Neha Khator narrates the story of an NGO that transformed a backward village into a bustling city, with funds, of course, but also by fostering a sense of duty in its residents.

Vimla Kanwar, a 70-year-old widow, had a problem. After her husband, a handloom yarn spinner, died of cancer, the officials at the Khadi Gram Udyog took away his charkha. Concerned about finding a means of survival at her age, Vimla decided to ask for help. But instead of pleading with government officials, she decided to knock at the doors of the Kuchaman Vikas Samiti (KVS).

Inside the samiti’s office, Om Prakash Kabra, also in his 70s, listened to Vimla intently. I watched their interaction closely. Vimla was a woman in distress, her voice breaking down and quivering as she narrated her ordeal. Kabra was friendly in his manner, his tone bold yet polite. “Koi baat nahi. Aap dariye mat,” he told her and handed her Rs.3,500 and some food grain. As she left, he picked up his phone and dialled a number. By evening, Vimla had got her charkha back. Meanwhile, the municipal body has initiated the process to get Vimla help from the Chief Minister’s relief fund.

“Problem solved,” he told me with a smile and returned to his work of building a city. “We still have to look at the sanitation problem in schools,” he said. Kabra is the president of KVS. The wall near his seat features the legend: Kuchaman Vikas Samiti. Shiksha. Svasthaya. Seva. For the last 30 years, the samiti, founded and registered in 1978 by the late Bal Krishna Sarda, a wealthy businessman-turned-social activist, has been working to develop Kuchaman City, equipping it with all the modern facilities available in big cities. And it has met with considerable success.

Not long ago, Kuchaman, spread across 10km in the backward Nagaur district of Rajasthan, with a population of 70,000, was like a remote village, deprived of the most basic facilities. Its only claim to fame was that it produced salt and marble. Today, Kuchaman is a major trading hub and is known as “shiksha nagri”, the second biggest education centre in Rajasthan after Kota. According to Jagadish Rai, block development officer, Kuchaman, 55,000 children from 132 neighbouring towns, villages and dhanis come to Kuchaman every day to study in its 109 schools, colleges and vocational learning institutes. “Every year, one or two state toppers in the Class X and XII boards hail from Kuchaman,” says Kabra. At the centre of this transformation story are the efforts of KVS.

Operating from a two-storeyed building, the samiti today manages projects worth over Rs.100 crores in the areas of education, health, social service and city development. The NGO runs eight schools, colleges and technical institutes that provide education from nursery to post-graduate level in subjects like science, arts, commerce, conferring degrees like BCA, BBA and B.Ed. “We also have a tie up with IGNOU, Delhi, and are planning to start an MBA and MCA college soon,” says Kabra. The project cost is Rs.1 crore. “Only recently, a company in Noida hired 15 of our BCA students,” he adds.

The samiti has various kinds of scholarship schemes like the UGC fellowship, where 50 per cent of the course fee is waived, and a CM scholarship plan where Rs.500 is awarded every month for five years. At present, a third of all students in the samiti’s institutes are on scholarships and, in the last year, the NGO awarded Rs.10 lakh in grants. There are also financial incentives to promote girls’ education. “The samiti supports nearly 50-100 per cent of the education fees of poor and orphaned girls,” says Kabra. Also, the college bus fee is exempted for girl students from poor families.

The samiti’s model is simple. Like any NGO, it works using money collected through donations. But its success has come from making the people of Kuchaman, whether residing here or in other cities or even outside the country, feel duty-bound towards their hometown. For this purpose, the samiti has organised the Kuchaman Pravasi Meet three times. The meet isn’t just for collecting more donations, but also to invite ideas from Kuchaman citizens on how to improve their city. Among the regular attendees and donors is the B.K. Birla family, which has donated close to Rs.6 crore in the last 20 years, built two impressive marriage halls and has set up the Institute of Technical Education.

But the samiti’s work hasn’t been without problems. In 2009, the samiti built a computer lab at a local girls’ school. “But the government doesn’t provide us with computer trainers because the lab has not been built by them,” says Soni Devi, principal, Somani Devi Girls School. So now the samiti provides the trainers, and sometimes, the teachers pitch in with their personal income to hire trainers. In the computer lab, Rekha Kanwar Zorwar Singh, a Class X student, is struggling to copy a column in an Excel spreadsheet. “I like Word more,” she grumbles. Rekha wants to become a doctor when she grows up, a big dream for a girl whose mother makes a meagre Rs.300 per month as a housemaid and is raising her single-handedly. Rekha’s father died in 2007.

Besides education, the samiti has played an important role in the improvement of healthcare services. It has built an Ayurvedic hospital (handed over to the State government), a homeopathic hospital and runs a diagnostic centre with state-of-the art medical equipment for X-ray, sonography and laboratory tests at subsidised rates.

“We also organise medical camps,” says Gokul Sarda, vice-president, KVS. Recently, the samiti conducted a cancer diagnosis camp where doctors, invited from the famous Mahavir Cancer Hospital in Jaipur, administered free tests worth Rs 60,000. “Last year, one of the donors, G.K. Sarda, nephew of the samiti founder Bal Krishna Sarda, donated an ambulance, a sale-counter machine for blood tests worth Rs.4 lakh, and set up air-conditioners in the ICU of the government hospital,” says Murari Gaur, a local journalist.

The NGO is a testament of how a city can become self-reliant when people get together and decide to play an active role in their development. The model has been successful because the money has been invested in projects that were in need, a far cry from government policies that impose preset plans and projects. It is not surprising then that a shopkeeper seeking monetary help to remodel his shop or a government school looking to build a separate girls’ toilet prefer to approach the samiti rather than the government.

The water-coolers at the police station, electricity board office and government schools have been installed by the samiti. Postal and train services in Kuchaman city have been its initiative. Today, major trains from important stations like Jaipur, Kolkata, Guwahati, Mumbai and Delhi stop here. The benches installed at the railway station and waiting-room built at the main bus stand are credited as the work of KVS. “Last year, as part of our clean city initiative, we distributed 1,300 dustbins in school, homes, hospitals and hotels,” says Kabra. On October 16 every year, the NGO’s founding day, it distributes 1,200-1,500 school uniforms. Besides, the samiti is outsourced the work of meeting minimum requirements of government schools like blackboards, books, table/chairs, etc. “The schools, both government and private, approach us with their demands and we try and help in whichever way we can,” says Gokul Sarda.

“It’s like running a company,” says Kabra. The samiti has 21 executive members, 100 general/voluntary members and 200 salaried employees. It now has branches in other cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Kolkata, Bangalore and Hyderabad. “To maintain transparency, not a single transaction here is done in cash. Even a payment of Rs.100 is made by cheque,” says Kabra. The organisation comes out with a publication every two months called “Kuchaman Vikas Patrika”, which carries news and information on the samiti’s work.

What is surprising is that the NGO has not built even a single temple. “That is because some of our donors and members are Muslim and Sikh. Besides, real education happens in schools, not mandirs,” says Kabra.

Travelling to Kuchaman from the railway station can be a rough ride. After you leave the state highway and take a detour to enter the town, you hit a patch of broken, dusty road. I told myself that this was typical of every village, but I was mistaken. Now as I travel back to the station, I know there is a smooth road beyond this broken patch. Sitting in my taxi, I look out of the window and realise I missed a road sign when I first came here. It reads: “Work in Progress”.