I have from the very beginning of my life as an activist been against ashrams and have instead tried to see if communitarian living is not possible in rural areas on a larger scale in a natural way instead of in contrived communities. I was fortunate to start in the 1980s by living among the Bhils of Alirajpur who have practised sustainable albeit subsistence living for ages. For ten years I lived among them and we did a lot of things together at the subsistence level but also collectively improved the lives somewhat. Later, Subhadra and I lived for two years in a Bhil Adivasi area in Khargone district and there too we adapted to the living style of the Bhils. However, certain exigencies made us come to the city of Indore after that and for the past two decades or so we have lived a highly unsustainable urban life.
Now we have decided to jettison Indore and move to the villages again in a year or two and to this end have begun developing a farm and centre among the Bhil Adivasis in Pandutalav village in Dewas district nearby. Since now we frequently go to this farm and often stay there for a few days, we have once again come in close contact with the simple and sustainable lifestyle of the Bhils. Even in these times when the market economy and consumerism have penetrated deeply into the rural areas, the Bhils in Pandutalav which is situated just 50 kms from the city of Indore still live simply depending on their labour and the natural resources that they husband.
Our neighbour in Pandutalav, Raisingh, lives together along with his three sons and their families and they cultivate their land. Since they do not have much money they work hard on their fields. They have built a new house this year from wood, bamboo, mud and baked mud tiles. The whole family worked hard continuously for three months to first prepare the wood and the baked earth tiles and then set up the house. Occasionally, people from other households would also come to help in making the house. This is the custom among the Bhils as they pool in their labour to help each other.
The monsoons came early this year and so the house was not completely ready and had to be left half done as everyone got busy in sowing the seeds and doing the various other associated farming tasks. The whole family is busy now with some people working on the farm, others cooking the food and yet others taking the livestock for grazing. Most importantly someone has to stay back in the house and look after the small kids. So all this work is done very efficiently by apportioning responsibilities to various people in the household in a very democratic manner. Eventually, little money is required and efficient use of hard labour makes the household run like a well oiled machine.
The other day I watched with fascination as one of the women of the household not only took care of the children but also engaged in work to finish the house building work. Below is a photo of this idyllic scene.
This is what the Bhils have to teach us - do hard physical labour and use natural resources judiciously to live a simple and productive life. They provide for themselves and also for others by producing the food that we all eat at a very cheap cost. So instead of revisiting the highly unsustainable ashrams that Gandhi set up, we need to learn from the Advasis across the country how to live together by helping each other, doing hard physical labour and taking as little from nature as possible and giving much more to human society than they take from it in the form of cheap food.