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What was the common factor that linked visiting the Indian hill state of Tripura, researching rural development programs, studying forest agriculture, crossing of a river in spate of rain on a single bamboo pole bridge—and being aquaphobic? Me. I spent two weeks of my summer vacation in Tripura as part of a rural development study group, on a trip that involved visiting tribal schools, adult-learning centers, village head offices, and government-built roads and houses. That fortnight changed my urbanised perspective, permanently.
My first day in Tripura began with a forest official taking me to government-owned agro-forestry plantations. I was apprehensive. It was hot, the distances involved were long, and I had to walk uphill on narrow tracks along steep hill-sides. With no fencing to hold on to, I could think of nothing but how to avoid plunging into the valley two hundred feet below. But I was determined to visit the plantation and was compelled me to bash on regardless. So, after a gruelling hike of seven kilometres, I reached a tiny plantation where patches of lychees, black pepper, and lemon were being cultivated. The farm was in a bad financial state; black pepper and lemon market prices were on a decline, and lychees could only be harvested once in seven years. The farmer told me how his seven-year old daughter did household chores and also looked after her younger brother full time, while he and his wife worked nonstop in the plantations—to get one proper meal a day. I saw the little girl struggling to carry her brother uphill with one hand and a pail of water with the other, but with a full smile on her pretty little face. She had adult responsibilities; compared to hers, my life felt as shallow as the hill-side stream nearby.
An Indian governmental act guarantees one hundred days of wage-employment in a financial year to an adult from a rural household. It is a noble act, but the work requires verification of work actually done to prevent venal practices from insidiously creeping in. A week later, I was tasked with verifying the work done on a hill road, and I asked the village head to take me to the work site. But this time, I had to cross a river which had a single bamboo log for a bridge. This was quite a challenge for me. But Tripura had toughened me – and if a little tribal girl could make the trip while carrying a pail of water and a baby, then so could I. I reached the road, walked the entire stretch of 875 metres and verified that the work was in order.
I completed my report, submitted it to the district authorities, and all too soon my tour came to an end. On my way back to the luxuries of urbania, I re-capped on what I had experienced and achieved. I enjoyed trudging around in the heat to reach interior habitations, eating the local cuisine, and conversing with my tribal friends. These experiences had strengthened me both physically and mentally. But what I had learned was more profound. There was infinitely more joy and satisfaction to be derived from lighting a village with electricity than from hanging an expensive (and totally unnecessary) chandelier in my house; from providing irrigation to small farms than from building an ornate fountain in my garden; and from feeding many people with simple and nutritious fare than from indulging in exotic and over-priced cuisine at an exclusive restaurant. Every time I feel complacent and a little above myself, I remember the smile on a certain little girl’s face—and reality strikes.
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