In 2016, the Goonj team was visiting the villages of Childi, Kither, and Naman in block Narsoo of the Udhampur district in Jammu and Kashmir as part of its flagship Cloth for Work initiative. The team trekked through a steep eight-kilometre path to reach the villages.
It was a difficult region to access, with the villages located at an altitude of approximately 7,000 feet and subject to extreme cold weather for large parts of the year. They also lacked basic facilities like electricity and roads. We went in thinking that the villagers would ask for a road. We were surprised when they said they wanted an akhara instead.
What was the purpose of a wrestling ground for villages that did not even have a proper approach road? We were confused. But they were clear in their thinking: “Our boys spend the entire day sitting idle here; they aren’t able to compete in the wrestling competitions that happen in the valley.”
Dangal (wrestling) is the only low-cost, available sport and source of entertainment in these villages. It is also an important tradition among the local Gaddi community during the festival of Shinj in June every year. The road was not an urgent issue because the community had grown up in the hills and knew how to navigate the terrain.
Eventually, 135 villagers picked a spot in Chirdi village where they had a basic open ground. With great effort and enthusiasm for many days, they built a 40×40 feet dangal space along with a podium and sitting area for the audience. We witnessed people’s exuberance during that year’s Shinj.
As development sector professionals, we tend to focus on what people need versus what they want. For us, this experience in Kashmir was a reaffirmation of the idea that instead of finding solutions using our lens, it is always better to prioritise the perspective of the communities we work with.
Anshu Gupta is the founder director of Goonj, a nonprofit that works on community development.
Know more: Read this story to learn why the mountainous villages of Kashmir need better disaster management.