By Harshikaa Udasi | Opening Doorz Editorial | January 04, 2017

Asha Gond is a 17-year-old school dropout from the solitary educational institute run by the government in her village, Janwaar, in Madhya Pradesh. But that was her story last year. In late January 2017, Asha will take off to the UK, to study English in an individually-designed programme. For this girl, for the adivasis, for her village, it is an impossible dream come true. Leave aside the flight to Britain, Asha has never stepped in a train!

If that sounds unbelievable, the rest of this story will sound implausible. But it is true.

All through 2014, clueless villagers of Janwaar, a nondescript village in Madhya Pradesh in Panna district, worked as labourers in constructing something they were not sure of. There was a foreigner, a lady, who was building something in their village and they had no idea of who she was or why she was interested in their village or even what she was getting built. While some suspected her of beginning a conversion drive in the village, others were happy to work for the money.

“They weren’t sure of what we were doing, but the money was more than welcome for the villagers. And, of course, the children were super curious! It was when the first ramp came up, that the villagers sensed something really important and unique was happening there,” says German national Ulrike Reinhard, CEO of The Janwaar Castle Community Organisation, a not-for-profit organisation.

Unknown to most of the villagers, a silent revolution was waiting to take over this little village consisting of just 240 homes. In April 2015, news started filtering about a skatepark that had thrown its doors open to its children. It was India’s first ever rural skatepark and the largest in the country too, spread over 450 square metres. It was almost overnight that Janwaar became the hub for skateboarders across the country.

A Skatepark in Janwaar
A Skatepark in Janwaar: Children having a blast.

But the real story began much earlier, in 2012. Sixty-year-old Ulrike Reinhard had just visited Khajuraho in India and fallen in love with it. Repeated trips only made her discover it better and on one such trip, she unraveled Janwaar, a hamlet near Khajuraho. Devoid of electricity and sometimes even water, this 1200-strong community, sharply divided by casteism, inspired her to build her very own Skateistan—Afghanistan’s skatepark which empowers girls through education.

“Janwaar as a location happened quite by chance. I met Shyamendra Singh while in Khajuraho, who was willing to join me on the project. The land was available at Janwaar, as were a bunch of enthusiastic kids. So Janwaar become the hub for all the activities,” says Ulrike.

Inside Janwaar Castle
As soon as the skatepark was thrown open to the kids, 20 pre-loved skateboards and sets of helmets and safety pads were procured for them. There were no gates, no fences to the skatepark and the children did not have to ask for permission from anyone to skate. “Once in a while, we show them a video, but largely we follow two principles—self-learning and self-organisation,” says Ulrike.

The skatepark has 30-50 children visitors every day. But it’s not just skating fun. Children are also trained in the English language, painting and dancing while they await their turn to skateboard. The team has provided them with tablets with learning programs and face-to-face sessions with some of the best educators from across India and internationally.

A Skatepark in Janwaar
A Skatepark in Janwaar: “When parents see that our kids are happy and learning new skills at the same time, they are happy too,” says Ulrike.

With two ground rules: ‘Girls first’ and ‘No School, No Skateboarding’, Ulrike has managed to cut through gender bias and spur the children towards their village school! Also, caste divide goes for a toss here with adivasi children mingling freely with the upper class ones. “I decided early on to stay away from the dynamics of the village. They may have seen us as missionaries. But we knew the work cut out for us. We are very transparent and we stick to our core values. When parents see that our kids are happy and learning new skills at the same time, they are happy too,” says Ulrike.

Skatepark as a trigger
And that’s the access key that she and her team was looking for. For a primarily agricultural society (almost 80 per cent of the village depends on farming), over-dependence on rain while facing scarcity of water, nil electricity and regular attacks on the crops by the wildlife are only some of the problems they face. Then there is poor sanitation and a very harsh winter.

“Our goal is to uplift the village. The by-product of this skatepark is, of course, that the kids are learning to skate and that they are turning out to be extremely good at it,” says Ulrike. “We are not primarily aiming for agricultural reforms – it’s rather that we want to raise awareness that there are better ways of doing farming,” she adds.

She has been working for the last four years with a progressive organic farmer, Prem Singh, of Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, to replicate his sustainable and traditional farming methods in Janwaar. “His methods are just what Janwaar needs. Along with him, I am helping them set up a Kissan School. Of course, a lot depends on the kind of funds we are able to raise but there are some issues that need urgent attention—a community fence is certainly one of them. We already have a solar plant which provides drinking water to all families throughout the year,” she says, adding that her team has already distributed 80 water filters and buckets to the families here for clear drinking water. By next year, she hopes the village can embark on to water harvesting as well.

Currently in Germany (she’s returned to her home country after a really long stint in India), Ulrike says the break is much needed. When in India, she stays in a friend’s resort lodge 35 kms away from the skatepark and drives her Royal Enfield lovingly named ‘Srini’ wherever she goes.

Ulrike proves that making a difference is possible. All you need is a will.

Around Children’s Day Janwaar Castle held the first Janwaar Castle Skateboarding Challenge with 20 children trooping in from Kovalam, Mumbai, Delhi, Varanasi and Kolkata to Janwaar to compete with its resident skateboarders. “Truth be told, our kids outperformed the city kids. And we had the best from India come in. The thing is that these kids are much more driven, they are more robust. If a city kid slips and falls, a mob goes to pick her up but a Janwaar kid knows how to pick up herself,” says Ulrike with a sense of pride.

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