Assam, one of the north-eastern states of India, is renowned for growing more than half of India’s iconic teas. However, the socio-economic conditions of the workers on these tea estates is increasingly becoming a matter of immediate and urgent concern as it is deeply entangled with the overall economic crisis of the tea industry, which many believe may not even survive another 15-20 years, if drastic course corrections are not taken.
Widespread alcoholism, anaemia, political divisiveness, limited alternative livelihoods, lack of quality education are symptoms of the underlying socio-economic realities that have been brewing for many years. This has led to children missing out on learning opportunities, unemployed youth, and in an overarching sense, people being stuck in intergenerational cycles of disempowerment.
Born amidst these conditions, Dr Arjun Trivedi witnessed first hand the struggles of the people. Arjun also realised the inherent potential that the community held to bring about sustainable change.
In 2019, he set up Karunar Kheti Trust, an NGO that has community participation and collective wisdom at its core. They are working towards building empowered rural communities in Assam through community action on livelihood, education, and health.
By the Community, for the Community
A physicist, researcher, and engineer, Arjun left a promising career to work for and with the rural communities of Assam. “I want to try and convert the years and years of negative energy of social unrest expressed by the people into something positive. I acknowledge that the challenge is tremendous – not just at the cultural scale of a significant population that has its problems entangled in history spanning the colonial era to emergent modern India, but also at the level of our timeless collective existential condition –, but nonetheless, needs to be addressed”, shares Arjun Trivedi.
There is a wealth of generational wisdom, knowledge and skills that the community holds along with their inherent quality of working hard, which, however, over many years seems to have become inaccessible and the lives of people taken over by the dominant narrative of social unrest. Arjun is tapping into this pool of shared resources to bring about change from within. Through various activities, Karunar Kheti has been able to mobilise community members – parents, teachers, youth, and children.
One of the ways the Trust has been able to accomplish this is by building a community school – Selenghat Valley School. He engaged local bamboo craftsmen to build the classrooms, while the community was given a platform to collectively decide the school fees. The curriculum is being contextually designed by the community teachers based on available resources. Today, the school has over 80 toddlers in nursery and kindergarten, with one higher grade being added every year. The curriculum will continue to evolve based on the feedback from the children and the community’s aspirations.
Along with the school, there is a Student Resource Centre for the older children of the community. While the school is building a foundational response to the education crisis in the region beginning with its youngest children, this centre’s immediate goal is to provide assistance to the older children of the community who need help in passing board exams and, thus, not drop out of school.
Assam currently has the highest dropout rate in the country at both the primary and secondary levels. At the centre, children who have already dropped out of school are being mentored and are given academic tutoring so that they can return to school. The centre’s vision is to provide empowering resources to children and youth so that they find their direction, but also be the change that the community needs.
Arjun highlights another instance of how a community can come together to empower the next generation. The school wanted parents to be actively involved in their child’s learning journey. Hence, once the national lockdown was relaxed, they encouraged parents to come to the school and learn the academic material which they could then teach their children at home during this ongoing period of school closures.
Bringing about Holistic Development
Although education is a step towards empowering the community, Arjun realises that health and livelihoods are the other interconnected areas that he needs to work in to foster holistic community development.
When COVID emerged as a pandemic, wearing masks became urgent. However, the community, especially during the earliest days of the first national lockdown, didn’t have a supply of masks. The Trust immediately sourced materials and empowered the local women to start a tailoring unit. This tailoring unit made thousands of masks for the community. After having boosted the resilience of our community, these women are now moving onto establishing their own independent and self-sustaining tailoring business catering to the needs of the community.
Along with the women’s tailoring unit, the Trust also got together a team of volunteers from different villages in the area to start a door-to-door and village-to-village campaign to provide relevant information about Covid-19. The team, known as People’s Team, visited more than 1000 families in the area a couple of times and distribute food to 250+ families hit hardest economically during the lockdown.
The People’s Team is currently setting up a model farm at the Selenghat Valley School with a vision to connect academics to farming. This also provides a platform to address the nutrition and health of the community. Anemia, for example, that is chronic for generations in these communities, can be significantly addressed by empowering and educating people with respect to their own health.
In the next 2 years, Arjun wishes to build his core team and organisational capacities. The next couple of years will also see Karunar Kheti Trust develop its school to higher grades with increased community participation. Last but not the least, the Trust will continue to empower its people to lead the way to find empowering solutions for livelihood and health-related matters of the community
Arjun is looking for long-term collaborators and funders who understand his long-term vision, and the patient, determined, and consistent hard work that is needed.
In a more immediate and urgent sense, Arjun is looking for funding to support the expenses of the school that normally is met by the nominal school fees. However, due to the pandemic related school closures, which will continue for the foreseeable future, this core revenue stream has been severely affected. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to reach out to Arjun.