that they knew.
As all the bamboo needed was available there, the villagers were encouraged to start handicrafts items using bamboo. Now the villagers make bamboo baskets and many other products that can be used in agriculture. These products are sold to merchants
and farmers. Experts from Tripura and Agartala were brought here to train them in making more products using bamboo. Today the average income for a family is over Rs.5,000 and the ROVADAN Trust is continuously helping them with training, manufacturing and marketing their products. Low cost shelters were built with the assistance of RC Burwood, RI District 9690, Australia, RC Kamigori, RI District 2680,
Japan, The Rotary Foundation and the Government of Gujarat. Out of the 87 low cost shelters built, 22 are in Waghai. Ahwa, the district headquarters has 43 and Dungarda has 22 shelters. The total cost of the project was over Rs.45 lakhs. In Dungarda and Ahwa, the tribals have been trained to make furniture and other handicrafts items and this has enabled every family to earn a decent livelihood. Education was next high on the agenda for the Trust. Children of the tribals who were till now living like nomads, have been put in schools. With more work at home, the tribals have considerably
reduced migrating to other towns and cities for finding a job that can feed them at least once a day. The villages have been electrified and today the dish TV has come into these colonies.
The tribals have been now trained in modern agricultural methods and the ROVADAN Trust has enabled them to cultivate more than 2,000 hectares of land. The land has been given to the people with the rights to cultivate by the government. Ms. Bharathi, a local villager who is in charge of overseeing the projects of Rotary, is happy with the education she has got and the work she does with other women. These enterprising women produce the ‘nagli papad’ from raggi, and market it in towns and cities in smart packets. She recollects how the ROVADAN Trust helped them with the entire infrastructure they needed. Field workers are appointed by the Trust and they go from village to village monitoring the projects that are being implemented. In Zawada village, Okra (ladies finger vegetable) cultivation has been implemented at a cost of
Rs.19 lakhs. The women have formed the ‘Sakhi Mandals’ and the produce are sold in Ahmedabad, Surat and other cities. Over 1,000 acres are being cultivated with the expertise provided by the Trust. Proper storage and weighing facilities have been installed. Paddy and other vegetables are also grown now. The collection and distribution centre built by the Trust has helped the villagers immensely. It is estimated that nearly 500 families are directly employed in Okra cultivation alone. The Trust has
employed Dr. Hussain Mathekiya, an agriculturist to advise the villagers on every aspect of cultivation. He and his team of people work with missionary zeal in every village. The ROVADAN Trust has 45 employees in Dang to assist the villagers in vocational training. The salary bill alone amounts to Rs.40 lakhs per year. On an average the Trust deploys nearly Rs.1.5 crores a year for various developmental activities in Dang district.
“Dang district was like someone curled up with no hope forthcoming for the families that lived in the forest ranges,” say the Rotarians of RC Vapi. The Waghai village announces itself much before it becomes visible. The narrow roads lined with lush green forests with teak and other exotic flora lulls you into believing that you are approaching a resort. When the Rotarians landed in Dang district years ago they were struck by the complete absence of joy among the inhabitants. Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee sought an answer and found that the cue to their happiness lay in their being gainfully employed. Rtn. Ramesh Desai reflected on the feelings Rtn. K B had seeing people just waiting for help. He feels that Rtn. K B must have seen a divine sign to plunge into action to do what no other Rotary club could even dare to venture. No wonder, to the villagers here, Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee is a saint and a messiah who brought healing and hopes. He saw them search some form of livelihood to raise their children and some manna. Dang district, to unsuspecting eyes, was marked with backwardness that seemed to fester and pulse with a life of its own.
Rtn. Vikas Jain of RC Vapi says, “The enthusiasm shown by our beloved Kalyan to take up the challenge in Dang was infectious. Almost overnight the members of the club were ready to do what was needed to bring cheer back into the lives of the tribals.” What followed rapidly was quite like scenes in a movie. The plan to build low cost shelters was made ready along with vocational training centres in three centres. Donors from far and wide responded instantly. As the projects became a reality, the scenario started to change in the villages. Whenever the Rotarians walk into the streets suddenly a chorus of enthusiastic voices fill the area. The men and women are busy with their vocation and agricultural activities. They look at the Rotarians and smile. That is the only gratitude they can show.
Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee’s concern towards the forest communities stems from his unshakeable belief that any definition of a culture of civilisation must address the problems of achieving justice for communities and individuals who do not have the means to compete or cope without structured assistance and compassionate help. His vision of a world order of peace revolves around the fact that the challenges of the emerging world must be addressed without delay. The villagers view him as a pillar of strength as he has put into action projects that can meet the legitimate requirements of the weak and oppressed.
It is reported in the national media that most of the forest dwelling communities did not even know about the Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. The Act was brought about to recognise the rights of forest dwelling communities dependent on forests for their livelihood and proposed to give heritable and inalienable right to use 2.5 hectares per family. Poor communities living in the inaccessible fringes of forest lack formal education. They lack easy access to information. People wanting to exploit the natural wealth of the forests have made sure that the provisions of the Act did not reach the intended beneficiaries on time in most parts of India. Rotary has
brought education to these areas and the results are there for all to see. The tribals here have managed to get lands from the Government. By enabling the tribals to cultivate forest lands and acquire rights to own it, probably a bid by powerful lobbies to grab forest land for commercial exploitation has been thwarted.
Rotary’s involvement with the forest community in Dang has scripted a remarkable success story. The mood of doom and gloom which was earlier noticed in the huts is now changed. The emigration of families and employable young people to other States has reduced. The spectacular failure of the earlier governments to bring about a change in the lives of the forest dwellers undoubtedly convinced Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee that this should become a movement for Rotary in Vapi.
Educating the girl child is one of the priority programme of Rotary. ROVADAN Trust has collaborated with the Government of Gujarat and set up the Eklavya Girls Residential School in Saputara, a hill station in Dang District. The hill resort is about
42 kms from Ahwa and attracts lot of tourists. Sixty girl students study in this school which offers classes from 8th to 10th standard. Education, boarding and lodging facility is provided free of cost to the students. A dedicated team of six lady teachers provide quality education to the girl students. Similarly in Ahwa, the Eklavya Model Residential School provides free education to 264 students which include boys and girls. Courses are offered from 6th to 12th standard and 14 teachers are employed by the Trust here. Though some part of the funds are provided by the Government of India and Government of Gujarat through the Tribal Development Grants, the entire school is managed by ROVADAN Trust.
At Ahwa, the capital of the district, the ROVADAN Trust has set up a training centre for tribals in the field of agriculture. A garment manufacturing unit and training centre set up by the Trust here helps 120 boys and girls to be qualified every year. Girls are trained as patient attenders or paramedical staff in another training centre. Over 50 girls pass out of this course every year and are gainfully employed in hospitals and other places where there is a need to look after sick people. The average earning for an individual who has passed his or her vocational training from any of these centres is Rs.5,000 per month. The paramedical training course is affiliated to the Ascendity University of Pune. The vocational training given to the tribals in various fields takes into consideration the blossoming of technology and expansion of markets. In an era of increasing competition the programme ensures that content is not lost out to form.
A visit to Vapi to see the projects of the Rotary Club of Vapi through the trusts set up for the purpose must become a pilgrimage for every Rotarian. You will find some of the most dedicated Rotarians walking here and achieving things that the Rotary world has not heard much about. All these years the achievements of the Rotary Club of Vapi has never been tom-tommed. The projects of the club are worth studying for the growing interplay between community and Rotary. Take one of the greatest Rotarians
of this time, the person we call Kalyan. He says that it has been a fulfilling journey for him. But we know that it was by no means easy. A chat with the tribals is interesting. “We buy rice, food and clothing from the money we earn here,” they say with pride. The makeover in Dang is a story of extraordinary courage. As Rtn. Vikas Jain says, “K B does not believe in drawing room conversations. As decades go by his work in Dang district will be impressively catalytic.” Despite all these, the members of RC Vapi feel that another landmark project from Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee will come soon.
Many people have admirers, Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee has followers. You can understand what that means when you walk into his office at United Phosphorous Ltd. Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee is intense in his belief and this makes his colleagues enthusiastic. We must acknowledge here the very significant role that his wife Ann Binota has played in supporting him in his work. Rtn. Kalyan Banerjee’s innate good quality and humility attracts people to him. He listens to their voices, to their songs, to their laughter and to their silence of suffering. He knows that India’s peace within its borders is defended not by its most educated men and women but by the vast majority of the less privileged
men and women who intuitively understand and practice love for each other. This undying quality amongst the poorest of the poor is a way of life rooted in millennia of experience including the respect for ‘dharma’ which they defend and dream for a brave new world.