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Village Voice

A few hours drive from Delhi in the Mewat area of Haryana, the SM Sehgal Foundation has nudged an area stuck in a medieval time warp towards modernity

By Nishtha Shukla

Hit the mud roads off the Delhi-Gurgaon highway in Haryana’s Mewat area and you will reach a cluster of villages that will give your metro sensibilities a few knocks. The region lies only a couple of hours from the urban conglomerate that is the Capital, but the villages seem to have got stuck in a medieval time warp.
With enough reason. These villages have recorded some of the lowest social indices in the region. For instance, each home has on average seven-eight children. The cluster is wracked by extreme poverty and a literacy rate that is an unbelievably low 2% (the national average is close to 67%).

Also, the majority of the population comprises Rajputs who converted to Islam centuries ago. And since these people practice both religions, they are outcastes who have drifted away from mainstream society. In the midst of all this hopelessness works a dedicated team of the SM Sehgal Foundation. “The Mewat area is 30 miles away from Delhi but 300 years back in time,” articulates Suri Sehgal, the man behind the foundation.

The Mewat area is a group of 12 satellite villages that the foundation has been working on. “We believe that a cluster approach is better, so even if we want to extend, we will do that slowly,” says Sehgal. He chose the area because he wanted to help these backwards areas into modernity. Talking about the two Indias he says, “Seventy per cent of the NGOs prefer to work in urban areas while the poverty is in the villages. So we took our foundation to rural India, where the social indices are low and there is lack of proper education.”

The one thing the foundation has done is to get the people of the villages themselves to participate in the activities of the foundation. While this is one way to keep unemployment in the villages under check and make them self-sufficient, these people are also then less likely to move to the cities and add to the slum population there. The foundation, therefore, doesn’t work simply on a regular staff but involves the villagers who then stay put in their area.

Sehgal himself has barely lived in India. He was born in Pakistan where he spent his initial years. He came to India to finish his education and studied at Panjab University. And for the past 45 years he has been settled in the US doing things like studying plant genetics at Harvard University and being part of the board of directors of various companies in Egypt, Belgium, Germany and the US. He is also honorary trustee at the Missouri Botanical Garden, US.

The one thing that keeps him wholeheartedly connected to India is the Sehgal Foundation that works for rural development in the interiors of Haryana. Says Sehgal, “I am a successful, educated man today because we got subsidised and free education while studying in India. So after I retired in the US, I thought I must come and give back something to this country because the need is here.” Sehgal set up the foundation with his own money in India in 1999 and decided to work in the Mewat area of rural Gurgaon and Jyotisar in the state’s Kurukshetra district. The real work, he says, began only in 2002. A fairly skilled foundation, this one’s got its set of professionals who are referred to as the resource group. This group includes masters in rural health, education, water and infrastructure management and scientists.

The Sehgal foundation has introduced into the NGO scenario a wholesome, micro development of one single village. So while various organisations go around supporting a single cause across scattered villages, they want to start various programs in one village.

“We thought the real difference in the lives of these villagers will come when we perform not one function but initiate a multi-disciplinary function that can provide them a good life, health, economy and the like.” So they have several programs of education, health, technology, as well as farming, water and sewage that they collectively call the Integrated, Sustainable Village Development programme.

Integrated development also becomes possible with the programmes they have in these villages. For instance, when they started their programs on hygiene like managing their garbage, and maintaining personal hygiene, they also got involved with family life and education. This includes imparting life skills and literacy to the youth, youth clubs, motivational camps, reviving government schools, parents’ curriculum, and forming or reviving village education committees.

It is thanks to these programmes that a girl of the village, Aiesha, who was married off in her teenage to a violent man, managed to come back after braving her father-in-law’s pervert behaviour and her husband’s wrath. She is now back home supporting herself, earning about Rs 1,500 a month.

Ask Sehgal about the foundation’s biggest achievement and the entire team gets animated. “It was our water management project,” says one. The quality of water in the village was well below the WHO standards when they started out with their plan. But with a small budget of Rs 9 lakh they created a check dam along with community participation and the quality of water is now on a par with WHO standards.

They also say one big achievement was the participation of the women that has come up well. While initially there would be a handful of women sitting at the end of the room, they kept coming closer in the following months. Today they make up the front row and are open to the ideas of the foundation’s Women’s Self Help Groups. Talking about the tremendous difference NRIs and PIOs can make towards a developing India, Sehgal feels that even if 1 per cent of NRIs are mobilised it can help the development of the country. “We are only the trustees of wealth, it is society that has made us prosperous,” he says. It is a thought that keeps this selfless soul going.
Quote: We are only the trustees of wealth, it is society that has made us prosperous