In a garden compound outside Mumbai Central station, a team of foreigners and local labourers are drilling walls of cement to fit toilet fixtures, cutting stones, and gathering construction material while basking in the brief shade offered by Tuesday’s morning hours.
The foreigners are 12 former drug addicts from Norway and they are working on a month-long project to build a complex of ladies’ toilets. The construction has reached its final phase and is slated to end on March 15. The project, in partnership with JSW Foundation Mumbai, is the fourth to be undertaken by Norwegian organisation Back in the Ring (BITR) in India. Similar projects were earlier undertaken in Karnataka and Goa.
At the construction site, 47-year-old Alexander Medin says he founded BITR four years ago to positively transform the lives of former drug addicts. Mr. Medin says the inspiration to start the venture began while teaching a yoga programme called Gangster Yoga at high-security prisons in Norway.
A devout yoga practitioner, Mr. Medin believed in the art’s power to make people more conscious of their impulses and equip them to lead a mindful, balanced life. He thought to himself, “why not try it for drug addicts,” and began BITR as a yoga programme for former addicts, at the end of which 12 members are brought to India for a service project. Mr. Medin, who learnt Ashtanga yoga from Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, says people can be rehabilitated through selfless work for others. “The Bhagavad Gita talks about karma yoga, or action without expectation or selfless desire,” he says.
The idea for the Mumbai project originated when Mr. Medin reached out to Akshat Gupta of Metro Realty, whom he came to know through common friends. Mr. Gupta helped him decide to build toilets for women on a plot of land he procured for free from the government. Tarini Jindal of JSW was Mr. Medin’s former student and the JSW Foundation pitched in to jointly funded the project.
Mr. Medin says the construction has been slower than expected and there will be more work left to complete the structure after the BITR team leaves. The team, nevertheless, has made significant progress. “We have been working every day. We begin the day with yoga from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. We then come to the site at from 10 a.m. and work till 5 p.m.”
Eagerness to serve
Eirik, 39, joined BITR in 2015 and it his first time on a project to India. He says it is difficult to describe the experience in English, “It is ‘so much’.” Erik says, “I have learned a lot: to appreciate the small things, and get a perspective of what’s important. I look forward to seeing people start using these toilets. This work is not easy, and the heat is difficult, but seeing the people who would benefit makes me want to do more.”
Eirik, who hails from Norway’s third largest city, Stavanger, says he spent the past several years in jail. “I wanted to change my life, and didn’t know how. I heard about this yoga programme through my friend in Oslo. I wanted to do something good other than sitting in jail, hurting the people I love by being away from them. Yoga taught me to breathe, to get to know my inner self. At first, I was scared of what I would find. But now, I’m not scared of my demons anymore.”
Forty nine-year-old Albin, who religiously practised yoga in jail for five years, says yoga transformed his life. “I was in prison for a crime I did not commit. Instead of anger, yoga gave me goodness, and taught me how not to be foolish. It’s given me a team who is so nice, and it feels great to be doing something nice for the community too.”