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'Kasturba Trust' Keeps Gandhi's Vision Alive In India

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As 21st century India battles with political instability, multi-crore scams and ethnic and gender violence, it's just the right time to revisit Mahatma Gandhi's vision for an ideal 'Bharat'. Gandhian values may truly be a thing of the past today, and yet there are smaller Indias where Bapu's principles of 'swavlamban' (self reliance) and the construction of a social order based on non-violent people power and the empowerment of rural women, are still being kept alive.

Gandhi firmly believed that nation-building was directly linked to the development of the villages, which, in turn, was connected with the progress of rural women and children. It was with this idea in mind, that he had established the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust (KGNMT) in 1945, from the resources contributed by eminent people as well as the anonymous masses, after the death of his wife, Kasturba Gandhi, while she was in detention at the Agha Khan Palace, Pune, in 1944. Gandhi was the first chairman of the Trust and at that time, following his call, several 'sevikas' (women activists) had left their homes to work in remote villages under challenging conditions.

Today, the Trust is headquartered at Kasturbagram, Indore, a sprawling self-sufficient "village" campus of 400 acres on the Indore-Khandwa road in Madhya Pradesh (MP). It is the "best practical expression of Gandhi's timeless vision, Sarvodaya or the reawakening of the spirit, in harmony with nature and environment for all forms of life". Gandhi believed that since 80 per cent of India lived in the villages, with the vast majority being poor and resourceless, Independence would be meaningful for them only if they became self-reliant. In a densely populated country, unemployment, according to him, could only be removed by the regeneration of the rural economy, particularly through the revival of traditional crafts. Thus, his blueprint gave priority to agriculture and spinning; the latter had the potential to generate employment with the minimum capital investment.

Kasturbagram integrates all the different activities that the Mahatma felt would set India on to the path of economic self reliance. True to its mandate of doing constructive work among women and children, it runs some innovative programmes in the fields of health care, education, vocational training and employment generation.

Like in any rural set up, agriculture and animal rearing is central to Kasturbagram, with the Kasturbagram Krishi Kshetra overseeing the farm work, the running of the orchard and 'gaushala' (cow shed), spread over nearly 300 acres of the land. In addition, the Krishi Vigyan Kendra, an initiative of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research, which runs from the premises not only produces and sells improved seeds, it also transfers new agricultural technology to farmers through regular trainings. Ensuring quality healthcare is a small hospital, the Kasturba Arogya Sadan, which extends its services to 14 villages nearby. It also has a one-and-half year nurses training programme for female health workers, who come here from different parts of the country.

But the one initiative that is impacting the lives of young rural and tribal girls in the region is the educational opportunities they are being given at this unique "village". All the educational institutions at Kasturbagram, from the Balwadi (nursery) to the post graduate college, have created their curriculum keeping in mind their particular needs. Shares Vidya Patni, Principal, Kasturba Kanya Vidya Mandir, "The idea is to make our students self sufficient. After regular school hours, they form small 'tolis' (groups), which, on a rotational basis, participate in varied activities, from cleaning the campus to growing vegetables, de-husking wheat and even making 'chappatis'."

Rekha Ganesh, 16, from Umrali Gaon in Alirajpur district, is a residential student studying in Class Nine. Earlier, this daughter of a farmer, who aspires to become a doctor, used to travel 15 kilometres by bus to reach her school that was only up till Class Ten. Life has taken a turn for the better ever since she got inducted in this school at Kasturbagram. Lessons apart, spinning cotton into khadi has become a major passion in her young life. "All members of the Kasturbagram family spin thread on the 'charkha' for half-an-hour every day. In fact, the khadi of the uniform we wear has also been spun by us," she points out animatedly, adding that once she returns home she intends to introduce some of the Gandhian concepts she has learnt here to her friends in her villager.

Ganesh's friend, Varsha Nagar, 18, a resident of Alri village in Dewas district, who wants to become a pathologist when she grows up, describes some of their everyday activities, "Our day begins with prayers. We are introduced to Gandhian thought and philosophy. In fact, several students are reading Gandhi's autobiography right now."

Shares Lata Shrivastava, Principal of the Kasturbagram Rural Institute, which runs from the same campus, "The reason several parents leave their children to study here is that our environment gives us a flavour of village life, away from the hullabaloo of the city." An alumnus of the institute herself, Shrivastava says that most girls enrolled here come from Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Class (OBC) backgrounds and are studying on scholarships. After graduation, her students work in rural and tribal areas as social activists.

Affiliated to Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya, this residential institute - the only rural institute of higher education for women - enjoys an autonomous status. It offers a Bachelors degree in Arts and Social Science, and Home Science, besides a post graduate degree in Rural Development and Extension. "Extension education is not offered as a subject elsewhere but we incorporated it as we have designed our own syllabus. We have also adopted three villages. Our students learn what they can from the villagers, and teach them in return," explains Shrivastava. Besides the traditional courses, students are exposed to job-oriented training in remedial English and computers. "Gandhi gave great importance to skills. Thus, along with the core subjects, the final year Bachelors' degree students have to choose one of the applied courses such as dairy science, rural handicrafts or food preservation," she adds.

Women are at the core of the Trust's other programmes as well. There's a telephone helpline, Swadhar Yojna for women needing assistance, while Ba Ka Ghar serves as a short-stay home for destitute women, who are rehabilitated and taught employable skills.

Over the decades, the ideals of this Trust have remained unchanged. It has grown to have a pan India presence across 22 states, from Mishriwala in Jammu & Kashmir to Erode in Tamil Nadu. Each state branch is led by a Pratanidhi, or Executive Leader, and it comes up with its own agenda. Just recently, 52 girls were rescued from broken families in the strife-torn district of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh. These girls have found a peaceful home in KGNMT's centre at Belsonda, even as the Trust has taken complete responsibility over them now. Similarly, the Assam branch has been trying to bring solace to those in that state affected by ethnic violence, urging them to resist hostility in the name of identity or religion. In Rajasthan, the Single Women Empowerment Scheme, is reaching out to widows and deserted women, enabling them to become economically independent.

The role of Kasturba Trust remains as powerful and relevant as it was at its inception. But in this era of turmoil, can the Kasturbagram approach, a working example of the Gandhian economic model and way of life, be a practical solution to India's mounting problems? Dr Karunakar Trivedi, Trustee and Member Secretary, KGNMT, puts it this way, "The Kasturbagram is a tribute to the Gandhian philosophy that propagates 'gram swaraj'. Perhaps the time has come to give it a chance."

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.

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