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Mahendra and Shashi in action!

Shashi and Mahendra Singhal

What is our immediate past International Vice-President of the Theosophical Society, Brother Mahendra Singhal, up to now?

As a former National Director of the TOS in India, Mahendra Singhal is passionate about service. What is more natural, then, than for him to be deeply plunged in the support of a major new initiative, one initiated by Mr Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India himself?
  In October 2014, Mr Modi announced an audacious scheme called Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (also known as SAGY, which in English means Parliamentarians’ Model Village Scheme), under which rural villages will be given clean water, sanitation, lower-carbon energy and internet access. “Our Prime Minister’s dream project,” writes Bro. Mahendra, “urges each of the 800 members of the Indian Parliament to adopt three villages in their respective constituencies for holistic development. The Prime Minister’s goal is to create at least 2,500 ‘smart villages’ by 2019.”
Mahendra and his kind and cheerful wife Shashi are currently travelling extensively in rural India to acquaint themselves with the situation on the ground, with an eye to providing concrete information to facilitate the work of the country’s parliamentarians.

In their first month of travel on their mission, Mahendra and Shashi spent over 150 hours aboard trains (13,500 kms). Not as tiring as H. P. Blavatsky's and Col. Olcott's travels by bullock cart, but still . . .
  Bro. Mahendra writes, “The first requirement for the development of villages was to formulate adoption criteria. I found the United Nations classifying different countries on the Human Development Index and thought that if countries can be classified on the basis of this index, surely villages can also be broadly classified. The idea is to adopt those villages that come last on this index.

In the state of Odisha Mahendra and Shashi sponsored the construction of a toilet and bathing block for a primary school in the Kalahandi tribal belt. Now hundreds of girls have a secure place to wash.

“Shashi and I found that excellent development work is already being undertaken in many places in India, but this is not widely known. We are now investigating such projects in the hope of suggesting suitable development models for the different states. So far we have studied Odisha, Uttarpradesh, Rajasthan, Gujurat, Tamil Nadu, Madhyapradesh, Maharashtra, Andhrapradesh and Karnataka. We have been many months on the road.

The Singals visited Konkin Village Tribal Residential High School in the Ganjam district of Odisha’s tribal belt. The daily schedule at the boarding school shown here is rigorous. Late to bed, early to rise! The students work in teams to take care of all the routine housekeeping tasks.

“The whole thing is very fulfilling. We are getting to know rural folks, who have retained a certain innocence and natural wisdom, though illiterate and poor. Our population is 1.3 billion. Every seventh person in the world is Indian. 50% are under 24 years old and 65% are below 35. More than 90% of the people possess a mobile phone but millions still don’t have access to clean drinking water! Shashi’s and my priorities can be summarised under the acronym WASHERS – Water supply, Sanitation, Hygiene, Energy, Roads and Skills. Other factors include education, transportation, communications and wholesome entertainment.
“Shashi and I would like to see all rural villages have access to skill training, remembering that literacy is not essential for learning. We would like to see them receive something like the support offered by what is known as Barefoot College. The latter offers unique development models. One of the Barefoot College organisation’s central beliefs is that the knowledge, skills and wisdom found in villages should be used for their development before getting skills from outside. Sophisticated technology should be used in rural India, but it should be in the hands and in control of the poor communities so that they are not dependent or exploited. As the organisation reports on its website, ‘The Barefoot College has struggled to train village women in areas that have traditionally been dominated by men.'

The students at Konkin village Tribal Residential
High School attend yoga class daily.

Training at Barefoot College in Tilonia
More than 6,000 unassuming housewives, mothers, grandmothers, midwives, farmers, daily wage labourers and small shopkeepers, who represent the profile of rural women from poor agricultural communities, have been trained as Barefoot midwives, hand pump mechanics, solar engineers, artisans, weavers, balsevika (crèche teachers), parabolic solar cooker engineers, FM radio operators and fabricators, dentists, masons, and day and night school teachers. Women who are single mothers, middle-aged, divorced, physically challenged or illiterate are prioritised for training over others because they need the employment opportunity and income the most.

The College has applied rural traditional knowledge and skills to build homes for the homeless, collect rain water in rural schools and communities where potable water sources are scarce, as well as to spread socio-economic messages at the grass-roots level through puppetry.’ ”

Training at Barefoot College in Tilonia

Mahendra and Shashi visit the shop at Tilonia village where the villagers’ handicraft work is displayed. Waste materials like paper, cardboard, leather and glass are converted into a variety of utility articles. They are beautiful too but above all simple and useful.

Bro. Mahendra continues: “Shashi and I were delighted to visit Tilonia, the very first village in Rajasthan to benefit from Barefoot College’s daring experiments. Dr Bunker Roy, the Director of this college, ordered a video to be shot of our August visit. It is currently being edited. We watched women over the age of 40 from within India and from 15 other underdeveloped countries, especially Africa and Central America, being given intensive job training for a period of six months. There is no literacy requirement – just the will to learn by doing. All these women then go back to their village and train others. All the residents at Tilonia have to sit on the floor for meals, serve themselves, wash and put back their plate, glass and eating utensils. The village is totally solar powered and is a model for the water harnessing cycle. 40% of employees are differently abled persons.

We asked Mahendra when Shashi and he will finish their tour of rural India. He replied that their field visits will be finished by April and then reports and planning will occupy them.

“I would like to adopt a village myself, actually, on behalf of the TOS group in Delhi where Shashi and I live. I am thinking of my ancestral village, Gasupur, situated about 50 kms from Vasant Kunj where we reside. A lot has happened since my childhood there in the 1930s but the village is still in great need of work to improve its Water supply, Sanitation, Hygiene, Energy and Roads and Skills (remember our acronym WASHERS). I will need to survey the village in detail before formulating the project, of course. If it proves feasible, I will start off using my own finances.”

American students, Burkely and Maggy, from Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, volunteer at Tilonia in the solar lamp, parabolic reflector assembly shop. They were first oriented to the work and then became trainers. Most volunteer trainers are from within India; only a few come from abroad and usually sign on for six months or so.

In addition to visiting their three sons and families, the Singhals find time to visit regularly their large, Delhi-based family.

When in Bangalore last October, Mahendra and Shashi also took time out to visit Radha Burnier’s older brother, Vasant (93), who joined the TS 80 years ago and is the longest living member of the TS anywhere in the world. He has a remarkable mind and memory and remembers clearly his early life on the Adyar campus.
  The international TOS offers hearty congratulations to Mahendra and Shashi for this major new life commitment of theirs and every best wish for a fruitful outcome.
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