By: Sanjay V
While the government is still making grand plans to empower villagers with information in Himachal, a visitor from Mumbai has already taken the first step in this direction by setting up an information kiosk at Tashi Jong, a small hamlet in the Palampur hills. Bhakti just happened to visit the place by chance, but fell for the beauty of the area, and then felt the urge to do something for preserving the serenity and tranquillity of the mountains.
Planting trees, that was what came to her mind instantly, but the task was easier said than done, as Bhakti realised later. The work, in the first place, involved making people understand the importance of planting more trees, and thus was born the idea of Khoj, an information kiosk to make villagers know what they deserve to know or should have knowledge about.
Though right now not an information technology enabled kiosk in the strict sense, basic computer training is being imparted to villagers there. It is an informal centre for helping people with information and mobilising social action. Bhakti calls it ‘no different than a kiryana store’, but the difference is there to see for anyone who visit her ‘kiosk’.
Read on to know the dream-like journey of Bhakti…
How do you describe the long distance between Mumbai and a nondescript monastery in Himachal?
Firstly, I don’t think any place for me can be nondescript, if I understand its meaning as – ordinary, dull, characterless, and uninteresting. I see life as an experience and every space and situation I’m in is one experience by itself, each with a character and a charm of its own. As for the difference between the life in Mumbai and Himachal is concerned… life in Himachal is definitely slower in pace, if not laidback… and cleaner environment than in Mumbai. There is no night-life or movie hall but there are beautiful sunrises from behind the snow-covered peaks, fantastic evenings by the rivers and walks in the villages. And if I have to share how I got there… by train from Mumbai and a twelve hour bus drive from Delhi. That’s how!!
I left home many years back and lived as a paying guest and in hostels in different cities. After being picked up from TISS, by an organisation based in Hyderabad – Naandi, quitting on day one, for it didn’t meet my ways of working and thinking, then joining Sangama in Bangalore, working for sexuality minorities; finding no democracy there either, I decided to quit jobs forever. No more would I be employed, I decided. From then on, I was on a backpack for nearly a year-and-a-half going from one state to another. I sustained myself by being useful to whoever asked for help, whether organisation or individual, and took food and shelter in return. On and off I even got assisted by friends for whom I did things, to go from one place to another. Finally, after being bitten a lot by bed bugs on my sojourns, I decided to be in one place for sometime.
I chose to be in Himachal only out of the need of not to live in a city, as I realised that the basic necessities to live in a city itself are rather high and without a job it isn’t easy, so to live frugally and ecologically Himachal was an option. The pollution, speed of life and mindlessness in a city throttled me. I found no time to reflect and ponder, question or wonder… one just goes on. I found difficult to live with all this, while I grew up in a city. With an intention to constantly grow and be watchful of my life, I preferred living in a more ‘laidback place’ as people would like to call it. So now I live in Himachal.
Is Khoj a manifestation of your own quest for something?
Yes. Khoj is a manifestation of my own search to survive with freedom. My actions towards my existence, helps many others to survive, just like a grocer’s shop. Only that the expression is different. It also gives me personal freedom, relatively more than others like the grocer, to do things at the information centre and be free of it and do other things as well. All this gives me personal joy.
And why do you think villagers around the area needed Khoj?
I didn’t ask if they needed one. But it’s like the need of a school or bus stand or a police station. No one is asked before one is set up. It’s needed, that’s all. An information Centre is a basic need today, anywhere. Tashi Jong is only incidental. I could have been anywhere, and Khoj can be anywhere.
Can you describe the mechanism you wish to employ to make Khoj a success?
Success, I weigh by merely the fact that I’m still alive today. That’s enough reason to be happy for me. And when it comes to mechanism to make things work, then any mechanism that works! There is no ‘rule’ or standard way of running this place. It totally depends on the one who is running it. The mechanism I use, for example, may not be suitable for let’s say Rachna, a friend who also shares the work at Khoj with me. So, there is enough space to explore ways and oneself at Khoj. Variety in activities and the methodologies would be the mechanism we would use… This would also keep it vibrant and fresh.
Such initiatives in the neighbouring states of Haryana and Uttaranchal have not been successful. How is your initiative different?
Well, we are here to reply to your questions and have survived this far! Successful or not, you tell me.
I don’t know about how we are different. But I know that we are doing our best to be useful to whoever needs it and at the same time enjoy ourselves, explore life and grow with it. Khoj attempts to bring in all types of activities, people, ideas and ways of learning. We do our best. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we succeed. However, we always learn either way. Failure is not a deterrent, rather a stimulant.
Would Khoj be more of an interface between people and government or would it focus on empowering them to deal with the system themselves?
Only your question can segregate the two. They happen together. Khoj tries to bridge the gap between the existing systems and the people. At the same time Khoj is made up of the ‘people’ of the village… thus in its own way empowering them.
Knowledge empowerment has two basic aspects, technological communication channels and human interface. Which is more important according to you?
Again, your question only divides systems as if one can do without the other. Information could come in any form. Khoj, recently held a Nai Taleem Film Festival, which screened films and also brought artisans to the children of the village to get a hands-on experience of different ways of learning. It’s an example of how both aspects come together and are inseparable at all times. Internet is still not the call of the day at this Information Centre for the people directly. Though, a simple course to learn basics in computers is held at Khoj twice a week for adolescent girls.
What do you think villages in Himachal need the most?
Trees!! They are already facing problems with water and soon it’s going to be a severe issue. Trees may save it. And this is not just true for Himachal. So plant trees, wherever you are. Khoj seasonally collects trees – fruit and other seasonal trees – from the local BDO (Forest Department, Agriculture University) at subsidised rates and distributes them in the village as per the demand. Re 1/- is charged per tree as service charge. We also planted around 45 trees in the December in the school premises; fences were the contribution of children who helped make some of them during the Film Festival with bamboos donated by the villagers. The panchayats and the local youths – Tibetan and locals – supported us with their enthusiastic involvement.
Would opening up more communication channels for Himachal villagers empower them enough to better their lifestyle?
Knowledge is always empowering. Yes, it could help those who are looking for answers.
Are you also involved in some other kind of social activism in Himachal?
Yes. I am, sometimes directly and would involve myself in anything that needs voice. There are many issues in Himachal and across the world. Himachal, as I said in only an incident for me.