A Travellerspoint blog

What I learned in Ahmedabad

by Melanie

Hindu-Muslim tensions are a prominently recurring issue in India. The largest political party here, the BJP, refers to India as Hindustan. The roots of a closely aligned group go back to 1930s and are modeled after (and with great admiration for) Hitler's Germany. I don't know enough to write about it intelligently at this point, but some of the commentary I've been reading is frightening. Violence and corruption are rampant here. When protests and riots flare up, and they do regularly, whoever is the current object of disdain (be it a caste or religion) is often left with no protection.

Ahmedabad is home to India's largest Muslim population. In 2002 in north Gujurat, a train full of young Hindu Nationalists went up in flames on its way to a highly contested site between Hindus and Muslims called the Ayodhya temple. Though the cause of the fire was never confirmed, the Hindus of Ahmedabad were furious. Riled by nationalist, and AIDED by the local government, there was a horrific killing spree in Ahmedabad. Thousands of Muslims were murdered. Women were raped and then burned alive. Children were not spared. Mobs rampaged through Muslim areas for 5-10 days. The police did nothing. I saw a photo of a man pleading for his life. I don't know what happened to him, but I was nearly in tears in the bookstore. Knowing how ruthless the mobs were, I don't think there is anyway he survived.

In Ahmedabad some rickshaw drivers refused our fare if it meant driving into areas of the city not populated by people of their faith. There has been peace since 2002, but people certainly have not forgotten. While I was there a 60 year old trial - regarding the Ayodhya site - was to be read. Several Indian states shut down all businesses and closed all public offices and schools for the day to minimize people in the streets. Because of the 2002 "riots" in Ahmedabad, the Saath office emptied early so employees could be home safely in case any violence broke out. I think it was mostly an excuse for people to go home early, but some employees did live across the city and wanted to err on the side of caution. I was in a very safe (Hindu) neighborhood. I walked home that day and everything looked entirely normal. Though the entire country was on edge, or at least the media portrayed it as such, I didn't see any reports of unrest. The verdict granted some land to Hindus, and some to Muslims.

The information above is extremely brief, but I wanted to include it because I am realizing how significant of an issue this is in India and in Ahmedabad in particular.
My volunteering stint turned out as well as it could have given that I was only in the office (or on site visits) for eight out of the fourteen days that I was "based" in Ahmedabad. Between the microfinance office being busy with consultants, me going to Udaipur (worth it!), Ghandi's birthday, and fear over the Ayodhya verdict, neither Saath nor I gave my project undivided attention. Despite the seemingly insufficient time period, I accomplished what I set out to do in Ahmedabad. I experienced India more profoundly than someone merely passing through normally could. I had conversations without a price tag. Though India is incredibly vast and complex, I feel like I have a much better understanding of why it churns, surges, and stagnates like we've observed time and again.

There are over one billion people in India. With this massive population, and relatively limited opportunity, there is constant pressure to gain and succeed, if not just to survive. Everyone is striving to better their lot, no matter how good it is or isn't. Rushir and his family are well off. They have enough money to travel the world, for him to attend grad school in the US, and to donate 1 million rupees to the building of a new Jain temple across the street. The hospitality kids in Mt Abu had all moved away from their families to secure more respectable and stable positions (housekeeping) and to make money in the city. They are examples of the successful part of the perpetual urban migration in India.

The vast majority of people moving to the cities, though, are uneducated villagers who flock to urban centers and fill up the slums that are fanning out from all major cities. The microfinance employees at each of the branches are all from the slum areas that they work in. These women were nothing like what I'd expected. Most of their families had been in Ahmedabad for at last one generation, and had left school after 7th or 10th grade (a few had college degrees). Though I didn't understand a word said in the branch offices, it was clear that the women were quite competent. They spoke with confidence. They were business minded, with ideas for expanding the branch clientele and more efficiently communicating with the head office. It is overwhelming to think of all the talent lost to poverty: brilliant minds, gifted athletes, generous hearts that have no opportunity to develop and achieve.
The Ahmedabad slums were not the worst off. The microfinance clients lived in sprawls of rundown cement houses winding around pot hole ridden dirt roads. They weren't the tin and tarp shanties that we saw in Mumbai and all over the countryside. I was invited into one home that was nice and clean, linoleum floors and sufficient furniture. My guess is that it's one of the nicer houses in the area.
Constant physical reminders of the push to achieve more are the omnipresent advertisements we see for classes and professional training: English language, MBAs, and various diploma courses. There is a huge industry built up around teaching people what they need to know to somehow move up in the world. Everyone is grappling for a rung on the ladder, something that will make them successful. We've had a couple rickshaw drivers who said that they were "fashion designers". A hotel manager explained that he was in tourism before he decided to take a course to transition into hotel management. There are only a handful of scholarships here, so only the wealthy can afford the best schools, and competition is always fierce. Rushir told me that his high school was more difficult than the American masters program.

Indians don't quit their jobs to travel the world and figure out what they want to do with their lives. I am so thankful that I'm from a culture where there is more professional freedom and opportunity, where wanting a personally fulfilling job is not a ridiculous concept. I was able to work and save for this trip, and I'll be able to return and find a new job, likely in an entirely different field. All of this would be nearly impossible and entirely unacceptable for an Indian.
I decided to cut my time in Ahmedabad short for several reasons. I realized after only a few days that I don't want to go into microfinance. To work in development, in the trenches of developing countries, you have to passionately want to be there and be making a difference. Though I think microfinance is an amazingly effecting way to help people help themselves, it's not something that I want to devote myself to. That being said, I'd made a commitment to Saath and still wanted to complete my project. The problem was that I was trying to rush to finish so I could meet up with the girls again, but rushing was not possible when I depended on translators who had their own jobs to complete.

In the end I visited two branches, the newest and one of the oldest offices. One in a Hindu area, one in a Muslim community. We interviewed all of the employees about their job descriptions, and gathered as much information about the area as possible. It was frustrating to hear minute long responses to my questions in Gujurati, and then get 15 second translations in English. It would have been much more educational if I could have understood everything being said, both for understanding how the branches work, and to pick up on the attitudes and opinions of the employees. I took what I could and wrote up socio demographic descriptions of the two areas (which was the most interesting part) and the challenges each branch is dealing with at this point. I put together an excel document that compared what employees in the same positions at different branches considered to be their job responsibilities. The purpose was for the head office to be able to see were discrepancies are forming, and then eventually implement standardize operations across all the branches. On my last day at Saath an English girl (who speaks Gujurati) showed up to volunteer for a couple of weeks. It sounded like she will pick up where I left off, using the same format and method that I'd established. I left feeling good that what I'd started was going to be seen through to completion.

Fatiwade Branch
Vasna Branch
I met some other Americans in Ahmedabad doing internships that sound horrible. People fly all the way over here expecting to get quality experience, and then get plunked down in a call center or laden with an array of other menial tasks. I feel very lucky that Saath gave me such a meaningful experience. I was introduced to all of their urban programs, had conversations about the future of Saath and NGOs in general, and was given a task that was actually beneficial to the organization. All the while I was engaging with Indians on level not readily reached when traveling through India. Ahmedabad treated me well.

Posted by 3ifBySEA 23:23 Archived in India

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India...not just a vacation...an education. Thanks, Mel, opens my eyes.

by nancy from coeur d'alene

I want to be a rickshaw fashion designer. Wondering: which is better? Tuk-tuk or ricksaw?

by Jacob

That is wonderful Mel that you were able to develop the excel document for Saath as well as getting so much out the experience yourself! Photos were awewsome. My favorite is the grandpa and the baby on the cot. Keep up the good work!

by Momski (Merz)

That guy survived the attack, since police came on nick of time. That photograph has become very famous. He was given job and house to live by West Bengal government so he shifted over there with his family. However after 1 yr he returned back and started his business in Ahmedabad. The whole riot incident was more of a political instigation rather than by people. Chances of such riots happening again are really miniscule. Hope u r enjoying ur travel :-)

by Rushir

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