Reflections from an explorative journey in India: rethinking community development

By Nalika Peiris


They say “be careful about what you wish for”. Last year I decided I needed to do something that would shake me up, make me uncomfortable and rejuvenate me.

I wasn’t sure what that was, but I knew when I came across it I would know.

A couple of months later I received an email about the CERES Global Trip ‘Rethinking Approaches to Community Development in India’. I read the description and everything about it appealed to me and I knew that somehow it would meet what I was looking for.

The itinerary of the trip excited me — ABCD conference in Goa, half-day tour of Dharavi (one of Asia’s largest slums or colonies, which is a hub of small-scale industry with an annual turnover of approximately US$665 million), followed by a visit to Swaraj University in Udaipur.

This was all going to be done as a group of up to 20 total strangers! That in itself was going to be a challenge as I had not travelled in this way for a very long time — shared rooms, shared bathrooms, overnight bus and train rides, possible travel and stomach sickness — oh dear. I pushed all my fears and concerns to the back and decided to focus on all that this trip was going to bring. I had no expectations other than one of learning and I went with an open heart and an open mind.

And this is what happened.

The ABCD conference was no ordinary conference. It demonstrated the principles of asset-based community development. ABCD is about our local assets being the building blocks of sustainable development, and enshrines the following principles:

  1. Focusing on the strengths of the community rather than the problems and needs
  2. Identifying and mobilising individual and community assets
  3. Ensuring it is community driven — building communities from the inside out
  4. It’s based on relationships.

What this taught me was the importance of stepping back, letting go, listening and working alongside communities, and the importance of trust and respect.

After the conference, we set off to Mumbai on the overnight train. From the calm and idyllic setting of Goa, we entered the large and dense metropolis of Mumbai. Here we visited Dharavi, a place like I have never experienced before. Every square inch was used and here lived an industrious and connected community.


The industrious and connected community of Dharavi – Photo: Nalika Peiris/CERES Global


As we made our way through a maze of potters, poppadom makers, tailors, soap, metal and plastic recyclers and people’s homes, we noticed the connection between working and living in the same place. Although there are challenges in these communities, they live a very dignified life with a sense of purpose. This was a place where community and business thrived.

Later that afternoon we stood in the afternoon sun on a dusty road, waiting for the sleeper bus that finally arrived at 6.00pm. We all piled in, dusty, tired and hot, and after an 18-hour bus trip, where our beds resembled cold-storage display units at a deli, we arrived in the beautiful city of Udaipur.

The days in Udaipur were spent visiting Swaraj University and filled with learning about gift culture, and meeting people who, recognising their skills and their life’s purpose, had initiated services, programs or businesses.

We underwent a range of experiences that challenged and inspired us: bird rescue coupled with a social enterprise of creating bird houses; the establishment of a school for children with disabilities by two occupational therapists; and the challenging experience of standing in a rubbish tip and seeing the communities of families who live there and sort the rubbish.


Recycling in Udaipur – Photo: Nalika Peiris/CERES Global


So what does this all mean?

The 10 days moved me. I had to sit in spaces that felt uncomfortable. I realised that my frame of reference was very Western, and the power imbalance in the way I work with community was apparent. I experienced the joy of being vulnerable, the importance of sharing and starting with the strengths in any situation, and how essential it is to change my language and question my motivation and intentions. Most of all, it confirmed that I will always be inspired by community.


I did say at the beginning “be careful about what you wish for”. However, after this trip to India, I would say it is not about what you wish for, but what you do with it when it presents itself. I consider this as a gift given to me and I will share it in many different ways to be able to keep the spirit of this gift alive.




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