Every day I am inspired by people I get to spend time with who demonstrate incredible resilience in the face of appalling injustice and poverty. People who are sometimes right at the edge between death and life.
In early February I returned from ten days in India, learning from the work that is happening there. The sights, sounds and smells are fresh in my memory.
It would be easy to tell hardship stories for there is shocking, appalling, grinding and diminishing poverty. The inhuman nature of the caste system – a hidden apartheid – will haunt me until there is justice for the Dalit community. And yet when I think of the people I met, determination and dignity are the words that spring to mind.
Most of my time was spent as part of a group of 11 people from WEvolution (www.wevolution.org.uk), a small charity which has been supporting Women’s Self-Reliant Groups across the UK over the last decade. Its work has been inspired by the estimated 2.2 million Self-Help Groups in India, involving an estimated 33 million women.
Everywhere we went, we encountered groups of women who were coming together and taking charge, increasing household income, helping to lift themselves and their families out of destitution.
One women, whose story was inspiring but not untypical, spoke of how her involvement in a Self-Help Group had enabled her to buy a cow with her first loan, pay off the debt on her home with the second, and set up her two sons in business (driving tuk-tuks) with the third.
On the outskirts of Bangalore, we met with members of 22 groups who have come together to assemble watches on behalf of Tata, one of the world’s largest companies. But this is unlike any other production line I have ever witnessed. It happens in different places to accommodate where the women live. They own the company and share in the profits!
In the centre of Mumbai, we met with a group running composting businesses in local neighbourhoods and another responsible for a students’ cafeteria and biomass plant in one of the universities. We heard from waste-pickers whose enterprise and energy put our own rather pathetic attempts at recycling to shame. As the United Kingdom looks ahead to hosting the Climate Conference in Glasgow later this year, there are many we need to learn from.
Having left the rest of the group at Mumbai International Airport to make their journey back to Scotland, my final days in India were spent in Delhi visiting some of the incredible work with Dalits being supported by Christian Aid.
I spent time with a woman (and her family) whose husband had died in a septic tank overcome by the fumes of human waste. And then with communities of women from across three states whose work it had been to clear out dry toilets, carrying the waste in large baskets and burying it.
To hear how they had come together to challenge not only economic injustice but also the layers of prejudice which date back over thousands of years, was inspirational. They are making new futures for themselves and for their families.
So much to take in. But, amidst it all, one abiding lesson which challenges much of what we currently do and how we do it. It comes from Aloysious Fernandez, one of the principle architects of the Self-Help Movement in India. “If you build on people’s needs, then they will be grateful and dependent. If you build on people’s strengths, then they will be brilliant.”
This article first appeared in the April 2020 edition of Life & Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland.