Students from Bbojapatti village at a school supported by PPSVP. (photo: Jan Phillips)
Father William Christensen, S.M., with Abdul Suttar, PPSVP social organizer. (photo: Jan Phillips)
A villager from Phulwaria drives his team of oxen. (photo: Jan Phillips)
My first experience in India was a visit to an integrated Hindu-Muslim-Christian community in Muzaffarpur, in the state of Bihar, an area where the poorest seven percent of the worlds population lives. A friend in Nepal gave me the name of Father Bill Christensen, a Marianist whose commitment to the poor led to his role in the establishment of an integrated development project call Paroo Prakhand Samagra Vikas Pariyojna.
PPSVP is an effort to set up a model development for this region of 330 million in northeastern India and Bangladesh. For this purpose, 137 villages composed of 180,000 people were chosen to motivate and organize the people in such a way that they could be independent of outside assistance after eight to 10 years.
The main goal of this project, said Father Christensen, is to create unity and justice where there is none and to establish equality between the people.
Thats a difficult task given Indias socially complex caste system and its Muslim-Hindu rift. Eleven Hindus, two Muslims and one Christian make up the core staff. These 12 men and two women, who live together in the village area, are working to build a strong community among themselves as a model for the villagers.
Were ready to take a stand for the poor and to give rights to women, despite criticism from the village, Father Christensen asserted. Were here for justice, which we hope will lead people to compassion. Though its the duty of society to provide opportunity for human development for each member, at PPSVP we believe that its the responsibility of each person to he concerned for the common good and community spirit of all members of their society Our work is to provide opportunities for poor peoples uplift in the context of unity and fellowship.
In the district of Muzaffarpur, 90 percent of the people are employed in agriculture, though 60 percent are landless; 37 percent have between one and 10 acres, and only three percent have over 10 acres of land. Except for a few cities, the area lacks electricity, good roads, sanitation, and educational and health facilities.
As many as eight people live in eight by 10 foot grass and bamboo huts that cost $25 to build. Eighty percent of the people are illiterate. The per capita annual income is only $30 to $40 because of landlessness, unemployment and low wages. Many suffer from parasites and are both malnourished and undernourished. They never see a doctor or visit a hospital and only use simple village remedies to deal with the most serious of diseases, such as typhoid, cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis and malaria.
PPSVP has organized programs to deal with all aspects of human development. It has training programs for employment, health care, agriculture, education, sanitation and community building. It operates five schools for children, though it can only accommodate one child from each family because of limited space and few teachers. Since the illiteracy rate among women is 95 percent in this region (higher than the rate for men) girls make up 60 percent of the schools enrollment one small step for womankind. Some of the classes PPSVP offers adults include rope making, sandal making and repair, beekeeping, hand loom weaving, tailoring, tree planting and fruit preservation. They have trained 30 women for the Mother-Child Health Care Program, which has helped 3,600 families.
I went to a sewing class with about 15 village women, each of whom has two or three small children in tow. Women took turns learning to use the two sewing machines while they swatted flies and tended to their babies. The temperature that day was 110 degrees.
The project follows the principle of antyodaya, meaning that the poorest and most deprived members of the society must be given first preference in development. Many of the people it serves are the untouchables, Indias lowest caste the ones Mahatma Gandhi called harijans, or children of God. I visited one community referred to as the Karmwari-Musahal Tola, which means rat eaters. These people have so little that they look for rat nests so that they can kill and eat the rodents, then take what grain the rats have stored. The harijans have no land of their own and dozens of them live crowded together in small huts.
When I asked Father Christensen for his thoughts on the caste system, he was both respectful of religious and cultural traditions and clear about their drawbacks:
While we work to change the social and economic order and bring about more distributive justice in this community, we also try to enrich the caste system, helping people to develop their cultural heritage. But these traditions are very old and people find it hard to think any other way
Theyve been taught all their lives not to have any contact with the harijans, yet now were trying to teach classes that are open to all castes, Father Christensen continued. I had a young boys uncle come by here yesterday saying he didnt want his nephew learning hand loom from a Muslim, even though learning a new trade might be the only hope for that boy. Its so divisive. People identify with their caste members regardless of right or wrong, and political leaders exploit the castes to win votes.
You cant help but be angry at the exploitation of the poor but anger is not violence. It is more violent to sit passively by and let the violence of exploitation continue.
We often receive criticism for our work at integration, and Ive learned the hard way that identifying with the poor means being powerless and being opposed by powerful people. But we keep on in the face of it all, striving for the unity were all committed to.
The 14 members who live at the project have frequent seminars, picnics, monthly gatherings and shared prayer, call satsang, which means truth and community. When I asked Father Christensen about their spirituality, he said, We dont work at our spirituality, but share it as each one wants to. We try to grow together in our commitment to the poor, and we bring a tremendous variety of commitments as a group. The people of Paroo are not only learning new information; they are also learning to overcome the divisions in their fragmented society which have prevented them from creating a community and becoming self-reliant. Through our work here women sit equally with men, Muslims sit together equally with Hindus, and harijans sit together equally with other castes to decide their future. This is a peoples movement for development and the real living out of our religion.
After a few days at Paroo Prakhand, I was in a rickshaw heading back to Patna and all the comforts of a Jesuit seminary. As I passed by the villagers who were building and planting together in the early morning light, they waved and called out their warm goodbyes.
Yes, I thought, theyve got it right. This is what religion really ought to look like.
Jan Phillips, a freelance writer and photographer from Syracuse, N.Y., has recently published a book, “Making Peace: One Woman’s Journey Around the World,” from which this article is excerpted.