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Living next door to an IT city

| Updated on December 27, 2012

Beautiful Country Stories From Another India By Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda Publisher: Harper Collins Price: Rs 399

Right next door to the glitz and glitter of Gurgaon, the newly created district of Mewat is in perpetual darkness, devoid of development. The roads, where they exist, are in poor condition. Medical facilities and schools are much fewer than required. Sounds like one of the many small towns across India struggling to provide the basics to its citizens, doesn’t it? So, what then sets it apart?

It’s a group of women who have discovered the bachat (savings) way to prosperity. An excerpt from Beautiful Country — Stories From Another India.

Syeda: I had first visited Mewat in 1997 as a Member of the National Commission for Women to investigate a case of honour killing. At that time, it was still part of Gurgaon district. My destination was a small village called Sudaka, where an old couple, Ibrahim and Mauj Bi, had been tied to a charpai (cot) and left to die in the blazing heat because their son, Idris, in defiance of local custom, had married a girl (Maimun) from his own gotra (clan). The custom of jaati (caste) and gotra are among several Hindu legacies which the Mewati Muslims have retained. We brought the case to a successful ending, little realising that patriarchy would get the better of our efforts. Six years after her marriage, when she had become mother of two, Maimun was killed by her own brother for bringing dishonour to the family. At that time, Mewat had given me sleepless nights; a decade later, when I visited with Gunjan, I found that not much had changed; Mewat seemed to be trapped in a time warp, dating back one hundred years.

Unlike the glitz and glitter of neighbouring Gurgaon, Mewat is in perpetual darkness; starved of every aspect of development. There are no factories, no residential high-rises and no corporate structures. The roads, where they do exist, are in a poor state of repair…

Our first stop was at Maalab — a village of 9,000 people, a drive of twenty minutes from the district headquarters along the main road. A group of women and girls materialised from nowhere. ‘Do you go to school?’ we asked twelve-year-old Shahina. She shook her head. Twelve-year-old Mehrunissa, ten-year-old Naseema and eleven-year-old Rehana had never seen the inside of a school. We turned to the mothers. ‘Why don’t you send them?’ Ashubi, Shahina’s young grandmother, stared at us for a moment and said simply, ‘ Mahaul kharab hai.’ (The conditions are bad.) She said that girls were sent to school till Class 1 or 2 and then withdrawn. This was the case everywhere in Mewat. None of the girls we spoke to attended regular school; only a few went to madrasas. A woman pushed her way to the front. ‘What is the use of educating them? Naukri karvana nahi hai humko!’ (We don’t want them to get jobs). A young girl with a child on her hip said, ‘We would educate our daughters but only if there was a girls’ school close by.’ We looked around to see if others agreed but they stood in silence. What they did not say was that these little girls look after younger siblings, help parents in the fields and at home. Who would do all this if they went to school?

…As our cars moved towards our next destination, the village of Tain, the road seemed familiar. We stopped to ask a group of elderly tehmat-clad (long loincloth also known as lungi) men, ‘ Janaab yeh raasta kahan jaata hai?’ (Sir, where does this road lead?)

‘To Sudaka.’

Sudaka! This was the village where the Maimun Idris tragedy had played out ten years earlier! A decade later, not much had changed. Garbage dumps, ankle-deep slush and dirt roads. Naked children with mud-streaked skeletal bodies; women, faces covered with heavy dupattas, carrying water or headloads of fodder. Where was the hope in this heart of darkness, we wondered.

Six kilometres down the road, however, a sliver of hope showed up in the village of Tain. A group of women, some in bright salwars, others in neatly pleated saris, were waiting for us with garlands. ‘We are from the bachat (saving) groups,’ they said. A tall, thin woman, Bano, in a white salwar kameez, her face half-hidden with a dupatta, told us how she had started by saving Rs 5-10 every month. ‘Gradually, I moved to Rs 50. I first took a loan to set up a shop for my son, Dildar. This I repaid and then took Rs 7,000 to set up my own shop. Profit was good, and soon I was able to borrow another Rs 25,000 for expansion. I work from morning till night at the shop but I am happy.’ Shahina, her daughter-in-law, who was tending the little kirana (ration) shop, dusted some stools and invited us to sit. Bano, her half-visible face looking radiant, added: ‘Baji, with your blessings, we earn Rs 3,000 a month.’

Gradually, we heard other stories of women’s triumph. Waheeda had started a choori (bangle) shop, Halima a chakki (grinding mill), Omvati a ration shop. The women told us how, initially, they had to cut on their ‘ration paani’ to save for the group. ‘But now we have enough to eat.’ Most of them had husbands and sons who smoked hookah all day. So their savings and shops were the sole means of support for the family. ‘We will now buy buffaloes and start, what do you call it…,’ Bano turned to Shahina. ‘Amma, it is called Amul, Co-operative Doodh Andolan,’ she said laughing. Bano turned to us and spoke words which we remember till date: ‘Baji, if the women in Gujarat can do it, so can we.’ Kanta, a young girl in a sari, the parting in her hair marked with bright sindoor, came forward. She was among the few literate women in a gathering of over a hundred people. ‘Give us buffaloes and water, and see what we do!’ she challenged us.

We left Tain with the words of Bano and Kanta echoing in our head. These women were finally breaking the shackles of tradition that had been eating into the vitals of a vibrant society.

© Women’s Feature Service

Published on December 27, 2012

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