Updated: Apr 1, 2020
Patna is the capital of Bihar. There is another Patna tucked away in the Garhwali Hills that very few people know of. When I say tucked away, it literally is, tucked away. To get to it one goes from Rishikesh towards Tehri Garhwal past Lakshman Jhula and has to look out for a crook in the road from where the climb to the village begins.
There is no real signboard pointing the way to the village. The sign greeting you in that crook in the road, is one from the Government of India letting you know that you are entering the Rajaji National Tiger Reserve. A village in a tiger reserve? The answer lies between Yes and No just as the village is on the fringes of the reserve qualifying it as being outside of the reserve, there have been instances of leopards entering the village or the odd wandering animal disappearing forever. In a manner of speaking, the village is in the forest reserve and not really inside of it. That doesn’t deter the spirit of the inhabitants.
The path leading from the road is actually a narrow walkway dotted with stones and covered with hoof marks. It is traversed more by mules carrying supplies to the village than by people to and from the village. The trek is about 700 meters long and meanders through the hillside reaching into the skies. The path is well shaded from the sun thanks to a variety of trees `lining the pathway. You also cross a perennial river that is born in the same hill once water cascades from a scenic though small waterfall. At around 400 meters from the ground a fork in the road takes you to the base of the waterfall. At around 500 meters is an upcoming Yoga Village that is more modern.
At around 700 meters you see the first signs of a different rural India. The entrance to the village is marked by a water storage tank that faces one of the many terrace farms growing potatoes, sugar cane, mustard and spinach. A little beyond the water tank I saw the first signs of inhabitants as stone huts appeared adorning the hillside. Near the first house in the village I saw a bunch of drums and buckets neatly arranged in a line, the first one being placed right below the village tap. Yes, the village has ONLY ONE TAP. Water flows twice a day for about 1 hour each. This is gathered by the villagers and used for drinking. For farming they have access to the water tank that is filled with unfiltered water from the hills. Villagers told me that when needed they use the irrigation water to cook and or drink.
Next to the tap was a ‘street light’. It wasn’t any ordinary street light, it was a solar powered one. The sign at the base stated clearly that it was erected by the local MLA. From here three paths led in different directions. Just ahead of the path I saw a sign that completely floored me. It said (translation)"In keeping village Patna clean, I am grateful to the villages and the families. Note: please keep our village clean. Our village is changing. Signed - the village head". As I walked past the sign and on the path I noticed that the first sign was not put up to merely "sound good". It reflected on the philosophy of the village. Every hut I passed had a phrase or a sentence painted on it. Each of these statements had a name and a number scribed beneath it. The name was of a student and the number reflecting the standard (class) in which the student was studying in. Every single house had such a statement. It was then that I noticed the path I was walking on.
It was made of concrete and it was spotless! There wasn’t a single spec of dirt, mud or even a dropped leaf and this was at around 10 am! In a few minutes into my walk I noticed the village toilets. They didn’t look like ‘village toilets’. They were robustly constructed with steel doors. The walls were painted. The toilets were clean and the best part was that there was no smell either in or around them. India has an abysmal record when it comes to public toilet maintenance and cleanliness. As a nation, we just don’t feel the need to keep them clean. We typically leave them without adequately flushing them or throw garbage into toilet bowls. These were distinctly different.
I spoke to a few people and here is what I learnt.
1. The villagers used toilets. They had abandoned the practice of going into the fields.
2. The toilets were not owned by an individual, they were owned by the village.
3. Every household and every resident ensured that the village and this included the toilets were kept clean at ALL times.
4. The villagers had put up old oil cans at strategic locations and all debris was put in them. Littering was forbidden.
5. The cans were generally emptied by villagers when they were full. I didn’t quite understand where the collected garbage went but it surely went somewhere safe because I didn’t see any large garbage dump or landfill.
I was very surprised at the input I received. These simple village folk are clearly model citizens, protective of their environment and take pride in living as a responsible community. This is in stark contrast to what I encounter in Delhi.
At the far end of the village the road divides into two. One path leads to more huts and the other, steeper, looks ready to reach for the clouds. Two minutes on this path and I hear the distinct chatter of very young children. The path ended suddenly and before me stood a small clearing where a bunch of women were seated with very small children. These children had a pencil each and a notebook in which they were trying to write. They all looked up and greeted us with folded hands and smiled with a cute “Namaste”. The women were teachers and together they were soaking in the warm winter sun. I went to talk to them when some more chatter this time coming from my left and behind me caught my attention. I turned to see a simple hut with a sign painted on it. On the other side of the hut sat another teacher with some more students. These appeared to be older. I walked towards them and saw the sign of Sarva Shiksha Abhyan – The Mission to Educate everyone (under the Right To Education Act passed by Parliament and implemented by the Government of India).
I sat across the teacher and spoke to her at length about the school and how she perceived education. I confessed that I wanted to help and was finding out ways in which I could.
Here is what I learnt:
1. The Government provides EVERYTHING that primary students need.
2. This includes uniforms, textbooks, teaching aids (maps, posters etc), notebooks, color pencils etc
3. The students also received a nutritious meal
4. The Government had erected a 5-room primary school but there were less than 20 students
We only hear about corruption and government funds being misused. But here was a living example of how funding reached the right source and was being well utilized. She went on to add that the biggest challenge she faced was convincing parents to send children to school.
I probed some more and learnt that village folk were sometimes more interested in Government subsidy that each child got on enrolment than they were in truly educating their children. Men, she stated, were particularly low on motivation. They believed that women and children could work in fields or in construction. They (men) wanted an easier life. The other fear that the village folk had was that with education came the risk of children deserting them and moving to towns or cities. There was little incentive for children to stay back in the village and continue to farm. I recalled my journey up the hillside and in the village.
I remembered seeing very few male children working the fields; I could recall some young girls (teenagers) working in fields. It made me pause and think. This was a real-life problem worth solving. I reiterated my desire to support the school. She reluctantly asked if I could send her notebooks. She confessed that children ran out of them faster than she could replace them. The government only supplied limited quantities which magnified the problem. I left promising to send these over to the school.
I continued my walk up the path and found another village school. This one was clearly the middle school extending up to Class IX. I stood mesmerized as teachers and students alike were engaged in learning. I didn’t disturb them and continued my walk. Sometime later the path dipped and returned back to the village. I was lost in thought but I couldn’t help notice how clean the edge of the village (too) was. I walked past cowsheds and small terraced farms that were pristine even though they could have been ordinary. The feeling was of being one with nature and one with an India that held out hope for the future.
The little village made me believe in the land of plenty that India was.
It made me believe that when citizens truly want to do things right, they only need to "just do it" and they can.
It made me understand that education was the path to realizing 1.3 billion dreams.
It made me conscious of my bias that the citizens of this country don’t care about the way they are (see my previous posts).
It made me realize how little I really know of my own country
It made me supremely aware that my country’s heart is not just in overcrowded cities but beats silently in every little village.
I left to return to Delhi with a pep in my stride and a belief in the future. It is through my words, that I share the India of my dreams
Where the mind is kept clean by first cleaning the environment
Where people smile because they are content, not because they are monetarily rich
Where people believe they are a community that needs to look out for each other
Where India lives…