Janwaar is a sleepy little village in rural Bundelkhand, and is one of 57 hamlets located in the buffer zone of the Panna National Tiger Reserve. It’s not a place you’d find easily on Google maps, yet it’s home to approximately 1,000 people who were relocated here when the tiger reserve was founded. Each family was given a piece of land and 10 lakhs to start a new life, but with a difficult terrain, unstable monsoons, illiteracy and consequent unemployment, life here isn’t easy. All that has slowly started to change, however, triggered by Ulrike Reinhard when she set up Janwaar Castle (JW). An organisation that has empowered the village’s 250-300 children with the “biggest and most flowable skatepark in India.” Sprawled across 450 square-metres, the skatepark at Janwaar is truly one of a kind.
Of German origin, Reinhard first came to India when she was invited to the “unconference” Unbox Festival in 2012, in Delhi. Reinhard was involved in the Skateistan project in Afghanistan, where skateboarding was used to build confidence, leadership, and life skills in children. “And this is what I’ve been doing since then…. ‘unboxing’ things. Nothing was planned, all simply happened and it has been an incredible journey so far,” she said to us. “The village has no history, There are also no shops, stores or businesses in Janwaar. Many houses are locked up because families have left to find work elsewhere. In Panna, too, (80,000 inhabitants) there is hardly any work. Unemployment is high and it’s causing problem. Those who live in Janwaar are farmers or they collect wood which they sell in Panna. There’s no public transport – so if you want to leave for somewhere you have to walk the 4 km to the main road,” she writes.
With a horde of inquisitive bystanders, twelve volunteers from seven nations came together to construct the Janwaar skatepark. “They had no clue what a skatepark was, nor did they understand what we were doing. It’s simply beyond their imagination – which is actually easy to understand when you consider what the area is all about. From what I’ve heard some villagers thought I was planning to evangelize the village.” Together with support of Skate-aid, an NPO based in Germany and Freemotion sk8, Delhi, $15,000, that’s approximately Rs.10,21,948, were raised for JW’s completion through a campaign called ‘SKATEBOARD/ARTBOARD’ where artists across the world, including heavyweights like Ai Weiwei, refashioned skateboards into works of art that were then auctioned on eBay.
Built with the help of HolyStoked, the skatepark soon became a beacon, drawing in children with a pull of fascination and enthusiasm as they slowly picked up skateboarding, by trial and error, with highs and plenty of falls. But in a place where school attendance was already low, things only got bleaker, and that proved counter-productive to Janwaar Castle’s goal. A new rule was implemented--no Government school, no skateboarding, and it seems to have worked. “We’ve been working with the kids since April last year and the principal of the nearby government school says, that the kids now are much more aware, open, and eager to learn. Slowly they are coming out of there shells–that was exactly the expression he used,” says Reinhard. The children are now not only attending school, with the incentive of skateboarding, but they have also grown in confidence and happiness in a place once desolate and alienating. In a deeply patriarchal country, here, young girls are taking skateboards for a spin and a few kick-flips.
There were several hiccups along the journey for Reinhard, a big one was being unfamiliar with the native language. But she found a friend in Shyamendra Singh, lovingly referred to as Vini Raja, a descendant of the erstwhile royal family of Nagod whose father, Nagendra Singh, is a member of Parliament. With his knowledge of the local language and land, he helped Reinhard locate a spot for the skatepark as well as sort out the logistics of it. Unfortunately, the local school doesn’t provide education beyond class VIII, and with the nearest higher-secondary school being in Panna, schooling for the children is left incomplete. But the good news is that, according to Singh, a new school is underway in the village that will provide complete schooling till class XII. “As compared to elders, it’s easy to change children. The youth are now changing the mindsets of the elders,” he said. “It’s magic unfolding in front of my eyes. We want Janwaar to set an example for other villages in the country.”
Janwaar Castle has grown to become more than just a skatepark, it’s a learning centre that’s become the heart of the village. “We have 20 skateboards available for them. Besides skateboarding, we have various activities such as hoola-hub, a slackline, painting and dance, English lessons, washing the little kids… all is organized in groups – not separated by age.” The aim isn’t focused on the children alone, the establishment of the skatepark sought to mobilise the locals and generate employment opportunities. Farming isn’t easy on the stubborn land of Janwaar, villagers subsist on the minimal wages they can bring in collecting wood which they then sell in Panna. Now, new sources of income for the residents are increasingly becoming available. The skatepark has become a destination of sorts and created a constant flow of visitors. “Now the idea of homestays, very simply but clean, came into people’s mind. A small kiosk was set-up – the first ‘store’ in Janwaar. They was nothing there before...currently we are building a bamboo house where the locals are working. And we are in conversation with a huge Indian retail chain to produce cotton clothes in Bundelkhand. Let’s see where this goes.” It’s definitely a promising start but Reinhard feels it’s too early to claim any huge success. “But that it has started in such a short time is already a success – at least that is the way I see it.”
In October, a three-day workshop was conducted with all the villagers where their problems were identified. After discussions with various experts and stakeholders, a ‘solution’ was conceptualised by the people as well as a plan of action on the final day. A part of the plan included setting up of a Farmer Producer Organization (FPO), which JW is currently in the process of getting registered to ease the difficulties of the farmers. JW is still in its initial stages of development, but it has already had such a positive impact on the lives of the locals in such a short period of time, it’s very commendable. What does the future hold in store of Janwaar Castle? Only the best and brightest we hope. The Janwaar Castle Community Organisation was successfully registered as of January 2016. “ Now our local partners have to do some homework and transfer the land to the company – and then we are ready to look for further partners and take Janwaar Castle to the next level. Enthralling times!”
Scroll down for peek of all the action at the skatepark. You can visit the Janwaar Castle website to learn more about the organisation, and find out how you can contribute towards helping them carry on their great work. Photographs courtesy Vicky Roy, Ulrike Reinhard and Janwaar Castle.