Chris Valentino sdb
After having worked for twenty-four years in Ahmednagar, Br. Alex Gonsalves has moved on to a new assignment. During these long years, he founded Bosco Gramin Vikas Kendra and undertook Watershed Development in over twenty villages. We thought it fitting to do an article on this man who can definitely be called the pioneer of rural development work in the Mumbai Province. ~Editor
In these days of furious frenzy over ‘saving our planet’, ‘keeping track of the deteriorating ozone layer’, ‘rapid climate change’ and ‘going green’, it has become fashionable for us to mouth relevant quotes on making an impact for the preservation of our ecological systems. As we continue to live and move and have our being here in this ever-changing climatic scenario, it is a fad to state that in some way (however small it may be), we are trying to make a difference in our lifestyle and contribute to a greener planet. Now, why anyone would think of this half a century ago is a question that doesn’t occur to us. In fact, some of us who’ve grown through this half a century perhaps believe that this pattern of thinking couldn’t or needn’t have originated twenty five years ago because everything was as it should have been, at least on the ecological front. How wrong we were and how very incorrect we still are!
Besides those who were busy making careers, trying their luck at something futuristic, or even those who had ventured into the just emerging computer arena, there were others —Salesians—trying to make a niche in the youth scene with playground activities or camps and other events. For those of us who were serious about social work, our focus was on street work, slum development and evening classes. It somehow never occurred to most of us (I wonder whether it still does) that youth work could also mean community development, rural development or even plain ecological consideration.
In the field of rural development, community development and rural social programmes, there is one name that shines bright from among a galaxy of Salesian stars in the Mumbai province. Yes, it is the name of the man we have come to recognize as Br. Alex Gonsalves. This is a name which has been hailed and lauded at the local, national and international platforms but sadly downplayed within our family. Is it a case of ‘a prophet is never recognized in his own country?’ Perhaps. Perhaps not. Yet it is difficult to speak of the involvement of the Salesians of Don Bosco in rural community development without the explicit mention of Br. Alex Gonsalves. What moved the man to do what he ventured to do with little support from those at the helm or very little acceptance of his work? What goaded him on, kept him going and still spurs him on to this different mission? It is best to get some quips from the man himself. This article is precisely a journey down memory lane, beyond the surface into the nooks and crannies, peeping behind stony rocks and emerging into the streams of the gushing life-force that is Br. Alex.
When you meet the man the first thing that strikes you is his ability to smile. The other evident characteristic is his soft-spoken nature—no intimidation, no snobbishness, and no airs. This is really admirable in someone who has won local, national and global recognition. Br. Alex has been the motivating and driving force behind a series of initiatives, schemes and community development programmes not only in those areas of Ahmednagar District where the Salesians function, but also in areas beyond the geographical boundaries of his work. Under the creative management of Br. Alex, Bosco Gramin Vikas Kendra (BGVK) has been the recipient of notable awards. These include the General Championship Award for rearing the Best Female Goat of Barberi variety at Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth, Rahuri, Ahmednagar in the State level Goat Exhibition cum Competition; the Vanashree Puraskar from the Chief Minister of Maharashtra in 2000; Dr. Cardinal Simon Pimenta Worker Award; the Gram Vikas Bhushan awarded by the Bigar-Sheti Nagari Sahakari Patsantha, Ahmednagar; and the prestigious National Ecology Award (Indira Priyadarshini Vruksha Mitra Award) in the year 2005.
Speaking about his many interventions for and with the people of 22 villages and more than 72 Self Help Groups (SHGs), Br Alex says that his MSW degree did not prepare him for this work. How then did he implement numerous self-employment schemes for individual farmers, Integrated Watershed Development Programmes, cattle rearing, poultry farming, adult literacy programmes and pioneer a Rural Development Centre that specializes in Integrated Watershed Projects and Training for Skills in Village Sustainability? With simplicity that oozes from within, he says ‘I did not achieve this merely by studying the MSW degree. My initial experience at the farmland in Sulcorna (South Goa), my consistent background reading of managerial and other leadership/motivational literature coupled with the knowledge acquired in my childhood as a young boy playing and working in the fields has proved very helpful in this regard’.
He further goes on to state, ‘My only concern all along has been to help the poor farmers capitalize on the readily available resources at hand, namely, land and labour. Right from 1986 till date, that alone has been my endeavour. Hence I have not achieved this simply by studying in a classroom setting, but I have had first-hand experience in the farm, have faced water-shortages, have struggled with finances and have asked myself “what is the way out?” ’ In seeking and initiating solutions, Br. Alex has managed—despite the odds stacked against him—to set up BGVK, a massive undertaking that affects society constructively. BGVK’s work area now covers 22 villages, 26,000 hectares of land, 24 crores of additional income generated, and over 72,000 direct beneficiaries.
When quizzed about the general reaction from confreres, Br Alex smiles and says, ‘There have been many who have stood by me, there have been many who never understood and who still don’t understand this as being appropriate Salesian work and there have been still others who have largely remained indifferent’. On being prodded a bit further, he confides, ‘When I began, I was told to find my own resources and fund the entire project expecting no financial help, and I did just that. But later, I felt that this is not my work; it is the work of everyone, of us all and so now I am happy in my present state. Perhaps it is now time for me to relax a bit and look at other pastures’.
Br. Alex categorically states that it was his primary aim to prevent soil erosion, increase the irrigated area and agricultural production. ‘That is precisely why we did tree plantation, afforestation works, horticultural plantation, farm bunding, constructed nallah bunds and check dams, ventured into money-saving, banking, income-generation, poultry projects, goat rearing, and making of household products’, he adds. Beginning with scepticism, indifference and reluctant support in the semi-arid, parched village of Dongargan, and gradually progressing with hope, prayer and greater participation to the villages of Bhoire-Pather, Ratadgaon, Agadgaon, Ranjani, Mathani, Ghat-Deolgaon, Pimpalgaon-Ujjaini, Kaudgaon, Khandke-Deogaon, Sasewadi, Sonewadi, Prewadi, Kolhewdi, many rural households have benefitted tremendously.
The local impact was such that BGVK and its principal mover garnered sufficient mileage to be approached by agencies and other groups for training, lead management and coordination of similar enterprises. The successful organization and coordination of the Maharashtra Social Forum was a golden feather in his cap, which further enhanced the status of BGVK as a formidable stakeholder in rural social transformation. The man who dreamed and spearheaded the organization is mighty pleased with the laurels he and his collaborators have rightfully earned. But the success story neither terminates nor restrains his enthusiasm and zest. Br. Alex says ‘I never worked for recognition. I knew that God wanted me to do something different. One needs to continue doing one’s work selflessly in a spirit of genuine service to the community and the results are bound to follow’.
As a parting shot, Br Alex says, ‘Many young Salesians are now seriously interested in this type of apostolate, but they focus either on the social aspect or on the aspect of economic viability. Both need to be stressed, since that is what this type of participatory community development entails’. The smile lingers; a Salesian who knows what he has endured and what he has achieved. Surely the amchi mathi, amchi maansa apostolate is a landmark watershed in the historical evolution of Salesian intervention for a better society.