SURE has been working in these harsh arid regions of western Rajasthan since 1990. Magraj Ji and his small team from Barmer city chose to begin work in remote and inaccessible area around Binjrad, a village in Chohtan block near the Indo-Pak border. Contacting people in these water parched gafans, clusters of scattered hamlets, in the desolate landscape required perseverance. Field routes meant long arduous treks of ten to fifteen km. in dusty trails meandering in the sandy undulating terrain. Drinking water was scarce and had to be purchased in leather bags carted on camel backs from the nearest water source. One such set of two bags cost Rs. 100 everyday. Personal hygiene had to cope with extremely frugal water sources.
During field visits in initial months the team came to realize that social life in these interiors of Thar carried on with an expanded sense of time and little contact with the outside world. Located in the interiors of desert near the Indo Pak border, these compact settlements had withstood two consecutive wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. This had contributed to profound changes in social demography of the region. But other than this brief encounter with national events, the meaning of modern development had largely escaped these communities. Social practices sanctioning subordination of lower castes were widespread and their exploitation persisted blatantly. Dominance of the feudal patriarchal order kept women veiled and they practically had no voice in things ‘public’. Most of them had never heard about development programmes for health, education, and other basic entitlements. Importance of primary education, particularly girls education, was unheard of. Despite many instances of resistance and hostility by the influential in the region, the small team of SURE carried on.
From 1990 to 1993 SURE focused on fostering relations with the community for ensuring greater access to quality services of the state. Work with primary school teachers in Balotra,training o f handi c r a f t women and demonstration schemes of agriculture motivated SURE to continue. One of the significant breakthroughs came when SURE could start work with women from amongst the Pak refugees from the Indo Pak War of 1971 who had come from Thar Parkar, Sind. Meghwals and Charans among these communities had exquisite hand embroidery and patchwork traditions. But they were working for very low wages. SURE established a Craft Development Centre to work for better wages for women embroiderers in more than thirty six villages of Chohtan block, Barmer. Effective work on agriculture extension was recognized and SURE was awarded the responsibility to run and manage the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) an institution of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), GoI. This was a mandate for comprehensive and sustained work in contributing to improvement of agriculture and animal husbandry in the desert region.
In 1994 SURE initiated an integrated programme in health, education, livelihoods, and community governance with the support of Action Aid, UK. This holistic engagement comprising of multiple interventions with the community widened perspective and skills of staff, brought institutional stability and nurtured relations with rural society. SURE could work with marginalized communities towards exploring lasting solutions for sustainable development in a consistent manner. This allowed SURE to facilitate community led processes that were to become one of the distinguishing marks of SURE in subsequent years.
SURE has expanded from working in a handful of villages to more than three hundred villages of Chohtan, Sheo, Dhorimanna, Baytoo and Balotra blocks of Barmer and around seventy villages in Sam and Fatehgarh blocks of Jaislamer district. In addition to this, KVK and Women Technology Centre serve the entire district.
If the formation of SURE in 1990 was a culmination of voluntary spirit, germinated during selfless serving of war refugees of 1947 and 1971, its journey during last two decades has established it as a veritable agency of social change, radical in overcoming social barriers and conservative values, empowering vulnerable communities, enhancing their quality of life and facilitating sustainability of fragile ecology of the region.