The monsoon season is fast approaching. The southern Indian air is warm and wet. We slowly make our way down a steep, red dirt-track. Hannah adjusts the stabiliser on her camera. She keeps one eye on the crumbling path.
We reach a small shack, hidden in the jungle. Blue plastic sheeting from a discarded billboard hangs to a swollen wooden structure. Vijayalkshimi emerges and greets us with a smile. In Malayalam, she tells us that she has cancer and her husband Rajan, suffered a stroke recently leaving him severely disabled.
They have been petitioning the local council for help to build a new, more stable home. That started 3 years ago. To make matters worse, Vijayalkshimis cancer treatment is ending soon and neither of them have any kind of pension to fall back on. The rains will be here soon. Their shack will likely be swept into the jungle along with everything they own.
Hannah and I are here on behalf of the RG Foundation to try and understand more about the area, the people here and some of the challenges they face.
Vijayalkshmi and Rajan were introduced to us by their son, Vishnu. He had approached TGG Foundation after the family had exhausted regular governmental routes for help to build a new house. S.V Laiju, the Founder and Chairman of TGG, reviewed the case and decided that a quicker route would be to crowdfund a solution.
Within a month, members of the local community in Wayanad had agreed to club together to pay for labour costs, and Laiju’s extended network were transferring funds to purchase bricks, flooring, roofing material, doors and windows.
As I’m writing this, the building foundations have been set, the walls are in place and the roof has been fitted to a humble but secure house.
Before entering this world, “rural development” was just a term I’d heard in lectures or TED Talks. Wikipedia describes it as “the process of improving the quality of life and economic well being of people living in relatively isolated and sparsely populated areas”.
But hearing a person's story. Connecting with their cause. Witnessing first hand what can be achieved through community action. The term holds more weight for me now.
In Kerala, a largely agricultural state, rural development and the work of organisations like TGG Foundation is of huge importance. Along with elderly people like Vijayalkshmi and Rajan other social groups which often require more support here include: women, young people and tribal communities.
Women in particular face a number of issues in Kerala. Despite being one of the more developed states in India, the unemployment rate amongst educated women stands at 71% whilst the rate for men stands at 18%. In agricultural jobs (the majority of Keralans earn a living from farming) women earn on average 48% less than men and incidences of domestic abuse are on the rise.
For young people in Wayanad and across much of Kerala, the lack of working opportunities forces many of them to leave the state in search of work.
Unemployment amongst educated women in Kerala stands at 71%...In agricultural jobs women earn on average 48% less than men, and incidences of domestic abuse are on the rise.
The “Keralan Gulf Diaspora” is a term which refers to the roughly 2.5 Keralans who have migrated to the Persian Gulf in search of prosperity. All of these issues have consequences, socially and economically.
In Vijayalkshimi and Rajan’s case the alternative is to continue living in a state of constant worry. The fear that one day soon your home may be destroyed. With no one left to turn to for help.
It's at these crucial moments and hopefully before when Rural Development organisations like TGG can step in. If they don't have the funds to provide a solution then maybe there’s a creative way around it. One that involves community, grassroots action and isn't about charity but about people recognising the need for action.
When we last visited the couple, Vijayalkshmi told us that her husband was holding on so that he could pass on in their new house. And Vishnu smiled and shook our hands. A weight had been lifted from his shoulders.