The North-Eastern region of India comprising seven states – Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Tripura, and Sikkim – is much more than a mere political construct. It is a unique civilization in itself with its own rich historical and cultural foundation. The region is also very strategic for the country as it shares 99 percent of its border with Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and China.
With more than 220 communities and an equal number of languages and dialects, its population of nearly 50 million varies in language, race, tribe, religion and regional heritage. Yet the destiny of the people of the region is bound together geographically, economically and culturally. Despite the diversity, the problems faced by the people of the region are often quite common and similar.
The Art of Living, an educational and humanitarian NGO has been working actively in North East India in various spheres, including conflict resolution, relief activities, education and social welfare, for several years. The organization has initiated many social service projects in the region, benefitting millions of people.
Disaster relief activities
The Art of Living has been active in disaster relief activities in the North East. The volunteer teams have distributed relief on several occasions in the flood-prone areas. On 21st July 2017, when a devastating flood hit Assam, The Art of Living team distributed tons of food materials, drinking water, clothes and other essential materials to around 100,000 affected victims in 800 villages. In some places, the volunteers traveled in boats to reach the remote and inaccessible areas. In areas that had no electricity, the team provided solar lamps and water filters as well.
Trauma care for riot victims
Trauma relief has been another area in which The Art of Living has been actively involved. In July 2012, Assam saw outbreaks of riots between different ethnicities that displaced over 400,000 people. The Art of Living set up relief camps and provided immediate material aid such as food, water, clothing and shelter homes. Medical camps were set up by a team of Art of Living Ayurvedic doctors. The organization also conducted trauma relief workshops for over 100,000 Bodos and Muslims, helping release trauma and restore hope.
Electrifying remote villages with solar lights
Inaugurated in Nov 2012, The Art of Living's ‘Light a Home’ project has so far distributed more than two thousand lamps in some of the remotest villages of North East; some of them requiring 6-7 hours of treks and on foot journey.
The organization has also constructed the country’s largest solar battery charging station in December 2016, which powers 287 households in the remote island village of Mukul Gaon in Dibrugarh District. The project, reaching out to and connecting so many households simultaneously, is the biggest of its kind in India.
The battery station with solar panels installed has been developed as the community center of the village. Here the villagers can organize any of their community activities with 24 x 7 electrical support. This is a huge boost for a place that used to be dark after the sunset. The project was completed with a team of just 4 engineers who traveled and stayed there for months and got it done.
“Our purpose was to at the least provide the basic amenities. Thus, the model had a scope for 2 lights, a fan and a mobile charging slot per household installed with additional plug-in options provided,” says Pratik, a team member. “The wiring was done by the technicians in each household. As during the monsoon floods, the homes move to higher land and thus keep shifting year after year, we had to improvise with the portable wiring, which they could carry along when they shifted,” he added.
Along with the solar project, two skill development training centers, which will make hundreds of youths employable, are also being established in the same area.
The villagers are very happy with the solar lights. Students are found studying at nights with extra enthusiasm and the women are happy too as they can cook easily at night. Overall, the life of the villagers in these far-flung areas has taken a turn for the better.
School for first-generation learners
The Art of Living has 65 free rural and tribal schools across North East, benefitting around 9000 students. The indigenous schools are not only bringing free education to more than 1000 first-generation school goers but has also created a space for preserving and celebrating the cultures of the region.
Sri Sri Gyan Mandir High School, one of The Art of Living schools in Bhuvaneswarnagar, Assam along the Indo-Bangladesh border is the only free English medium school in the region. Hiramati Sinha, the coordinator, says, “It was a challenge to bring children to the school. I was determined to bring this change in the village. Many discouraged the idea, saying it is not easy to run the school.
“In a couple of months, I visited around 1500 homes to tell them about the school. I began with 15 students and soon had 400 students. The students studying in this school come from a rural, poor background, and education, books, and uniforms are provided free to them."
Chemical-free farming to benefit 4000 farmers
Among the several transformational initiatives of The Art of Living, an organic farming revolution, expected to benefit around 4000 farmers and surrendered militants, is underway in the North East. The project will see the cultivation of marigold, turmeric, chili and ginger on a massive scale, in about 2000 acres of land, with revenues projected at more than 50 crores per annum. The project is slated to go commercial from October 2017 and will be a complete turnaround for the farmers in the North East.
Re-using temple waste as compost
In a first of its kind, The Art of Living has set up a temple waste management plant in Kamakhya Mandir, Guwahati. The compost plant produces 160 kg of manure per day from the huge amounts of waste flowers and materials in the temple premises. The initiative has helped reduce pollution in the temple and the manure is being used for farming. Several other temples have also joined in the project.
Reforming and rehabilitating militants
North East India is often mired in inter-state, inter-community, communal and inter-ethnic conflicts. Separatist and militant groups have been active in the region since 1965. These groups are trained in warfare and know little other than this lifestyle of violence and insecurity. The Art of Living has been active in the sphere of conflict resolution in North East for several years and has so far rehabilitated over 1200 militants.
In 2010, 128 militants laid down their arms and were subsequently rehabilitated by The Art of Living. The group underwent a 90-day intensive behavioral, spiritual and vocational rehabilitation training conducted by the organization.
Throwing light on the whole rehabilitation process of the militants and the journey ahead, Art of Living Faculty and Project Director, Art of Living Rehabilitation Program, Samir Jolly shared, “Rehabilitation of this group was a challenging task. We dealt with these people with a spiritual human approach. When they were in the Army camp, they would escape in spite of the best security cover. Here, they stayed on without any security or boundary walls. Today, the situation is such that they even do not want to pick up the gun. Our methodology has been greatly appreciated and we are getting many such more requests by the Government.”
In 2012, over 700 ULFA members participated in The Art of Living programs. They were also provided skill training to adopt a vocation as per their aptitude.
“For the first time in my life, I have started thinking properly and more clearly. Now I know what I want to do in my life and the Art of Living has given me the skills through which I can take care of my family.” - Basarat Sahah, former militant.
The fight against insurgency got further impetus with the surrender of 68 armed militants in Manipur on 14th August 2017. The Art of Living had played a major role in changing the hearts and mind of these cadres, and their sustained efforts paid off when the militants came on the ground with a huge cache of arms and ammunition and announced their decision to return to mainstream society.
Strength in diversity: A historic peace conference
In continuation of the various initiatives of The Art of Living in the North East, the International Association for Human Values (IAHV), an international not-for-profit organization founded by Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, organized a historic day-long North East Indigenous People’s Conference - Strength in Diversity - of opinion-makers and thought-leaders of the region.
The interaction, that took place on 7th September at Guwahati, brought leaders from all walks of life face-to-face with Gurudev to collectively build a shared vision for addressing the issues facing the region.
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar articulates that the order of the day has changed from independence to interdependence. His formula for finding strength in diversity and moving together on the basis of love, equality, human values, and compassion will go a long way towards ushering a new era of co-operation in the conflict-ridden states.