Friends Rural Centre, Rasulia, India

 

Friends Rural Centre in Rasulia, Madhya Pradesh has been a centre for rural development for over a hundred years.

The first Quaker to visit the area was the American, Elkanah Beard, in 1869. But it was an English Quaker medical student called Charles Gayford who, in 1875, bought seven acres of land on the edge of the town of Hoshangabad on behalf of the Friends Foreign Mission Association. The land was considered an ideal site for witness to spiritual truth in education, health, agriculture.

In 1876, Gayford was joined by another British Friend, Rachel Metcalf.  Despite her own ill health (she was confined to a wheelchair) she took in a steadily growing number of orphans, and looked after them for many years.

In 1877, Gayford was replaced by Samuel Baker and his wife Ann. Baker, less sympathetic to Indian religion than Gayford had been, concentrated on gaining converts, whom he expected to isolate themselves from their families and castes.

In the 1890s, severe famine struck India, and the focus of the group at Hoshangabad turned to providing relief. Friends in Britain raised £40k for the Friends Indian Famine Fund, which provided relief for 11 thousand people. The orphanage set up by Metcalf grew from a few dozen children to almost one thousand.

Around the turn of the century, a workshop was opened where trainees made furniture, some of which could still be seen many decades later at Hoshangabad railway station.

By 1920, the orphans from the famine period had grown up and left, and the workshop closed. Another British Friend, Hilda Cashmore (1876-1943) conceived the idea of a Quaker Ashram. Cashmore had been a relief worker in Europe after WWI and had seen the awful results of conflict.  In 1934, she established a study centre at Rasulia – a place where Indians, British and others could meet. She described it as a living witness to the possibility of international cooperation and goodwill.

In 1937, Cashmore handed responsibility for the centre to Shri Ranjit Chetsingh, who shifted the emphasis of the centre to adult education and student conferences. Chetsingh moved to Delhi in 1943, where he founded a new Quaker International Centre, and leadership at Rasulia passed to Donald and Erica Groom.

Living and working among the villagers, the Grooms developed a sympathetic understanding of the local problems. Under their guidance, Rasulia became the centre of a network of rural development programmes. Rasulia also became a refuge for leaders of India’s independence movement.

For five years after independence (1951-56), the American Friends Service Committee, in cooperation with the Indian Government’s Rural Development Scheme, sponsored a Technical Assistance Programme, providing cars and tractors, and funded a credit scheme.

When the programme ended, and after 15 years of service, Donald Groom left Rasulia to join India’s Bhoodan (land gift) movement. The new director, Marjorie Sykes, a naturalised Indian, took the decision, with the rest of the staff, not to renew requests for financial assistance but to try to operate the centre independently.

During this period, the centre pioneered the use of innovations such as concrete rings to support the sinking of wells, and moulded plastic latrines. The health clinic had responsibility for two hundred villages and more than twenty thousand families from up to sixty miles away. By 1971, this was fully staffed by Indian personnel.

Between 1972 and 1977, Rasulia worked with the Delhi University Science Teaching Group on the Hoshangabad Science Education Programme, which involved sixteen village schools, and emphasised ‘learning by discovery.’

In the 1980s, concern shifted to deterioration of the soil and natural environment, and rural impoverishment. The community decided to adopt ‘rishi kheti’ (agriculture of the sages), based on the Japanese idea of ‘natural farming’. The first step was to stop using chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, and look for crops that would grow well without them. The second was to use bullocks instead of tractors. By checking erosion, allowing some weeds to remain as ground cover and returning stalks and straw to the soil, they rebuilt the natural fertility of the soil.

Today the declared purpose of the centre is to ‘increase awareness about health, education and moral values.’ The centre receives funding from British and Canadian Friends. Current projects include training workshops on the use of Bio Sand Water Filters (using the same technology as Friends are using in Burundi) to provide clean water to local villagers.