Fellow: Ridhima Agarwal
Parindey: Ruth D’Costa
Alivelihood: Community work
Region: Kaflang, Champawat district, Uttarakhand

Ruth D’Costa (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

“And when it finally dawns on us that we have entered a downslope of destruction on this Earth and don’t have the wisdom to make the sacrifices that are needed to go back to healing the damages we have done, we have only one way left—decide on how we want to live, the choices we want to make right now, and the kind of relationships we want to have with ourselves and the world.”

– Ruth D’Costa 

Life moves at its own pace in the beautiful village of Kaflang in Champawat, Uttarakhand. The community lives in the hilly area; the women handle the household, agricultural, and cattle-rearing tasks, whereas the men join the army or the police force, take up government jobs, set up shops, or undertake physical labour on farms. The neoliberal policies that have resulted in global warming and the consequent climate inconsistencies add to the existing challenges faced in agriculture here, with crop destruction by wild animals being the primary concern. Further, access to mobile phones, advertisements, and a market filled with plastic-packaged goods has opened a window to material aspirations for the youth. Meanwhile, their self-image is under constant scrutiny and their career aspirations remain limited without the right guidance. For civil society activists, the area remains unreachable, and the community is affected both directly and indirectly by certain structural and operational flaws in the way the larger system works. Many pahadi (mountain) villages do not have access to well-functioning schools, good roads for commuting, or a reliable healthcare system. In hindsight, their lack of awareness about their rights and education restricts them from rising as a collective. 

Digging our own grave: Forests of Champawat (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

Born and raised in Mumbai, Ruth’s dream and inner calling had always been to live in a village and move away from urban life. Bombil is the name she gave herself and loves to be called after an ex-boyfriend tagged her for her love of walking through puddles. In 2018, Bombil moved to Champawat, where her husband worked, and ventured into a new life. The villagers used to speak to her husband but seldom acknowledged her. She learned that the women there are not allowed to explore their own identities. This was unacceptable to her as a woman who had made most of her own choices and advocated for social causes. Hence, she gradually began to build her own space in the community. Having lived a financially challenging life, she decided to earn for herself by offering English coaching classes after identifying a need for it amongst the children. However, she did not take this forward because ₹500 per month was expensive for most families, especially in this region where most children attend government-run schools. 

Ruth interacting with youth in Bilhedi village, Champawat. Bilhedi is accessible only on foot and is 1.5 hours away from the nearest village. (File photo)

She returned to Mumbai, her hometown, the same year to run a prison rehabilitation project. After that, she came down with anxiety and depression, but with the help of her sister, she initiated the process of inner healing. Upon returning to Champawat, she noticed many children addicted to mobile games due to poorly planned digital access. Subsequently, she gathered a group of teenagers and invited them to participate in activities and learn together. ‘HaiJalo’, her collective, took its first steps in providing a nurturing ground for youth. “Hai jalo”, a pahadi phrase that means “it shall happen”, is used locally to encourage people to surrender to possibility and have faith. When they decided to collect old garments from across the village, stitch them into cloth bags, and distribute them to shopkeepers to address the excessive usage of polythene bags, the process began to grow organically with its strong roots in the community. Through this initiative, the children experienced the beauty of meaningful collective action and tremendous self-growth for the first time. 

Children of Champawat (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

HaiJalo nurtures the children’s creative potential, which is otherwise suppressed in the formal education system. Realising the emphasis on sovereignty and the democratic nature of the cause, a local group of 16–19 year old teenagers who volunteered daily at HaiJalo decided to raise awareness on menstrual health. It was not easy at first as most of them were boys. However, before their volunteership concluded, they were facilitating awareness sessions in schools and coaching classes. This was a massive leap for the community’s empowerment. 

A programme called ‘Rukh Thokko’, a pahadi name for woodpeckers, is Bombil’s most ambitious intervention for pahadi youth following programmes such as cloth-bag drives, awareness drives, and kooda kasrat (garbage collection designed as a workout). She named it Rukh Thokko because a woodpecker constantly knocks against a tree to find food and survive. The name is symbolic of the perseverance that rural development workers must possess in order to effect change.

A group of Rukh Thokko fellows pore over information on forest fires. The three-month fellowship programme concluded with a ‘Van Utsav’ (forest festival). During the programme, a few of the fellows were accommodated at Bombil’s house, otherwise known as HaiJalo House. (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

Holistic education via the Rukh Thokko Fellowship involves lessons on giving and receiving; looking after each other; how to love, care and take action in a community, etc. With its focus on lesson planning, student progress, addressing students’ emotional and psychological needs, interpersonal relationships, and instilling confidence, the fellowship is radical in its approach. Bombil wishes to equip the fellows to become community workers and take her work forward through them. Through HaiJalo, she aims to enable the pahadi communities in Champawat to take action on local problems related to food, water, shelter, clean air, and education, and make them aware of their rights. HaiJalo’s next step towards development is through sports. ‘Pahadi Khiladi’ is a space for pahadi youth of all ages to come together and play sports regularly. It has been a successful programme because, every evening, the children’s joyous screams and laughter have uplifted the entire village and made them forget the obstacles that divided them. Bombil stresses on the need to reconsider our definitions of “skilled” and “unskilled”, especially in light of rural societies, their structures and role divisions and most importantly, old wisdom and indigeneous knowledge. 

A glimpse of her community life: Ruth’s home in the village (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

The notion of a woman—her family, heritage, and lineage—is different when she chooses to live a life of her own identity, and when she commits her life to working with the community. By the end of her life, whether it is trees or ideas or people or communities, Bombil says she will have lost count of how many children she has had. In Champawat, Bombil met Janki didi, her pahadi landlady. Didi gave her a home to live in and taught her the value of unconditional love and proper nourishment, which are the qualities she used to build her social work. Now, as she passes these qualities on to other people through her work, Bombil‘s identity merges with that of the community, dissolving the division of the individual and the other.

Excited at the prospect of helping didi during the ghas katai (grass cutting) season, Bombil says, “The idea of drinking fresh milk is a very romantic notion, and behind it are women without much choice because the responsibility of finding fodder and feeding, cleaning, and milking the cow falls on them. As a result, they rarely leave the house to visit their maternal homes. One needs to see how much labour a woman does to get us that one glass of milk; we better acknowledge it.”

Ruth and Janki didi on a trip to Pancheshwar river, the first in a series of trips for pleasure. (File photo)

The flow of funding is one of the challenges they encounter, and a lot of effort is required in collecting funds to sustain ground projects. “The people who are trying to fix broken parts of the country are forced to spend time on presenting their work to potential funders or applying for grants to governments—the entities to whom the gaps in development can be attributed anyway. The time available for community service is spent on requesting funds. Partnering with governmental bodies requires the sufficient bandwidth—both financial and mental—for multiple trips to governmental offices, feeding egos, and completing paperwork of bureaucratic proportions. Ill-planned rural development is a waste of resources of every conceivable kind and the side-effects are long lasting. Rural communities that have become accustomed to receiving free support have damaged both community interdependence and self-dependence.” Further, in the course of her work, Bombil faces several questions about her own caste and religion, which she has been navigating and addressing.

The light of Bombil’s being is reflected in her surroundings. Her relationships with the rest of nature, people, and her work; creating beautiful art; writing letters; decorating homes; greeting every soul on her path; and considering work as sacred, illustrate how one connects back to the community when one discovers their true self. In essence, what Bombil does is “unhoni ko honi karna“, i.e., to make things possible. Bombil is a walking expression of love, the shade of a tree in Champawat, and a true guide on going back to the essence of life, i.e., to heal each other and to realise the harmony of oneself with their community and the rest of nature. Eventually, Bombil hopes to move to farming to be closer to earth and life.

Ruth D’Costa aka Bombil can be reached at: bombilism@gmail.com

Website: https://haijalo.org 

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Written by: Ridhima Agarwal

Contact: agarwalridhima1@gmail.com 

Originally published on Travellers’ University, part of the 52 Parindey Fellowship



Teaser/SEO description: Echoes of the youth in devbhoomi—Ruth aka Bombil and the humans of HaiJalo strive for community wellbeing in its true essence. 

Location for geotagging: Bombil- c/o Tulsi Dutt, Village: Kaflang, Post office: Doodhpokhra, District: Champawat, Uttrakhand 262523, India

Tags: conservation, youth, education, Uttarakhand, ecology, sustainability, community development, women stories, feminism, alternative, social work, forest, youth empowerment, alivelihoods, 52 Parindey 

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