Gujarat is the land without blackouts. So they say.
I can happily admit that I have yet to experience a single blackout during the last 1.5 months I have lived in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state. This is a rarity in the India—and having lived through the great power outage in Northern India in 2011—I am extremely grateful for this state of affairs.
But Gujarat is not always shining. Not everywhere, at least. As part of my work with my host organization, Utthan, I have been lucky enough to visit the more remote corners of the state. This includes Dahod district in far eastern Gujarat where there is a strong tribal (adivasi) population. Here, the power is hardly so assured. After a long journey with Utthan’s director to Limkheda in Dahod, she and I had finally sat down with staff members from our field office when we were promptly plunged into darkness. Out came the familiar candles and mobile phone “torches” that I had all but forgotten about since my last visit to India.
The roads surrounding Ahmedabad are sleek, impeccable even. The roads into Dahod were bumpy, speckled with gaping holes that collected murky water belying their depth. The roads proved so arduous on this particular journey that one of the tires on our jeep blew out an hour away from our closest field office just as night fell.
Once the tire was replaced and we were back on the road, I remember looking out ahead of us and seeing nothing. It seemed the entire visible world fell beneath the beams of our headlights. Every so often a fleck of light would peak out behind a ridge of hills. I would try to guess what that light was connected to—a town, a village, a hamlet, a temple?
There is another type of blackout I have experienced, and that is the one inside my own head. Over the past month I have frequently felt a little lost and left in the dark in one way or another. Living in a new community in India—whether you are Indian or American—means operating in a blackout to some extent. We are all searching for the tantalizing specks of light that will help us make some connection, reach some understanding, and (eventually) help us leave an impact at our organizations and in the communities with which we work.
In my own experience in Ahmedabad, some blackouts in my understanding have been frustrating. For instance, not knowing the exact documentation the Ahmedabad Foreign Office wants from me.
Some blackouts are hilarious. Like trying to learn garba steps during Navratri with the fellows from Bhavnagar and Mumbai. With a few exceptions, I’m pretty sure most of us looked like newborn fawns taking our first steps in the real world…
But slowly, and in their own time, the flecks of light will make an appearance.
The morning after the blackout in Limkheda, I went into the field to visit several tribal villages. The field staff did not speak sufficient English and my Gujarati is nonexistent, so Hindi became our intermediary. With starts and stops, I learned about my organization’s work with the tribal population: building “check dams” that slow the flow of water down the hills and spread the availability of water, introducing new crops that will keep farms operational throughout the year and decrease forced migration, and supporting women’s federations and self-help groups.
By the end of the day, I realized I had barely spoken a word of English but I had understood a great deal. The lights were switching back on.
One of my first realizations—which I’m sure to write about in future posts—was that despite Gujarat’s reputation as a development success story, large state projects and corporate investment can only go so far. True sustainability comes from empowering communities to identify and solve their own problems in a way that matches their capabilities, resources, and preferences.
It is this type of understanding that I hope to focus on over the next nine months, as I search out more specks of light to show me the way.