The newspaper headlines are dominated by the sad stories of farmer distress, water crisis as summer is about to hit us. Meanwhile, the world is witnessing a greater impact of climate change, threat of war, war crimes by ISIS and religious hate crimes. Added to all this, our economies are increasingly moving away from economic sustainability and moving towards high consumption.
In the midst of this increasingly polarising and consumption-driven world Kumar Prashant from India, an artist, and Ben Reid-Howells from Canada, an educator, are bent on developing resources for peace, sustainable living and community wellbeing by embarking on the Vasudhaiva Ride, inspired from Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and the vision of the the whole world as one family. Together these two men from diverse backgrounds are combining their strengths to execute various projects which benefit communities from India all the way to Scotland: one motherland to another.
They work independently with global and local volunteers, on-the-ground communities and partners. They connect their grassroots engagements with platforms for global collaboration, connecting people, projects and communities across borders as they go. So far the Vasudhaiva Ride has undertaken 3 projects in India thus completing their India leg of the ride.
The Bihar Project
Arrah in Bihar is a case study of unsustainable, unplanned development. The local government cannot keep up with the rate of growth, which expands over wetlands and farmers’ fields, leaving behind swaths of half-constructed concrete houses without proper drainage, road infrastructure or any electrical system to speak of. It is a world of necessary jugaad, of rampant pollution and of quickly disappearing greenery. A place where casteism is alive and strong and society is traditionally conservative.
Ben and Prashant wanted their last project in India to have a lasting impact. When Prashant suggested doing a project in Bihar to lay the groundwork for future work in upcycling and eco-design, a perfect opportunity presented itself. The Bihar Project was born: to create a prototype for self-reliant housing, a house made of a combination of upcycled waste, natural materials and weatherproof construction materials, and a house that grows its own food, treats its own waste water and sources renewable energies.
Prashant says “Our idea was to experiment with waste, natural materials and modern construction technology to create a model for self-reliant housing. A new way towards more sustainable development here in Arrah, and hopefully a prototype that will enable change here, and across Bihar.”
“This project is huge compared to anything we’ve done before,” says Ben, “At first we planned to build a fence! Mark the space where one day Prashant would return to create the entire centre, but now it had become a full-fledged construction site!” If the final product of creating a large-scale home-cum-training –centre out of a combination of mud, waste and other materials wasn’t enough of a challenge, the process of the Bihar Project was a whole other challenge.
“Anyone in India will tell you, don’t go to Bihar, and if you reach Bihar, they will tell you, DEFINITELY don’t go to Arrah!” jokes Prashant, “But here we’ve had our most international team yet!”. With volunteers from Tunisia, Czech Republic, Mexico, Chile, Canada, South Korea and across India, all working alongside Bihari labourers from Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim backgrounds. The Bihar Project is a daring experiment. In a place known for conflicts and social barriers between communities, it is a bold statement of global unity.
For many international volunteers Arrah was their first stop in India, and for Arrah, it was the first visit from these far-away nations. This made a deeply intercultural experience for everyone involved. “We quickly became close with the local community. We ate our meals in their homes and facilitated after-school events for the kids,” Ben reflects. “It’s been a learning process for everyone: for Prashant and I, as well as for the local workers and volunteers, all of whom are being confronted by radically different ways of perceiving of the world around them.”
The building itself is a statement of what you can do with waste and natural materials: from the gilwa mud plaster that lays between the bricks, to the post-construction cement rubble that now forms intricate mosaics around the upcycled wooden doorways and thela-cart windows.
It is a model for sustainable development: a home that grows its own food on upcycled rooftop gardens, treats its own wastewater with a simple in-house treatment system, and sources solar energy, thanks to the contribution of a 5 KV solar power system, committed by Greenpeace India. While it does resemble the houses around it in its stature and solid form, the distinct modern design stands out and about half the conventional materials have been replaced with waste metal, wood, glass and natural materials, all locally sourced.
This home challenges the notion of what a “proper” house can be made of. When replicated at scale, such design would bring Arrah and Bihar out of their current trajectory towards unsustainable growth and to the front line of green growth, inspiring other states in India, and beyond. The Bihar Project has been their largest endeavour yet, aiming to address issues of unemployment, unsustainable development, lack of urban planning and resulting issues of health, hygiene, social wellbeing and environmental degradation.
After completing the Vasudhaiva Ride, Prashant is planning to be back in Arrah, to bring the work into its second stage. Prashant further goes on to say “Bihar is a place that needs innovation. I am devoting myself to this state, where there is a lot of scope for green development. My vision is to bring resilient ways of living to Bihar and work to address the large-scale environmental and social issues that we are facing here and around the world. I want to work together with my Bihari brothers and sisters to create a strong and sustainable future here in Bihar.” In the years ahead, Prashant will work from Arrah, developing initiatives for sustainable livelihoods with local communities.
The house built by Prashant and Ben and their team will be the base for this work. Already under Prashant’s guidance, a team of 40 workers are learning upcycling techniques in the open area designated for the workshop in the house as a pilot project and will continue this work even in his absence. Thus, Ben and Prashant not only brought communities together, addressed big issues but also laid a foundation for their work to sustainably continue in the future.
The Nepal Project
On March 11, 2018, Ben and Prashant set out to Nepal from Bihar where they executed the first project of their international leg. They built an open learning & sports area for children in Kagathi village 14 km away from Kathmandu. This learning centre also doubled up as a training ground for educational NGOs in upcycling and resilient construction. They led workshops for women, Himalayan Climate Initiative, Maya Universe Academy, Canopy in resilient design. The project was opening of the playground in Kagathi Village, in Nuwakot near Kathmandu.
Their first international project was thus an example of cooperation and support.
The Ride chugs on
Their upcoming projects include a youth training project in Kazakhstan and the European Focus Project to support refugee relief efforts. Moving into the projects ahead, Prashant and Ben have a growing team to call to the task, and though they are in need of funds to complete this work, they are optimistic about the potential for large impact in the projects and journey to come. The more they see stories of violence and alienation, the more they are motivated to continue in this challenging endeavour.
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