The power of community

In September 2009, Revd David Gamble, President of the Methodist Conference, travelled to India to visit an MRDF project that has been working with Dalit communities since 2004. Dalits are some of India’s most impoverished and marginalised people, often facing discrimination because of the low status they held in India’s traditional caste system - they were seen as ‘untouchable.’ It is not uncommon for them to be given the most menial jobs. But, during his visit, the President saw how many Dalits were claiming their dignity and independence by combining their skills and hard work with a little investment from MRDF.

Ravanamma and her group tried several banks before receiving a loan from MRDF’s partner to start a community dairy centre.

Seeing small miracles first handL~

‘I never thought I would be financially sound like this’, Gangadevi said excitedly. ‘Now I am able to feed my family and also feed others.’ The President listened intently as Gangadevi described her dramatic shift from mere survival to community leader. He had read stories about MRDF’s life-changing work before, but now he was in Andhra Pradesh, hearing about a remarkable transformation from someone who had experienced it first-hand. Gangadevi’s enthusiasm was palpable.

‘Before our land was uneven and full of bushes,’ Gangadevi said. ‘After help from [MRDF’s partner] we are practising sustainable agriculture – not just growing one crop, but a variety of food and grains. Because of the methods we are following we are getting a very good yield.’ Gangadevi, who featured in MRDF’s 2009 Harvest material, is one of hundreds of Dalits who have participated in agricultural training funded by MRDF. The workshops are particularly useful because many Dalits were given land by the government, but much of it was uncultivable, being full of rocks, bushes and weeds. Without money for seeds and fertilisers, the villagers had land but were still hungry.

The practical training focused on low-cost techniques that would help the villagers to reap many harvests whilst not harming the soil with harsh chemicals. They collected small wild berries and spread them on the ground to keep insects away from seedlings. They also used the weeds they pulled up as animal fodder and worms for composting, as well as creating terracing and trenches so that water would not be wasted.

MRDF’s partners made loans available to help people buy seeds and rent equipment. Gangadevi and some other women pooled their land and loans together, and adopted the techniques they learned during the training. They are now earning a regular income from growing and selling crops such as chillies, aubergines, tomatoes, oranges and bananas.

‘I’m impressed by the project’s ecological approach’, the President said. ‘Sustainable agriculture is about using the earth properly, not taking out more than we put in - not the rape of the earth, but humanity in partnership with the soil and the rain and the slopes. The project is not imposing Western methodologies but developing things that are appropriate and work here – and which respect the planet too.’

The loan is like planting seedsL~

Yessiah no longer has to work as a bonded labourer and is growing crops such as groundnuts.

Like many other Dalits, Gangadevi has repaid her loan and is diversifying her business. ‘The loan component is like planting seeds – it generates a harvest that helps others’, she said. ‘I’m now developing one acre of community land with the profits from our work. We are growing chillies, which we will export to markets in Chennai. We are [also] running a seed bank in our village. I have given space for this in my house. We want to set up a cold storage unit so we can sell things at the time when we will get the best price.’

Gangadevi’s village is now a model for others. ‘People come to learn from us,’ she told the President. ‘This is all thanks to MRDF. When we go to market, people ask us how we grow such big vegetables – we tell them about this help.’

But it’s not only the villagers’ fortunes that have changed; Gangadevi’s children now have higher aspirations. ‘I have two children’, she said. ‘One wants to be a doctor, the other an engineer. I never thought my children could do this.’

The ripple effectL~

Like many of the people MRDF’s partner has worked with, Gangadevi is determined to pass on the opportunities to others. ‘We give 10% of what we make to people who do not have land’, she told him. We are [also] helping 25 women in our village who weren’t involved in the original project.’ The President said: ‘I’m impressed by the fantastic difference that MRDF is able to make through a project like this; the difference it makes to the lives and prospects of families and whole communities – the fact that what is offered is self-sustaining.’

Earlier in his trip, the President had met Yessiah, who was just as eager to start his own ripple of change. As a bonded labourer – someone who uses their labour to repay a loan - Yessiah had worked for a meal a day for 25 years. When MRDF’s partner started working in his community, he and four others pooled their land together and applied for a start-up loan, funded by MRDF. They are now growing groundnuts and oranges. ‘I was very happy when my sweet orange trees came’, he told the President. ‘They will bear fruit after four years – so we have 1.5 years to go. We will get 23,000 Rs [£300] for a tonne of oranges. I will give 30% of my first orange crop to [MRDF’s partner] – they can sell this and use the money to release another bonded labourer.’

Everyone needs milkL~

The loans MRDF helps to provide have also been crucial to the success of a dairy development centre in southern India. It allows community members to buy buffaloes whose milk they sell for profit. The locals bring their milk to the centre, where they are paid according to its volume and fat content. The centre, which opened in April 2008, now collects about 100 litres of milk a day. This is sold to the local government, which transports it to Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, for packaging and sale.

Ravanamma, who runs the dairy, said: ‘We went to several banks but couldn’t get loans. We wanted money to start a project. Through MRDF’s partner we got money at low interest and they gave us food and travel allowances to attend the training. I think they can work miracles!’

‘Once a family has paid off the loan, the buffalo and its calves will set them up for the future’, she said. ‘Now we can invest in the education of our children.’

And the dairy’s impact is not limited to the people who work with MRDF’s partner. ‘It is a facility for the whole community’, Ravanamma said. ‘Everyone needs milk, and it brings us together.’

Speaking upL~

Milk is weighed to determine its volume. The price is based on volume and fat content.

The President heard how MRDF’s partner is not only enabling people to improve their livelihoods, it is also helping them to exercise their rights. Obelesu is a community leader in a Dalit area, and after taking part in a leadership skills workshop, he had the confidence to speak with local government representatives about problems in his community. They now have better drainage systems and new houses have been built.

Similarly, Gangadevi’s community lobbied their local government for a road through their remote village. This was constructed and the villagers now have a regular bus service.

‘It is clearly the community, not an individual entrepreneur, that is making things happen here’, Mr Gamble said. ‘I was moved by their dignity and their spirit. The light that shines in the darkness, the divine spark in everyone, the gratitude, the generosity, the joy.’

God’s love is for allL~

Reflecting on his trip, the President said: ‘I feel an underlying sense of anger about a society that has denied people equality for so long. I have always believed in the equality of all people, and it is good to see that being realised as people become self-sufficient.’

‘And this visit has made me even more passionately Arminian – believing that God’s love is truly for all. I’m reminded of the last verse of Charles Wesley’s hymn Let earth and heaven agree:

O for a trumpet voice,
On all the world to call!
To bid their hearts rejoice
In him who died for all;
For all my Lord was crucified,
For all, for all my Saviour died!

‘And what message for the church in the UK?’ the President said. ‘This visit proved to me that we as individuals in the UK can really make a difference – more than we can imagine - mainly because all the things I’ve seen are things that grow and develop to involve more and more people.’

Find out what difference you and your church can make to people living in poor communities. MRDF’s new six-week Bible study resource What does the Bible say about power? helps us to reflect on the power we have and inspires us to use it wisely. To order copies for your small group, visit

mrdf.org.uk/power or call 020 7467 5132.

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