Janwaar Castle, a skatepark in interior Madhya Pradesh, is the subject of a book about rural changemakers

It’s been three years since a skatepark came up in an obscure village in central India. Or, if one actually made the long-yet-picturesque trip to Janwaar in Madhya Pradesh, in the middle of nowhere.

The facility, called Janwaar Castle, has raised a new generation of rural change makers, who have left an impression on the rest of the country and across the world with their enthusiasm and talent. And each time they rolled out on a skateboard, this bunch took on the onus of bringing about change, around them.

What was once a closed environment, resistant to any change that came its way, is today an open sandbox, ready for experimentation and moving in a direction that hopes to set an example for other similar rural communities. The journey over these years has been charmingly captured by the founder, Ulrike Reinhard, in the book REMOTE. The Rural Changemakers of Janwaar, with stunning visuals of Janwaar made mostly by ace photographer, Vicky Roy.

“It was important to document how people see what is happening in Janwaar. From the kids to the villagers, people who have been volunteering with us, as well as visitors, this book captures their experience,” Reinhard says. “REMOTE, because that’s exactly where we are, in the middle of nowhere!” she laughs.

 Janwaar Castle, a skatepark in interior Madhya Pradesh, is the subject of a book about rural changemakers

Ulrike and the Rural Changemakers at the skatepark, 2016, Credit: Vicky Roy

At the start of the book, Reinhard explains what brought her to India and what it took to set up the skatepark. That, essentially, was the easy part; the bigger challenge was to expose the villagers to change, and more importantly, get them to embrace it.

“Look at the smaller villages in India, they are a part of a very rigid, traditional set up. Without movement, there will never be change, so you need to shake them up and get them moving. This is essentially what the skatepark has done,” she says.

The model on which Janwaar Castle was set up was an open process, where anyone could plug-in and play, with no predefined program that focussed on a particular issue. Additionally, having previously worked in the field, Reinhard used the power of networks.

The four cover girls – it can't get more fun than this: Lakshmi, Ankat, Guddu and "Madame" Balloo (left to right)

The four cover girls: Lakshmi, Ankat, Guddu and "Madame" Balloo (left to right)

“You see huge companies like Cisco which embrace these network models and allow their employees to decide where they want to see their company in the next few years. It’s the same with Janwaar — the villagers must drive it forward. When I saw someone in the village move, we would define a single individual learning pass for him. But it was designed in such a way that it gave back to the community. The vision was to uplift the lives of the villagers in Janwaar,” she explains.

The biggest challenge for Reinhard and her team was to not interfere too much, and instead, step back and observe the direction in which the change was progressing. It all started with the kids — all too eager to learn and pull off the latest tricks on a skateboard. Over a period of time, some of them stepped up to show different abilities — from creative arts to vocational skills, which were honed by various experts across India.

A few even had the opportunity to step out of Janwaar for the first time and observe the world outside. While three boys rolled out on skateboards across Europe for over six weeks, Asha had the opportunity to spend a month in England. In the coming months, three girls will visit Australia to skate and stitch.

Ramkesh, one of the boys who travelled to Europe, has his very own style. He is like a ninja on the board

Ramkesh, one of the boys who travelled to Europe, has his very own style. He is like a ninja on the board

“I’m really happy to say that these kids who’ve been out have really taken up the responsibility of being role models. They’ve become leaders in their own community, trying to give back to the village through their own learning and experience. Besides being self-confident and open to interaction, they are also ready to deal with failure, which I think is great,” Reinhard says.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Janwaar. The registered NGO, Janwaar Castle Community Organisation, went through a rough patch last year. But Reinhard, who decided to part ways with the NGO and continues to work in her own capacity, believes it only brought the village together, as they found common ground to unite and make their voices heard. Then, there is the issue of network connectivity, which restricts the scope of operation, especially when it comes to education and learning. For instance, Internet access could bring in essential tools such as the ‘School in the Cloud’ founded by Sugata Mitra, or help tap into the volunteer network around the world, who are happy to work with the kids on various subjects every once in a while.

The lack of infrastructure hasn’t stopped Janwaar Castle from growing, though. One of the key initiatives that was taken up last year was the Data Project. A team of volunteers walked into the 130-odd households in Janwaar and gathered socio-economic data — right from what they did for a living, the number of members in each household, their income and how they spent it and if they had Aadhar cards. They then looked up the various schemes offered by the state and central government and created a programme to match the data.

Girls Skate India 2018 stopped for four days in Janwaar. Priyanka is given a hand by Mary.

Girls Skate India 2018 stopped for four days in Janwaar. Priyanka is given a hand by Mary.

“So on one hand, we have government schemes, and then, the data from the village. We can now see who is eligible for which scheme. Our next step is to file these applications, which will have a direct and immediate impact on the village. Take a widow, for example, who benefits from it — some money will make her life a little bit easier,” Reinhard says.

“It was also very intense learning for the volunteers involved. To understand how big the gap is between their smartphones and the data that its collecting is the first step towards closing this gap," she says, adding, "The data project most likely will advance to a pilot study in Madhya Pradesh, supported by the Tata Government Services and MPonline. And if it works, it will be scaled all over India. We are pretty proud of that."

Then, there are the six homestays that have been set up to accommodate visitors and give them a taste of rural life, as well as skateboarding. This in turn, has ensured cleanliness and hygiene, especially when it comes to sanitation. For some of the villagers, it has also translated to more income than their regular jobs.

“In such a place, progress is when people start thinking about another future. They have started realising that village life has some clear advantages, after interacting with outsiders. This is helping them create their own identities and they take pride in their village today. It is what you need to prevent migration. If we succeed a little more in creating opportunities, things will change for the better,” she says.

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2018 18:52:56 IST