New forms of solidarity with India’s poor have emerged, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.
What does Kanva, an 8-year-old Bangalore boy have in common with three young Adivasis and a 60-year-old veteran cyclist from Newcastle, England? They're both pedalling for change along with three Australians, two Americans and a medley of young professionals from all over India.
Ten years ago, two enthusiastic young British, Catherine Barker and Imogen Stevens started MAD, Make a Difference. They planned a cycle ride from Bangalore to Gudalur to raise money for Adivasi projects in the Gudalur Valley, of the Nilgiris, in Tamil Nadu. The idea was new and no one else was convinced it could succeed. Catherine and Immy's enthusiasm carried the day and the ride worked like a dream. GO MAD cycle tours was born.
On the 10th anniversary, David Harrop from Newcastle jumped at the chance of joining the ride. He was on the first trip 10 years ago. It had been unforgettable, he says.
Another veteran, Bangalorean Krishna Panyam, has accompanied every ride. Our mascot, he lifts the tone of the trip with myriad acts of kindness, with his considerate, helpful, morale boosting personality. An origami expert, Krishna throws in classes during the breaks. Jared from the US was determined to ride an ordinary, non-geared, non-fancy cycle known jokingly as the 'milkwallah' delivery cycle. His friends agreed to increase their donations if he took on the challenge of riding this cycle. So ride it he did, with grit and determination. Casey, the founder of a US coffee co-op rode to help set up an Adivasi coffee coop. She is also an award winning Barista. Pankaj, a Pune IT engineer was fascinated by the news of this bike ride. Interestingly two young families joined as well. Hari and his 10-year-old son Pranav who has come on the previous trip and Ranjini, Shrish and their two sons, 8-year-old Kanva and 10-year-old Anav. When everyone else flopped down on the grass exhausted during the lunch breaks, the young Kanva could be seen cycling furiously around all by himself.
But it is not just about cycling or having fun. It is about being part of the quest for social justice and change. About making a difference. While the funds raised go to support various projects of the Gudalur Adivasis, the cyclists are also exposed to other projects and initiatives along the way.
The Janapada Seva Trust, a Gandhian organization working on rural education and protecting and promoting local crafts especially handloom, was one such stop. Picturesque Melkote, their base, was a famous handloom weaving centre. Santosh Kowlagi, founder, lamented the impact of modern education which was driving the next generation away from the village into the cities in search of urban jobs. Once, a thriving weaving village, there are now only 35 weavers left.
Another stop was Dhavni, a Mysore slum-dwellers' women’s federation. The group was held spellbound as woman after woman recounted their struggle to bring about change. These feisty feminists fought their men to get outside their homes, stopped child marriage, have almost stopped dowry and ensured that all girl children are sent to school. They built new houses, transforming their slum into a village. They are truly unforgettable women.
The group stayed at Asha Kirana and Asha Bhavana homes for children who once lived on the streets. These homes run by RLHP, a highly respected Mysore NGO differ from other such shelters because they ensure that children are not institutionalized but transformed into a close-knit family group. Most adult children who have moved out have set up an organization to support and to act as role models and mentors to the younger children. The kids stories never fail bring tears to every eye. But they also bring hope. The kids have grabbed this second chance and just got on with their lives. One of the girls has gone on to become a high court lawyer.
In the 1970s, solidarity with the poor meant protests, placards, slogans, fighting for human rights. Now in the 21st century, solidarity has taken new forms. So for seven days, over 350 kilometres, bottoms on saddles, feet pedalling furiously – 21 people cycled for change. They loved every minute of it. Called it inspirational, moving, and the experience of a lifetime. Most plan to do it again.
In these grim and terrifying times, that's a story to gladden hearts – for a change.
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