Life off the highway

Intrepid fundraising cyclist Gary Kamaal – who, by day, is Viva’s Senior Network Consultant in India – reflects on how he was spurred on by what he saw whilst riding for over 1,000 km from Delhi to Kathmandu in support of Viva’s girls’ anti-trafficking programme.

As we left the hustle and bustle of Agra and cycled down national Highway 27 towards Etawah, we travelled through expanses of green wheat crop planted as far as the eye could see.

The previous night’s rain had washed the plants and the air was crisp and cold. The highway circumvented the narrow and dirty small town roads of Fatehabad and clung on to the pleasant farmland. Every mile or two, the farm was interrupted by a settlement of huts – a village.

There are almost 100,000 villages in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). In the course of the ride there were about 400 such UP villages we went past. Most of the villages had a similar layout. There were 30 to 40 straw huts, each hut had a few buffaloes or cows tied at the entrance. The women of the village worked the pile of cow dung and shaped it into patties.


The centre of the village had a brick house or two with a tractor parked in its courtyard. As the village huts trailed behind, a ‘dhaba’ or a tea stall appeared. With a little more scanning of the village surroundings one would find the village water body and a brick kiln.

As the village receded down the highway, a brick kiln appeared. This slow-paced brick kiln turned out to be a real culprit for bonded and child labour in India. An estimated 65 to 80 per cent of children under 14 years of age are working for an average of nine hours a day in the summer months. Much of fancy high-rise construction has bricks from these kilns.

Today, with green building norms in place, bricks are considered as high energy-consuming product in its manufacturing and one can add the brick industry is one of the biggest exploiter of human lives.


The morning fog enveloped the unassuming kiln and we continued the ride to find some eager schoolboys trying to match our pace in their cycles, while a bunch of schoolgirls giggled in amusement at our cycling outfits!

For every four to five villages there was a school. Riding with children was the morning ‘joie de vivre’. I intentionally slowed the pace to peep over the village school wall and see what the children were up to, but the joy was short-lived, as invariably a pair of sharp eyes would spot the stranger on the cycle and call to his mates to look at the road, away from the blackboard.

My mind quickly went on to think: what are the children learning at school? Do they teach them about farming, soil and crops, about dairy practices? Will their books educate them on improving their village environment or is their school a different world from their home life?

In UP, few children attend school regularly. On average, only 55% of children enrolled were present on the days that researchers visited primary schools a few years ago.

According to statistics, UP has the lowest transition rate from primary to upper primary level in the country and more children are at work in UP than any other state: 624,000 children, or 8.4% of the five-14 age group.

With all these scary numbers, it was good to see children at school. Now whether these children find school education valuable is another story.


With 800km long hours of cycling though UP, I could not but stop day-dreaming of planning the layout of the village, constructing houses with no brick and drafting school curriculum that is interesting for the students. I held my thoughts of a model village, to discuss it with influential people in Lucknow on the return journey.

The prime reason for our ride is to raise money to prevent more girls from getting trapped into bonded labour and trafficking. We want to upgrade the existing Viva life skills programme for girls. This programme has helped over 500 girls to remain in school, made them aware of their safety, health and hygiene and encouraged them to make right choices in selecting friends.

The funds raised from The Ride against Traffick will introduce the prevention of trafficking training to the existing girl child programme in Bihar and Uttarakhand, and start a new girl child program on the border between Nepal and Uttar Pradesh in India.

It’s something we’re very much excited about! And it definitely made our long cycle ride worthwhile.

You can still give to this work, and to congratulate us on our cycle ride, by clicking here.

Gary was joined on ‘The Ride Against Traffick’ team by Sam Friday, Gary Kamaal, Mim Friday (Viva’s Network Consultant for Africa), Roger Edmonds, Dave Woollard, Tim Mullender and Yogesh Bisht, with support the whole way by Devesh Lal, Viva’s Network Consultant for India.