Undergraduate and graduate training in global studies and international public health, respectively, offered me many opportunities to muse idealistically about “development” issues in the “global south.” Never did I imagine that an incident close to home would bring the notions of social justice, human rights, and clashes rooted in socioeconomic status into sharp personal focus prompting me to revise the list of ingredients I think are necessary for ‘development’.
The story I am about to share is recent and personal. On March 11, approximately sixty women stormed into my sister’s 10 x 10 classroom in an underdeveloped section of Mehamdabad, the town where she lives in the western province of Gujarat, India. Twenty children aged 3 to 4 years were busy with their playgroup studies. The mob had come with a purpose and, without a second’s hesitation, erupted into violence in the small room. They roughed up my sister, yanked her by her hair, and dragged her, along with all the children, out of the classroom. She wasn’t hurt but remains badly shaken.
In thinking about it, I believe at issue are land and status. Since 2009, my sister has been working by herself towards the construction of a government-sanctioned school for the underserved children living in Mehamdabad. Late last year her proposal was accepted by the Education Department of the Government of Gujarat. Moreover, the same department granted her permission to construct a school on government-owned land, which had, up until that time, been used by community living in Shoukat Mohalla – an area in Mehamdabad – for group events such as weddings. This community believes that construction of the school encroaches on their historical right to the land and strongly oppose the project. To make it more complicated, the children for whom the school is intended come from families where the parents work as garbage collectors, sweepers, cleaners, and so on—undesirable occupations that place the children on the lower end of the social totem pole.
A feeling of entitlement stemming from group wealth and power fuels the Shoukat Mohallah community’s anger. Prior to the March 11th incident, they physically threatened anyone who got involved in the school project, principally, my sister, who was forced to seek legal protection. A court order proved practically useless, and threats following the physical abuse she suffered that March morning have severely limited her options. At the urging of her husband as well as her in-laws, she has abandoned the project. Members of the Shoukat Mohallah community, having gotten their way, plan to enforce status quo.
Miles away and fully aware that I am writing this from the safety of my North American home, I still have a tough time accepting the outcome. Not only was my sister’s physical well-being compromised, the experience also challenged her belief (and mine) in the power of an individual to bring about change. The episode has raised more questions than answers: What of the children? Don’t they have a right to an education, regardless of their socioeconomic status? There are other troubling issues as well, such as lack of rational discourse, empty legal protections, and the sad reality that it was women impeding a woman. Moreover, what of the community living in Shoukat Mohallah? Why are they so against this noble idea? In sharing this story and raising the last of these questions, I recognize my opinions are inherently biased given my sister’s involvement. However, if I am to take a step back, then I will need to accept that maybe something more is at play than just historical claim.
In epidemiology, I learned the concept of “herd immunity,” which is akin to a “tipping point” of sorts that keeps communicable diseases from passing into the population-at-large. The more I think about situations like my sister’s, I realize the concept is applicable to social justice situations as well. For my sister to successfully build a school for the underserved, she needs the broad support of a greater proportion of people in the town. She also needs the legal system to work as it was designed—to protect her, her family, and her co-workers from harm. Moreover, family’s socioeconomic status, or lack thereof, should not be a determining factor for access to education. Lastly, change needs acceptance and buy-in of everyone who is to be affected by it, which in this case will be the community living in Shoukat Mohallah.
What comes next? Regrettably, my sister has given up, and it’s not fair for me to insist, from Toronto, that she fight on. I realize that I can’t do much from here. By writing about it, perhaps I can shed some light on the downside of development. This entire episode has reinforced for me the importance of context. Development does not take place in a vacuum and for every change one hopes to bring about in the world, there may well be inherent challenges that one may need to overcome. These challenges can be personal, cultural, societal, monetary, among countless others. I also am reminded of the simple fact: change does not come quickly. Real change requires commitment and a long-term fight. It may require sacrifices that perhaps aren’t comfortable or feasible. In the case of building a school for the underserved in Mehamdabad, change needs more than a person. It literally will take a village.
– by Surkhab Peerzada, AI Jr. Board Member