Yusuf Meherally Centre: Fostering the Rural in an Urbanizing India

By Chandramouli SharmaonDec. 11, 2023in Economics and Technologies

Specially written for Vikalp Sangam

As I step into Yusuf Meherally Centre in Raigad district of Maharashtra, about 60 kms from the city of Mumbai, I am filled with peace and quiet that is often missing in the hustle and bustle of a city. Right in the front, as I enter the meeting hall is a dark wall with a painting of Yusuf Meherally, a popular name during the Indian Freedom Struggle.  It is only recently that I first heard about him, which makes me feel rather inadequate in my knowledge of our freedom heroes. Yusuf Meherally coined the phrase “Quit India”, which had very succinctly captured the strong resolve of Indians in 1942 and gave the British a clear ultimatum to leave. Another notable slogan that he coined was, “Simon! Go Back” when the British Parliament sent a committee of MPs to make constitutional reforms that had no Indian representation. Yusuf Meherally had the unique talent of capturing Indian sentiments through memorable and catchy phrases. I wonder if he were alive today, what slogan would he come up with? How would he capture the crises of today succinctly? I guess we can only wonder. 

Unfortunately, Yusuf Meherally passed away just three years after India’s independence when he was 47 years old.  He was so popular in Mumbai that the whole city stopped in shock at the news of his passing away with even the Bombay Stock Exchange closing for a day. His name might have been buried in the history books, were it not for the determination of some young people who were inspired by him who took it upon themselves to keep his legacy alive. Thus, the Yusuf Meherally Centre was born in 1961. 

On a cot is G.G Parikh, sitting in a reclining position. It is not every day that you get to meet someone like ‘G.G’ as he is affectionately known by people. Parikh is one of the founders of the centre and possibly the only living connection to the origins of the centre. He is approaching his 100th birthday this month at the time of writing, but one wouldn’t realize if it wasn’t mentioned. Despite his age, he is sharp and alert. Barring some difficulties in walking and hearing, he demonstrates remarkable fitness. He was born in Gujarat and was very active during  the freedom movement as a teenager. He later moved to Mumbai(then Bombay) to pursue his education. He was arrested and  spent some time in jail during the Quit India Movement in 1942 and then again during the Emergency. It is mesmerising to meet someone who has witnessed and participated in the story of India so intimately. Discovering that he still goes to the office every day left me in awe and filled me with a renewed sense of purpose and vigour to keep working persistently with a smile. Curious, I asked him to share the philosophy and the guiding principles behind the Yusuf Meherally Centre. He takes me back to the memory lane and talks about how the centre started. “We wanted to ensure that Yusuf Meherally’s name is not forgotten”, he says. “Many people volunteered to join and start the centre. Back then the purpose of the centre was to work towards ‘national integration’ and to bring people together across divisions. With time the centre started working on the problems that were emerging from rapid urbanisation happening in Mumbai. We concluded that the solutions to the problems of urbanization lie not in the cities but in the hinterland. Rural areas need to develop and have basic amenities so that people stay there. No one should have to leave their village because they have no other option, it should be the responsibility of city dwellers to ensure this”, he shares. He believes that the Western model development cannot be replicated in India. “The Western model of development is an energy-guzzling machine that isn’t sustainable. We would need many Earths if every Indian aspires to live  a Western lifestyle”, he mentions. He believes we need an alternative model of rural development that allows the villages to prosper and gives people  the option to stay there.

G.G Parikh sitting in front of Yusuf Meherally’s painting at the centre | Picture Credit: Yusuf Meherally Centre

YMC’s Alternative model of rural development

Yusuf Meherally Centre’s model of Alternative Rural Development has several tenets and principles that have been developed over the last several decades of experience working with the rural population. They believe that the dynamics of a rural setting are very different from urban areas and need to be understood before any solutions are developed. One of the tenets of the alternative model that YMC proposes is to work for all people and not just a section of the rural population. They work with about 4 villages that have about 10-12 ‘wadis’ (a small cluster of houses). The combined population of these villages is around 8000 people. The demographic of the villages that the centre works with are very diverse and includes Adivasis, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians as well. “We learned this from our mistakes. If you just work for one section, say Adivasis,  then there is a risk of antagonizing the non-Adivasi population living in the same area”, says G.G Parikh. So, they focus on the inclusive and holistic development of the villages. The centre’s model is largely inspired by Gandhian thoughts on rural upliftment. I speak with Guddi S.L, who has been associated with the centre full-time for the last 22 years. She says that after Gandhi passed away, the space to ‘experiment’ became narrower with time.  That is why the centre is a big proponent of experimentation and trying things out. It is through this experimental mindset, the centre has started several projects running in the same rural setting. They believe that it is not just one or two solutions that will work but a whole ecosystem that needs to be developed to ensure holistic rural development. They welcome everyone to come and experiment if they have an idea that will help the people there. Another principle they follow is that rural development should not cause harm to the environment and as far as possible the settlements should be ‘zero-waste, zero-carbon emissions settlements’. It also promotes moving towards a simple lifestyle by reducing our wants. “One thing that I like about this centre is that you will find an alternative to almost everything here. Not everything is perfect, but there is a space for everything to be tried out”, remarks Kapil Agarwal who has been volunteering at the centre for the last few months. 

‘Alternative’ is a way of thinking at the centre and they try to incorporate alternative ways of being, thinking and doing in every project. Inspired by Gandhi’s first ashram in South Africa called ‘Tolstoy Farm’, the centre recently co-organized ‘Tolstoy Farm 2.0’, a 15-day exhibition to support decentralized small-scale industries such as handicrafts, pottery, textiles etc which can help in rural revitalisation and are an alternative to the heavy industries that are polluting the planet. The exhibition included the selling of arts and crafts products, speaker sessions, workshops, demonstrations and reading circles. 

From the meeting hall, I am taken to the school that the centre has been running for the local community. As I enter the school premises, I am taken back to my childhood. At the centre of the school is a large open playground with big trees that provide much-needed shade from the sun. The children are on a recess break, and the air is filled with joyful chatter. Each classroom is a standalone hut-shaped room that blends well with the open ground. I feel a sense of freshness and freedom in the children playing around. The school is Marathi-medium and is intentionally so to ensure that children learn in their mother tongue. The school caters to Grade 4-12 students. The decision-making of the school happens in collaboration with the parents of the children studying there as well as the local community. Guddi mentions how once  parents had issues with the quality of  mid-day meals and decided to create additional funds for getting better quality meals for their children. This kind of active participation allows for the needs of the community to be met.

The classrooms of the school run by the centre | Picture Credit: Chandramouli Sharma

From there I reach the hospital where I find a clinic for dental care, an operation theatre, and facilities for eye operation. The beginnings of the hospital were rather modest. It started as a Sunday camp where doctors from Mumbai would come and volunteer their time, a practice that continues till day. Having a well-run hospital near the village has made life easier for the villagers who would otherwise need to go to Panvel for treatment. The hospital works in close connection with the village community and adapts its services based on their needs. This participative model helps to meet the emerging medical needs of the community. The hospital is  funded by donations and grants, and when possible from the Panchayat funds. 

As I move from the school towards the small-scale industry workshops, I pass a check-dam that was made by the centre to collect and preserve rainwater. The centre emphasizes the importance of  watershed development to ensure water and food security in rural areas. There is a cowshed as well  that takes care of old and abandoned cows. The centre uses the cow dung as a manure. Along the way is a mud house that is the replica of the Bapu Kuti at Gandhi’s Ashram in Wardha. It is an embodied gesture to honour the values of simple living that Gandhi espoused. 

The replica of Bapu Kuti, Gandhi’s residence at Wardha Ashram | Picture Credit: Chandramouli Sharma

Shortly I arrive in the area where there are several small-scale industries or Gram Udyog as they call it, that support local employment. “It is important to have many non-agricultural employment opportunities in the villages”, adds Parikh. These include carpentry, bakery, pottery, vermiculture composting, khadi, oil pressing, and  handicrafts. About 25 people work in these units. As I explore and check out these units, I notice that each of them is small-scale and easily operable by the villagers. “We intentionally keep the technology simple to ensure that we don’t need advanced skills to employ people”, says Guddi. I visit the soap-making unit and the manager there walks us through the soap-making process. I am pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of the process. The pottery unit has several Ganpati statues that catch my attention, all of them made of clay as an eco-friendly alternative to the POP-made statues. The carpentry unit produces innovative wood products such as foldable chairs. I see a pile of old furniture in the workshop that is being repurposed for making new products. These products are consumed within the village and also sold to the visitors to the centre. About 70,000 to a lakh people visit the centre every year.  

Eco-friendly Ganpati statues  at the pottery unit | Picture Credit: Chandramouli Sharma

Owing to YMC’s extensive efforts over several decades, the values of communal harmony promoted by the centre have begun resonating with the communities and villages they serve. “Even amid heightened communal tensions in India, our region has not witnessed any difficult situations. In one village we work with, the village head is from the minority community.”, Guddi highlights.  Many of the people who are now in their 40s and 50s were students of the school run by the centre and the values instilled in them during childhood seem to have endured.  Ensuring livelihoods are not confined by caste, the centre advocates for equal opportunities for all. The centre ensures that livelihoods are not caste-based. Guddi illustrates, “In our pottery unit, workers don’t necessarily belong to the Kumhars caste, traditionally associated with this work. It is viewed as a form of art, and anyone willing to learn the skill can participate.” The centre also runs a Youth program called “Yusuf Meherally Yuva Biradri” that engages youth in the work of communal harmony and fighting injustice through Youth Camps. “At one point, there was a push from certain forces to remove Yusuf Meherally’s name from the centre’s name as he belonged to the minority community but we did not budge”, says G.G Parik with a sense of pride. Amidst the backdrop of heightened communal tensions in our country, I find inspiration in learning that there are still places where communal harmony is actively promoted. 

Reflecting on my visit to the Yusuf Meherally Centre, it proved to be an enriching experience. The spirit of the freedom struggle, the catalyst for the center’s establishment, endures in varied forms. Today, the adversary is not just external but also resides within us, manifested in our mindsets and beliefs. The Yusuf Meherally Centre persists in the crucial work of ‘building the human and the community’ through the various initiatives it runs but more importantly through the values it promotes. As India urbanizes rapidly, we are at  risk of losing the rural way of life and our hopes of a sustainable model of development. 70% of India still lives in villages and thus, we need more such centres and processes to nurture the rural areas of our country, reverse the migration that is happening, and offer an alternative model of development that does not harm the ecology while meeting the basic needs of the people. As we grapple with the challenges emerging from the dominant paradigm of development that are extractive and exploitative, Yusuf Meherally Centre stands tall as a beacon of hope for an alternative future that is more harmonious, just, and sustainable.  

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